Europe's Refugee Crisis

Refugees wait at an Austrian railway station for a train to Germany. Credit:

By Marc Silberman

In December I spent three weeks in Berlin. Upon arriving I had expected to see refugees in the streets. To my surprise this was not the case, and as became clear rather quickly, the reason was not that there weren’t tens of thousands of new refugees in Berlin but rather that their mobility is restricted. They are restricted by lack of money (how do you use public transportation without money for a ticket?). They are restricted by the onerous registration procedures that lead to waiting in long lines, repeatedly, at a few isolated agency buildings to where they are brought and then picked up by chartered busses. They are restricted by security measures at their temporary housing in quickly refurbished buildings, former barracks and school gymnasia, often located in remote parts of the city.

I was not surprised by the reactions of friends and acquaintances. I tend to move in a circle of educated Berliners on the left spectrum, so maybe this is to be expected, and Berlin historically has been a welcoming city going back to the Huguenots in the 17th century. The people I know were all positive, even enthusiastic about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s gesture of opening Germany’s borders in early September when she “rescued” the bottled-up refugees stranded in Budapest. I was moved too when, after theater and concert performances I attended, the actors and musicians would come on stage and appeal for contributions to support local action groups helping with the flood of refugees in the city and then stand at the exits to collect coins and bills. For someone like me, who for 40 years has been trying to explain to young Americans how the ruptures and violence of German culture happened in the past century, this was meaningful, a tangible sign that Germans have learned a thing or two. But there are problems, and the situation shifts from week to week, not for the better.

There have been, for example, regular and large protests against refugees articulating xenophobic, racist sentiments against Muslims that resemble nativist and white supremacist attitudes we have been hearing in the U.S.A recently. There have also been violent actions, including unmotivated attacks against individual refugees and fire bombings of local refugee housing centers. A new right-wing party, Alternative for Germany, which was founded in 2013 and seemed to have lost its momentum by early 2015 when it was riddled by leadership squabbles and neo-Nazi infiltration, is again rising in the polls in anticipation of state elections on March 13, 2016. Like the Front National in France and even the Tea Party in the United States, this is a populist, anti-establishment, and anti-European Union (EU) party that speaks to anxieties about globalization and democratic tolerance. 

It is estimated that there are over 60 million refugees currently on the move around the world; that is more than after WWII ended. Half of those are under 18 years of age, and most flee to neighboring countries. Only a small percentage of the world’s refugees set out for and actually make it to Europe. Germany, a wealthy country about 85 percent the size of California, has a population of 80+ million. The number of refugees in Germany prior to 2015 was actually diminishing, after reaching over 1 million in the 1990s (following the Balkan wars). Only in 2015 has the number once again increased, with over 1 million entering the country from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Northern Africa.

The refugee crisis in Europe caught the European Union off guard, a situation that in hindsight could and should have been obvious to the leaders in Brussels. Already in 2014, human rights agencies and the United Nations offices were sending out warnings about the deteriorating conditions at refugee destinations in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, but the EU leadership, including, famously, Angela Merkel, focused their attention on Greece’s political and economic crisis that was destabilizing the Euro currency.

Although the EU guarantees that asylum is a fundamental right and recognizes an international obligation to protect refugees, the implementation in practice has not maintained these high-minded standards. In the last weeks a corrosive pessimism has been spreading in view of the EU’s inability to control its borders and manage the crisis, while the populists rejoice at the public humiliation caused by the various states’ refusal to participate in relocating refugees bottled up in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. Even if relocation were to function as some policy initiatives propose, essentially it would make Greece into a huge refugee camp where new arrivals would be registered and unqualified asylum seekers (that is, economic migrants) somehow turned back. And as we know, Greece is seriously challenged socially, politically, and economically owing to the harsh austerity measures it accepted under German pressure in 2015.

Most recently Merkel and other EU leaders seem to be moving toward the “Fortress Europe” model, that is, keeping the refugee crisis beyond the EU’s borders by involving more actively Frontex (the underfunded EU border control agency) and NATO on the Mediterranean coast and by paying billions of Euros to stop smugglers and to house refugees in Turkey. Now Austria and Macedonia have closed their southern borders, blocking the “Balkan route” to Northern Europe, and the EU has limited the countries of origin from which it will accept asylum seekers. In other words, Merkel and other European leaders seem to be shifting to a position of strengthening the EU’s borders in order to maintain the EU’s inner unity. Already the newly closed borders and passport controls are having consequences on mobility, cross-border traffic (tourism, employment), and commercial trade, with estimated long-term losses in the billions of Euros. It is not clear that this shift is actually going to solve the crisis. 

There are other solutions: what about ending Germany’s weapons exports that support wars and dictators throughout the world? What about taking a more prominent lead in diplomacy rather than agreeing to military interventions? What about changing the dynamics of exploitation of the southern by the northern hemisphere? Stay tuned, because this is a problem that is not going to disappear!

DSA member Marc Silberman is professor of German at the University of Wisconsin˗Madison.

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