By Himani Pant*
“I have been hearing the stories that people are dying, but me, I will cross it and I will cross it successfully…I know that my Lord is with me. He will cross with me. I have made up my mind.” The speaker here is a Nigerian man named Pious who dreams to be in Europe one day. While the world is shaken by heart wrenching pictures of the Syrian toddler washed ashore, he remains undeterred. There are many like him from violence and conflict stricken countries seeking asylum in Europe.
Already struggling with the Eurozone crisis1 , the European Union is now in the midst of a serious refugee crisis, the gravity of which is no less. In fact, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has even gone on to say that the refugee issue could preoccupy Europe more than the sovereign debt crisis.
At the outset, it is important to differentiate between migrants and refugees. While the former leave their country voluntarily, the latter are forced to leave due to fear of persecution. However, they remain asylum-seekers until their claim is definitively evaluated. Though the EU also faces a huge migrant crisis, the latest crisis is that of the refugee influx. In fact, this adds to EU’s problems because it is extremely difficult to differentiate between economic migrants and refugees who use the same means to reach Europe.
Large numbers of people from violence and conflict stricken countries such as Syria (the largest group by nationality in 2015 so far), Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few, are seeking refuge in Europe. According to the International Organisation on Migration, over 350,000 people have made their way into Europe between January to August 2015 and close to 3000 people have already lost their lives.
The EU’s border agency, Frontex, has listed out the following migratory routes for people to enter Europe via land and sea.
Of these, the refugees using the Mediterranean and Western Balkan routes have become a cause of concern for Europe in the current scenario. People seeking an end to conflict and hardship in their homelands have been travelling from Turkey across the sea to Greece, through Macedonia and Serbia, and then to Hungary. Though the ultimate destinations in the minds of these people remain Western countries like Germany, they are obligated to apply for asylum in the country of arrival (Dublin III regulation). The passport free Schengen zone allows them to move internally (see figure) once their application is granted. But the duration between seeking and granting of the asylum is large, adding to the burden of these border nations.
Unfortunately, the EU is yet to come up with a joint action plan while dealing with this issue. Disputes over burden-sharing and a growing public and political backlash expose the inadequate system of governance. So far only Germany, Austria and Sweden have absorbed a large numbers of refugees. Germany alone is expecting 800,000 asylum applicants this year, more than the entire EU bloc. Though it has suspended the Dublin procedure for Syrian refugees, other EU countries haven’t reacted similarly. European Union chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker’s appeal to European countries to share out a wave of refugees crowding in on their frontiers has not been met favourably by countries like Poland, Hungary, and Denmark, for instance. They have resisted calls for the introduction of a quota system to redistribute asylum seekers.
Ironically, the influx of people is demographically good for an ageing Europe but its fragile economic situation has had direct consequences for the reception of ’other’ people coming from conflict stricken areas. The Eurozone crisis has led to huge unemployment, especially in the border countries that are also battling with the Eurocrisis. Moreover, most of the people are in the age groups of 18-35 which makes them potential “job snatchers”. The Islamic faith of the majority of these people adds to further dilemma because this makes assimilation into Christian values difficult.
Local resistance towards migrants has also led to a rise of right wing extremism in Europe. Attacks against the asylum seekers are not uncommon. According to the Interior Ministry of Germany, over 300 attacks on refugee camps have been reported in Germany alone this year. The bodies of 71 people found in an abandoned truck near Vienna reveal the plight of desperate homeless people who fall an easy prey to smugglers in the borders.
All this has led to the popularity of Eurosceptics who propagate anti-EU, anti immigration sentiments. Hence, the biggest challenge before the EU remains to retain the people’s faith in the integration model.
Structural constraints remain a common thread between the Eurozone and the migration crisis. The absence of a joint action plan has led to an unequal sharing of burden and the current crisis of management while dealing with the huge influx of people.
Though the Common Asylum System has been in place since 1999, the current scenario reveals its failure and calls for a complete reform of the asylum policy in Europe. The passport free Schengen zone also has its problems as it was not formulated keeping mass inflow of people in mind. It may be not surprising if the Schengen visa stands suspended, even if temporarily, in the near future.
Therefore, it is time that the EU revaluates the structural deficiencies in both the Eurozone and the Common Asylum Policy in order to overcome the dual crisis it faces today.
*The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
1. Also known as the Sovereign debt crisis, the Eurozone crisis began as a debt crisis in Greece in late 2009. Since then, it has evolved into a broader economic crisis in the Eurozone and the European Union. The challenges include high debt levels and public deficits in some Eurozone countries; weaknesses in the European banking system; economic recession and high unemployment and trade imbalances within the Eurozone.