Quo vadis Europe? – The refugee crisis as pull test for the EU

By Leon Heckmann

The refugee crisis is certainly the most pressing issue currently for the European Union and Europe in general. As the civil war in Syria continues with tremendous brutality and multiple fighting parties involved, millions of refugees from the Middle East make their way to Europe, with thousands still arriving on the borders of the EU every single day. The crisis has long turned into a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented scale, as images of overloaded boats packed with refugees in the Mediterranean and dead bodies of children on Turkish beaches shocked the world. Some analysts even speak of a new Völkerwanderung, in light of the fact that more than four million Syrians have fled their home country according to UNHCR reports. Politically, the continuous inflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East but also from Africa and the Balkan region painfully revealed how unprepared the EU’s asylum and migration policy was to a crisis of such a large scale. The current system, based on the Dublin III-regulation, has de facto collapsed. For many it seems that the EU has lost control over the situation, as a consequence of which some Member States have returned to nationalistic policies of isolation and blame-shifting. With Hungary setting up fences to close off its borders and several other Member States temporarily reintroducing border controls, core achievements of the EU, such as the free movement in the Schengen-area, are concretely endangered.  In addition, the crisis has revealed how fragile the ties of European solidarity and fundamental values become when sensitive national interests are concerned. In fact, EU solidarity as a whole is at stake and the Union faces one of its greatest challenges ever.

Fall-back into nationalistic policies of isolation and closed borders: Fence at the Hungarian border
Fall-back into nationalistic policies of isolation and closed borders: Fence at the Hungarian border

To illuminate and debate this topic from different perspectives, UNSA Maastricht, ESA Concordantia and Studium Generale recently hosted a panel debate on the European refugee crisis in the Dominicanen Bookshop in Maastricht. Dr. Ammar Abo Hamida, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, introduced the discussion by telling his story. Thirty-six years old, he had a highly qualified job as an internist at the University hospital of Aleppo, where he also obtained his education and PhD degree. But when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, it soon became clear to him that staying in Syria was not an option. In 2012 finally, he decided to take the most dangerous route to Europe: via the Mediterranean. He made it and eventually arrived in the Netherlands, however leaving his wife and children back in Syria as he considered it too dangerous for them to come with him. From his first-hand experience, he pointed out one of the major weaknesses of the European asylum system: The lengthiness of asylum procedures, during which refugees are not allowed to work. In practice, highly qualified people like Dr. Hamida are doomed to wait until their application for asylum is completed. This normally takes at least six months, in some European countries even distinctly longer.

Professor Leo Lucassen, Research Director at the International Institute for Social History of Leiden University, pointed out in the debate that “this constitutes a severe waste of human capital.” He also drew parallels to the refugee crisis in the 1990’s, when Europe faced even larger numbers of migrants as a consequence of the Yugoslavian wars. Germany successfully managed to integrate a total of more than 4.2 million Aussiedler from Russia and former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990’s, a fact which led Professor Lucassen to conclude that “the current crisis is not something we cannot deal with – we already managed in the 1990’s”. Correspondingly, he accused the Dutch government of having intentionally wasted the human capital of refugees in the 1990’s by making procedures lengthy and consciously introducing obstacles to integration, the underlying reasoning being to discourage further refugees from coming to Europe by not creating incentives for them to do so. Professor Lucassen remarked that, from a rational cost-benefit point of view, “this policy is stupid – even if you hate refugees”. Even worse, he pointed to current policies of some EU member states that seem to follow the same rationale: an example being the planned “transit zones” at the German-Austrian border, which made “absolutely no sense from an economic perspective”. On the contrary, Professor Lucassen argued that mass migration could indeed in the long run be mutually beneficial and economically profitable for the European countries, particularly in light of the fact that many EU Member States struggle with declining population numbers and shortages of skilled labor – including Hungary, which currently conducts one of the most isolationist migration policies in the EU. The prerequisite to allow migration to be profitable, however, is for governments of the Member States to invest in integration measures and to actually welcome the refugees as chances, not burdens, for their country.

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So, what conclusions are to be drawn for the EU from the current situation? First of all, it is more than obvious that the EU migration and asylum policy system need to be vastly overhauled, and that such reforms must be concluded quickly. We need binding quotas to allow for a fair and reasonable distribution of asylum-seeking refugees on all 28 Member States of the European Union. It is absolutely unacceptable and incompatible with the basic idea of EU solidarity that some few Member States carry the burden of registering and accommodating the masses of refugees currently arriving in Europe on their own, while the Eastern members of the EU in particular neglect their responsibility and isolate themselves. EU membership implies not only benefits, but also the duty to tackle Union-wide issues such as the refugee crisis. Secondly, all Member States need to reduce bureaucracy in order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and allow for the integration of refugees. This includes in particular the granting of highly qualified migrants, such as Dr. Hamida, faster admission to the job market, as well as integrating young and unskilled refugees into education and training as soon as possible. These are necessary preconditions to allow integration to be successful. Correspondingly, Member States must abandon asylum policies based on deterrent and isolation. These nationalistic policies are no longer feasible in our globalized world of the 21st century and are absolutely incompatible with the concept of open borders and right of free movement which lay at the very core of the European Union.

Finally, policy makers but also we as European citizens need to constantly remember that the people currently coming to us from the Middle East are first and foremost humans, each of whom has a very personal story to tell. Nobody leaves his homeland for no reason, and fleeing from a civil war in a country where the government is bombing its own people is probably the most comprehensive and human reaction whatsoever. Dr. Ammar Abo Hamida, the internist from Aleppo, is despite all the problems and deficiencies happy about having made it to Europe safely, where we all have the privilege of living in peace and security. He concluded the debate in the Dominicanen Bookshop with the following: “I am very grateful for everyone who creates a space a hope and light in this world of darkness.”

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