In late summer, as the refugee trail led to the heart of old Europe, tents and shelters started popping up in parks and woods across the continent. Suddenly the new reality of Europe’s proximity to war, hunger and suffering became clear to her populations. No longer were refugees confined to pictures of black dinghies and orange lifejackets amid the blue seas of the Mediterranean. The turmoil in the Middle East was no more just shaky smartphone videos of explosions in Homs or Tikrit.
In 2015, this humanitarian crisis became real for Europeans, as people began witnessing first-hand the faces of refugees who had walked a thousand miles and spent one hundred nights under the stars. This confrontation with reality has fostered differing reactions from the peoples and governments of Europe, which only extenuates the suffering of refugees.
Winter is here, yet the boats are still arriving in Lesvos, Kos and Leros. People are getting sick in transitory camps in the Balkans. And refugees are still risking the alleged brutality of Bulgarian authorities: “I saw unhealed scars, scrapes, bruises. All the people I spoke to reported that they were forced to be fingerprinted by the police. Many of them said they were chained, beaten by the police, exposed to aggressive dogs, and that police used electric batons against them. One man told me he fell unconscious after receiving an electroshock,” a volunteer in Bulgaria told Amnesty International.
At the Macedonian border with Greece, refugees are stuck. In Slovenia and Croatia borders seem to shift day-to-day. Even Germany, which was hailed for opening up to refugees in the summer, is getting cold feet. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated last week: “we want to tangibly reduce the number of refugees arriving. With an approach focused on the German, European and global level, we will succeed in regulating and limiting migration.” While maintaining: “We will live up to our humanitarian responsibility.”
Last month Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson was reduced to tears when she announced the country’s famous open border policy was to end. “This is a terrible decision” she said.
The heart of Europe’s problem lies with its schizophrenic approach to Schengen, the EU’s borderless travel agreement. The well-regarded and highly symbolic tenant of European integration is under threat. Eastern countries are insistent upon maintaining the accord, owing to the benefits it allows their citizens, while Western and Northern countries, traditionally more sympathetic to refugees and asylum seekers, appear to open and close their borders with the tide.
However, closing internal EU borders will not end the trail of refugees headed north and west. It will simply create backlogs of people in Bulgaria, the Western Balkans, and Greece: countries which have neither the money nor capacity to host more. Inevitably, instability will increase in these countries. And moves by the European Commission to fine Italy, Greece, Croatia and Hungary for not imposing proper border controls only furthers notions of hypocrisy by Brussels.
The European Commission is now planning a 2,000 strong permanent and rapidly deployable border force that could police EU borders at short notice and without invitation from member states. At present, FRONTEX – the Schengen border patrol, operates on invitation and is made up of temporary contingents from various member states.
The EU has agreed to a relocation system for refugees originating from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq to ease the strain on southern countries. But two months in and the system seems to be off to a frustratingly slow start. From Italy, so far only 133 refugees have been relocated to other parts of Europe. This snail’s pace approach to relocation only furthers the burden on the member states of entry, which are already suffering from severe economic issues and over worked welfare systems.
The EU is figuring other ways to try and reduce the flow of refugees. It is now, in effect, exporting its “burden” to an increasingly oppressive and dictatorial Turkey. Europe has agreed €3 billion in aid to Turkey in return for their hosting of more refugees. Turkey with a population of 75 million people already hosts more than 2.2 million refugees. Since the deal was struck Turkey has already arrested 3,000 refugees bound for Greece.
Greece, which has seen nearly 800,000 people arrive on its beaches this year, has repeatedly asked Brussels for help. Last week the EU pledged €80 million to help temporarily house refugees, in hotels, apartments and people’s homes. There are fears from the Greek government and others that Greece will become a “repository of trapped souls”, in which the country becomes a buffer state to the rest of Europe in this open-ended crisis.
While some governments build fences and close borders, true European solidarity being shown on the islands and the seas. A superhuman effort is being demonstrated by inhabitants, local authorities, and volunteers who clothe, feed and save refugees every day.
For all the talk of beefing-up Europe’s borders and exporting responsibilities, we must remember that the Greek island of Kos is only three nautical miles from Bodram in Turkey. Europe’s borders are porous by her very geography. The EU’s proximity to war will not change anytime soon.
A Janus-faced Europe awaits refugees fleeing the savage reality of an increasingly unstable world. On the one side there is the Germany which opens up and applauds refugees as they make it to Munich train station, and on the other side are fascist thugs who burn buildings and bully new arrivals. There is a France of tolerance and unity after both Charlie Hebdo and the recent Paris attacks, versus the France of the Le Pen clan. There is the Europe of tireless volunteers who help people on their journey north, versus the batons and tear gas of militarised police forces.
The future for refugees in 2016 is unclear: a beefed up EU border force, countries ‘unable’ to accommodate greater numbers, and rising right-wing populism. One thing is certain, more bombs than ever before are whistling through the skies above Syrian families. A political situation in Syria is nowhere in sight and the Middle East region is yet to ‘stabilise’.
What this means for Europe is that the now well-trodden refugee trail will continue. How this continent continues to react will be a test of both its unity and its humanity