By Tim Marshall
How to solve this heart wrenching, agonizing refugee problem? To some people it appears quite simple – grant refuge. Others have an equally simple solution – pull up the drawbridge.
Let’s use broad brush figures.
Plan A. The EU meets. It agrees that each of the 28 member states take a proportion of the 626,000 asylum seekers who applied for refuge in 2014. Then, add on the current wave of people on the move in Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria and… and it’s sorted.
But what about the next 626,000, and the 626,000 after that, and after that…? As each wave arrives, the pressures on the social services of each member state will be increased. As many examples from history indicate, this may well give rise to a significant rise in support for extremist parties and an exponential rise in physical assaults on migrants and asylum seekers as is already happening in Germany. We don’t want that.
In various countries, support for the EU, already faltering, will drop. This could result in a country trying to renegotiate its membership terms, say the UK, voting to leave the Union entirely.
Unless the next 626,000 are identified in or near their country of origin, they cannot be airlifted into Berlin or Stockholm. So they will still come by boat, perhaps in increasing numbers, in which case increasing numbers will drown. We don’t want that either.
OK, Plan B. The EU meets, and amid a massive and bitter row, various countries (Hungary for example) say they are suspending their involvement in the Schengen Agreement to avoid the ‘pull factor’ of people being able to get to Germany or Sweden, and elsewhere via the other countries.
Under Schengen, once a person is within one of the member states, they can pass freely to any of the others. If you suspend your obligations you can temporarily reintroduce border controls. After that? Well, the police at the borders may just happen to be introducing a new policy of spot checks based on, oh, let’s say information about cigarette smuggling…
The countries inside, but on the periphery, of the Schengen area will very quickly be overwhelmed. Refugees arriving in Italy and Greece will not be able to be moved on. An even greater humanitarian crisis will unfold, huge refugee camps will have to be built, and after several major riots and breakouts they will have to be guarded. The latter scenario might include watch towers and searchlights. In extremis, countries with fewer liberal sensibilities than say Germany, might decide the time has come to re-militarize its border for example the Hungarian border with Serbia. We don’t want that.
Schengen was based on trust. Each state trusted the others to make the necessary checks on people arriving from outside the area to see if they should be allowed in. (More on Schengen here)
If someone arrives, and wants to seek asylum, the agreement was that the country in which they first arrived should be the one which registered and processed the application. As part of that process they were supposed to be fingerprinted so that checks could made if the person ended up elsewhere and claimed asylum there. This is based on the concept that once a person has reached a place of safety, the state has an obligation to take care of them, but they don’t get to choose in which country they live.
However, over the past year it has became clear that Italy and Greece could not cope. They felt other EU states were not pulling their weight, and so both countries allowed waves of people to cross through their territory and so handed the problem to those further North.
But if Schengen falls, part of the idea of ‘Europe’ falls. And when Schengen falls, the barriers come back up. When the barriers come back up, it will take a lot longer for our goods and services to make their way around the trading bloc that is the EU. This will hugely increase transport costs, which will in turn be very damaging for each state’s economy. We don’t want that.
The difficulties in the plans above have not even taken into account another problem – deciding who and who isn’t a refugee. Someone fleeing Syria will have a strong case, but what if they had been in Turkey for 2 years and had found a job there but decided they wanted to do better in Germany? Is someone from Pakistan a refugee? What about someone from Burundi? Also, if someone is an Arabic speaker, how do you know they are Syrian? Perhaps they are from Jordan but want to work in Austria where their uncle had found a job. At this point you need a lot of extra staff including translators.
So Plans A and B hurt everyone and have numerous difficulties. This calls for a Plan C.
For the rest of this year the EU members will hold meeting after meeting trying to find a way through the complexities and faults in Plans A and B.
Germany will lead the way, firstly taking more refugees than anyone else in order to alleviate the immediate crisis. The Germans predict up to 800,000 people may try to get to their country. Berlin will also want an agreement on a list of countries considered safe – ie ones from which you cannot request asylum, for example Albania. The northern EU countries may also consider funding the huge crisis centres which will need to be set up in Greece and Italy. The British will chip in with their idea of going into the refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and trying to process people there – thus mitigating against the temptation to make the perilous journey by sea. The UK already funds the upkeep of the camps far more than almost all other countries.
Bulgaria and Romania, which are waiting for entry into Schengen, may be held back as the other countries know that membership for them will open another route into the border-less zone.
At the same time pressure, public and otherwise, may be put on the Gulf States to do something. They are the ones partially funding the war in Syria and yet they will not take anyone in.
Finally, but concurrently, there will be another diplomatic push this year to get a peace deal, and then reconstruct Syria.
Even if some sort of Plan C works, the problem is not solved. The south is moving north, and most asylum seekers are not from Syria. However, in the short to medium term the race is on to save lives, save our consciences, and to save the EU.