Over the last few weeks, the European Union has been torn apart by bitter disagreement over a new crisis: the huge numbers of refugees and migrants who are turning up at Europe’s doorstep. Last month, nearly 50,000 refugees arrived in Greece alone. Migrants wanting to get to the United Kingdom have formed an encampment around the port town of Calais, leading to scare-mongering statements by British politicians and alarmist headlines in tabloid newspapers. Immigration is the number one concern identified by Europeans in opinion polls. European Union member states disagree, sometimes bitterly, about who should take responsibility and what should be done. Here’s what’s happening.
Regional wars are leading refugees to flee
The European Union, like other rich parts of the world, has been a magnet for migrants from poorer and more war-torn places for a long time. Some migrants have wanted to come to Europe to pursue economic opportunities. Others are refugees from war and oppression in their home countries. Many more people want to move to the European Union than the European Union is prepared to accept.
In the very recent past, record numbers of people have tried to get into the European Union through irregular methods. This is in large part the product of regional wars. Southern Europe is relatively close to Syria, which is ravaged by civil war, as well as Libya, where the state has more or less broken down. In 2014, 280,000 people crossed into the EU without permission. Most of them were fleeing Syria, and have sought refugee status. This is nothing in comparison to the numbers that some non-European states have accepted, but it is still enough to cause political crisis.
Thousands of migrants have drowned
The most popular way to get into Europe is now by sea, across the Mediterranean. Two hundred thousand migrants have been rescued in the Mediterranean already this year. Very many would-be migrants are traveling in boats or on rafts, provided by professional people smugglers. Many of these boats and rafts are wildly unsafe, leading to thousands of people drowning or dying from exposure. For a period last year, the EU suspended its rescue operations for ships full of migrants, in the hope that it would discourage people from trying to enter. It didn’t work.
Europe is fighting over who should take responsibility for these migrants
Most European Union member states allow relatively free travel across borders for European citizens. The fear that this would allow undocumented immigrants to move easily from country to country and claim refugee status in one of the more generous European states led European countries to negotiate the so-called Dublin Convention, which was later replaced by the Dublin Regulation. This agreement effectively requires that the state where a refugee first seeks asylum is responsible for deciding whether he or she gets it.
The problem is that most of the new influx of refugees are arriving in Southern European countries, especially Greece and Italy. Greece has never had a very effective system for dealing with refugees, and is dealing with its own financial disaster at the moment. It is being overwhelmed. Italy is less overwhelmed, but Italian leaders are still unhappy at the heavy burden they are expected to shoulder. Southern countries want Northern European countries to help them by accepting refugees. This has led to a lot of fighting at the summits where European ministers and leaders gather to decide joint policy. However, the European Commission has recently announced that the EU will provide $2.6 billion over the next six years to help countries deal with the strains caused by the influx of migrants.
Some countries are much more generous than others
Germany has received a lot of criticism for its lack of generosity to Greece in the Greek debt crisis. It has been far more generous in its willingness to accept refugees. Germany is set to have 450,000 refugee status applications in train by the end of the year. Sweden and Austria have also been notably generous.
The United Kingdom, in contrast, has refused to participate in a broader European Union plan to resettle refugees from war-torn countries. It has blown a few thousand refugees centered around the French town of Calais, who would like to get into Britain, into a purported national crisis. Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, warns of “swarms” of refugees, while Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary (the UK equivalent to the Secretary of State) describes the refugees as “marauding.”
A BBC broadcast of a Christian service in a church at the Calais encampment has led to howls of outrage from British tabloid newspapers that apparently have limited familiarity with the Christian ethos. Britain’s stance has provoked cynicism and despair among other Europeans, but is likely the result of domestic political calculations; there is a strong xenophobic current in British political debate that the ruling Conservative party has tried to tap into.