Europe’s entire asylum system is at risk
Imagine if a brand new country came into existence with a population of 68.5 million people. It would be the 21st most populous country in the world, with a growth rate that dwarfs all others. If there was a state for refugees and displaced people, this is where it would stand — the second-largest country in Europe. By the time you read this paragraph alone, some 10 people would have left everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.
But are we shocked enough, not least those of us with the luxury of living in the developed world? The developing world has a much clearer perspective as this is where most refugees — about 84 percent — land up; not in Europe or the United States as the increasingly more powerful and vocal far-right would like us to believe. Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, but Lebanon and Jordan have the most per capita. Bangladesh is now hosting more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Yet in rich Germany, the government coalition of Angela Merkel is under threat because the country has taken in close to a million refugees.
The world is increasingly divided into three categories: Those who care, those who do not, and those who actively oppose refugee rights. It has become one of the defining issues of our time. It hovers over American and European politics, it was a factor in Brexit and it is a factor in internal tensions in the key refugee-hosting states in the Middle East and Africa.
With all the hate speech, those who do genuinely care and who fight for refugees’ rights are sometimes easily ignored. Yet the plight of refugees does still touch the hearts of millions, who donate, host and work to help in an extraordinary way.
Those who do not care — the indifferent — are the ones who simply just want to pretend the problem does not exist until it lands on their doorstep. They can ignore it unless they see it. Arguably this might even be the largest category.
The most visible and vocal bloc, however, is the anti-refugee mob, who increasingly define this issue in nakedly racist language and terminology. Much of the recent focus has been on the United States, where migrant children have been separated from their parents and put in cages, but some European states are little better, if at all.
The harsh reality is that far-right movements will continue to prosper at the polls and successfully deploy an orchestra of dog whistles at every turn unless an effective European policy is enacted
Exhibit one in Europe would be Hungary. To mark World Refugee Day, rather than demonstrate some minimal degree of sympathy for refugees, the parliament passed a law making it an offense to help illegal immigrants, even asylum seekers; legislation labelled as the “Stop Soros” law. Just helping a migrant fill in a form could be a criminal offense. Moves are also afoot to impose a huge 25 percent tax on any NGO that tries to help migrants.
Fresh into this category of refugee-haters is Italy’s new government. A recording of the new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, from last year before he took office, shows him proclaiming: “We need a mass cleaning, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, piazza by piazza. We need to be tough because there are entire parts of our cities, entire parts of Italy, that are out of control.” He was referring to his proposal to deal with the 130,000 Roma in Italy, including creating a register.
Salvini has already angered other Southern European states by ordering Italian ports to deny entry to rescue vessels carrying refugees saved from the midst of the Mediterranean. “These ships can forget about reaching Italy, I want to quash the business of traffickers and Mafiosi,” Salvini wrote in a Facebook post. This year’s death toll in the Mediterranean has reached 960, although the number of people crossing the sea has dropped massively, by as much 77 percent in Italy in the first few months of 2018.
It is Salvini and his German counterpart, Horst Seehofer, who have escalated the crisis to one that threatens the very existence of Merkel’s coalition. The issue necessitated a mini-EU summit of more than a dozen leaders on Sunday, but obtaining any European consensus is simply impossible.
The harsh reality is that far-right movements will continue to prosper at the polls and successfully deploy an orchestra of dog whistles at every turn unless an effective European policy is enacted. This has to include stemming the intense migratory pressures by assisting the sending and transition countries in a meaningful way. Salvini can point with some justification to the way in which countries like Italy and Greece have not been helped out by EU partners to take their fair share of refugees.
Will this bring down Merkel? Her coalition is fragile, so quite possibly. Those with a hard-line agenda have the upper hand in their demand that Germany should deny entry to any asylum seeker at its southern border if they had previously registered in another European country. Yet, if Germany did this, other states would follow. The entirety of Europe’s asylum system is at risk, whereby it will not just be Italy turning away boats and not just Hungary refusing to take any asylum seekers. The welcome sign for refugees will be replaced by barbed wire, walls and gunboats.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech