How Europe’s lofty values are drowning in a sea of migrants

How Europe’s lofty values are drowning in a sea of migrants

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Nearly 13,000 people, including 4,000 children, were left homeless, hungry, thirsty and destitute when the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos went up in flames. The camp was built to accommodate 4,000 refugees, but until last week’s fires it provided cramped and inadequate space for three times as many.

Aside from the humanitarian tragedy, which European politicians such as Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas were quick to deplore, the tragedy held a mirror up to Europe and its refugee policy — or rather, lack of one.

Since Germany went over the heads of its European partners in 2015-16 and accommodated 1 million refugees, there has been much talk of the need for an integrated refugee policy, but little action. The EU and its member governments lament the inadequacy of the Dublin Regulation, whereby since 1997 the European country in which an asylum seeker is first registered is thereafter responsible for them — placing an unfair burden on Greece and Italy, despite their faltering economies, while wealthier northern countries did nothing.

Rather than find a European system, the EU and member states preferred to make deals with Turkey and Libya to house refugees. This fended off a revolt by many countries along the Balkan refugee route, which refused to provide shelter to anyone.

Turkey, for instance, was promised 6 billion euros to host up to 4 million refugees; this makes already uncomfortable conversations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nothing short of impossible when it comes to human rights, freedom of the press or oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean.

After the Moria fire, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen dispatched her vice president Margaritis Schinas (who is Greek) to Athens. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said their countries, a few others in the EU and Switzerland were ready to take in 400 hundred children — 400 out of 13,000!

Since Germany went over the heads of its European partners in 2015-16 and accommodated 1 million refugees, there has been much talk of the need for an integrated refugee policy, but little action.

Cornelia Meyer

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he was happy to take in up to 150 children, but no more without a comprehensive EU refugee policy; the fear being a repetition of the 2015-16 influx, which nearly toppled Merkel’s government. The right-wing AfD argues that taking people in would encourage refugees to burn down other camps.

Norbert Roettgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a candidate to lead the ruling CDU party, wants Germany to take in 5,000 as a one-off gesture of humanitarian solidarity.  He may be on to something. Several large municipalities in Germany and Switzerland offered to provide shelter for the homeless from Moria, but were turned down by central government. Adding up those offers may get close to 5,000; local civil society seems to have a better grasp of how big this crisis is.

A common EU policy on refugees is a must, but it will not be easy to reach a compromise given the opposition of countries along the Balkan route. The pandemic and its rescue packages will also stretch budgets for many years to come.

Nevertheless, Europe has had five years since the first major wave of refugees to agree on coordinated policies and protocols. Instead it made agreements with regimes it had itself declared dodgy. This is the same Europe of lofty ideals that loves to sit in judgment over other countries — a classic case of preaching water and drinking wine.

Europe is a near neighbor to the conflict and poverty of the Middle East and Africa, from which migrants are fleeing in the first place. The sooner it come to terms with the obligations this poses, the better. It cannot let people drown in the Mediterranean or rot in refugee camps on Greek islands if it takes its own values seriously.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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