Kanjiza, Serbia (International Federation of Red Cross, CC BY-NC-ND)
This crisis has grabbed the attention of the politicians and the media. It has also become an issue in Poland, although a little later, when the dramatic images from the Budapest Keleti train station began reaching us at the end of the summer. However, better late than never, because – like it or not – Poland is a „frontier country” of the EU via its border with the conflict-ridden Ukraine. It is true that the wave that is currently flooding Europe is not passing (so far) through our country, but we cannot argue that this will not change. Refugees may still reach us on a larger scale and we are not even talking about the highly-publicised and controversial quotas allocated by the EU.
Traffickers on top
We are dealing with a crisis of a structural nature, that is one that has deep roots and could last for many years. We are talking about a long-term and highly complex process. As we already know, refugees are coming to Europe along two main routes: the Mediterranean route, symbolized by the Italian island of Lampedusa, and the Balkan route that opened in the spring of 2015. The latter leads from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary, and after that country built a wall against immigrants, through Croatia and Slovenia to Austria, and from there to the El Dorado of Germany, and to a lesser extent also to the countries of Scandinavia (especially Sweden).
Previously, for many months public opinion was focused on Lampedusa, and even Pope Francis visited there. It was flooded with refugees fleeing the war and internal chaos of Libya (these are actual refugees), but also with migrants – citizens of countries struggling with structural poverty, mainly from the Sahel, such as Eritrea or Sudan.
As estimated by the specialized EU agency Frontex and according to figures of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as many as 280,000 immigrants came to Europe through this route in 2014.
As we have already seen, the 2015 is much more dramatic. A much stronger wave came in from Turkey along the Balkan route. In addition – according to all indications – it was pretty well organized by various criminal groups, which found a good business opportunity, bribed the Turkish authorities, and maybe even obtained their silent acquiescence. In any case, it is enough to go to Izmir to see that for the amount of 700 to 4,000 dollars or euros (such amounts were mentioned by the migrants) overloaded inflatable boats are pushed out into the sea in the direction of Greece and further to the north of the continent. And, unfortunately, for now it is the gangs who are on top, while the authorities remain helpless.
The ethnic composition on the Balkan route is different than the Mediterranean one. Here Syrians dominate (60-65%), followed by people from Afghanistan and Iraq, which are also countries afflicted by conflicts. However, attention is focused on the relatively large numbers of Pakistanis and people of other regions, including Africa, even Southeast Asia, which only further reinforces the idea of an organized action.
It is clear that the primary source of this new migration is the conflicts, civil wars and the emergencies (in June 2014) of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and its violent actions. According to perhaps the most reliable data from the UNCHR 12 million people in that region have been displaced or forced to leave their homes and up to 4 million refugees have been placed in camps in neighboring countries (around 2 million in Turkey, a little over 1 million in tiny Lebanon, and the rest in Jordan). This is the scale of the problem that we are facing.
The EU is now stating that the EUR1bn mentioned at the beginning of crisis is intended for people in those camps and – to a lesser extent – for the strengthening the European Union’s porous external borders and for the objectives of Frontex – the UE agency coordinating their management.
It is not enough because we are dealing with a multidimensional and multifaceted crisis which escapes easy generalizations, which are so handy in hastily prepared media commentaries. It includes the elements of geopolitics (Turkey’s behavior and the conflicting interests of the major powers), different strategies, and a clash of civilizations, overlapping with the tragedy of the victims and the cynical trafficking in human beings and their misery. Finally, there is the religious element, the aspect of moral or political responsibility, but also a social and an economic aspect.
Germany is acting selfishly
The latter is probably best addressed by another number, given two days after the EU summit, following a special meeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet with the representatives of the 16 German States which are to accept the majority of these migrants (up to 800,000 out of the 1 million people that are to reach us this year, as indicated at the summit by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk). It was then reported that EUR670 per month would be spent on each registered refugee or migrant, which gives an initial cost estimate of EUR4bn per year (some analyses even mention an amount of EUR12.5bn per year).
Of course, such messages, like Chancellor Merkel’s earlier invitation of the migrants to Germany – considered by many to be an error – will not stop the wave. As can be expected, the stated number will probably become a point of reference during the distribution of the refugee quotas planned for the beginning of 2016. As we know, this allocation of refugees has been controversial, because Slovakia challenged the decision and three countries of our region (Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania) abstained at the meeting of the Interior Ministers of the EU Member States one day before the last summit.
It is clear what should be done: eliminate the source of this wave! This, however, looking from today’s perspective, seems like a utopian idea. In reality no one wants a ground campaign against ISIS, which would be extremely expensive, and the coalition built by the Americans with several Arab States (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) only allows for air strikes – also costly, although hardly effective.
Meanwhile, Russia has actively entered the conflict in Syria, defending the interests of its „ally”, President Bashar al-Assad, whose removal is a prerequisite for any peaceful solution for the Americans and the French, but recently no longer for the Germans, which only complicates the situation. In the meantime, let there be no illusions, Russia has sensed its chance, because the more attention is paid to the terrible civil war in Syria and the actions of ISIS (about 240,000 casualties), the less is left for Ukraine. And after all, Moscow’s strategic objective has been clear from the beginning: the instalment in Kiev of a puppet figure à la Yanukovych, and if this proves impossible, the destabilization of the unruly neighbor, not to mention the abolition of the stinging economic sanctions or the acceptance of the annexation of Crimea.
Geopolitics and the complicated balance of power of the major players, including the main powers, all lead to one conclusion: we are facing a complicated structural crisis, as was mentioned at the beginning. It will be drawn out over many years and – make no mistake – will be very expensive, because on the one hand there is war and, on the other hand, we have camps and migrants, millions of people displaced from their homes and on the move. And after all, they all require room and board and then a place to settle, education, assimilation and finally employment. This also costs and will not be easy.
Countries such as Germany or Sweden (9.5 million inhabitants, of which over 1.5 million are refugees), are clearly embracing immigrants. Of course they will send some back, but will probably accept the majority. And that is because – according to their political and scientific analyses – their societies are aging and they require additional workers. The fact that others are looking at this issue in a different way is less important. It is therefore no wonder that the Germans are accused of selfishness.
Solidarity at stake
Here, however, we are facing what is perhaps the biggest challenge. Indeed, what is mainly at stake in this crisis is not even the high cost of all these operations, but European solidarity, both internally in the individual states as well as between them. As we can see, the continent has again been split into an East and West divide. And there may be even more of these divisions, because the overarching European values, which until recently we were so (jointly) proud of, have been brought into question.
President Donald Tusk speaking in Strasbourg on October 27th said the crisis threatened to transform the EU and destroy principles such as border-free travel between Schengen zone countries. Mr Tusk said these were „extraordinary times” that required „extraordinary measures, extraordinary sacrifices and extraordinary solidarity”.
So far there is chaos. Tents with refugees can be seen on the central squares and intersections of the main European cities from Athens to Paris and Brussels. Controls at the borders have returned and Hungary has built a wall and put up barbed wire. How can we get out of this situation? No one seems to know, and individual interests are increasingly diverging.
Only strong leadership can lead us out of this dangerous situation, but the EU, or rather its executive body, the European Commission, is still proving to be overly technocratic and bureaucratic (i.e. quotas!). On the other hand, the chancellor of Germany, the strongest entity on the continent, once again seems to be looking at Germany’s own narrow interests rather than those of the continent as a whole. In this situation, paradoxically, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is emerging as the most decisive and consistent European leader.
Will the adoption of his point of view and its application result in following the narrowly understood interests of the nation states, separated from each other by walls and barbed wire, and guarded by armed patrols. Is this what we want? Is this how European unity is supposed to look like, under the pressure of the migrants who – let us not delude ourselves – will not stop pouring in?
This would perhaps be the biggest cost that we Europeans would bear if we failed to reach an agreement. It would be far bigger than any previously estimated or reported amount. And we might, unfortunately, end up bearing it if we do not remove the sources of this complex phenomenon, i.e. if we do not end the wars beyond our borders and if we do not stop the traffickers, starting with those operating in Turkey (which is after all a NATO Member State).
Let us speak frankly: the West – understood primarily as the US and the EU – has made a mess in the Middle East and in North Africa (the interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the lack of strategy regarding Syria). Now it would be good to fix these mistakes. Will it fix them or will it play games with Moscow? The latter choice would ultimately be at the expense of European solidarity, which we have been building with such difficulty in recent years.