Slowly, Europe’s response to refugee crisis starts to take shape

September 7, 2015, 7:11 PM UTC

It’s like watching a battle for the soul of a whole continent.

The peoples and governments of Europe have reacted in wildly differing ways to the biggest migration of people since the end of World War II, ranging from outright hostility and violence to scarcely-credible displays of humanity and generosity. The continent, with its hugely varied wealth levels and history, is bitterly divided on how to cope–and it shows.

Over the weekend, hundreds of Germans and Austrians drove to Hungary to pick up refugees and help them complete their arduous journey to a better, safer life. Hundreds more organized to provide the newly arriving with food and shelter at rail stations in Vienna, Munich and elsewhere. These were spontaneous, uplifting decisions by ordinary people to do what their governments had failed to do in the face of a terrible humanitarian emergency; they created images that went as far as anything could to countering that of three year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body, washed up on a Turkish shore last week.

Yet at the same time, the wave of arson attacks in Germany against homes earmarked for refugees continues. Over the weekend, Five people were injured in an attack on an asylum in Rottenburg in south-west Germany, while three empty buildings slated to house refugees in Rockensussra in the east of the country were destroyed in a fire. Police suspect arson.

Under pressure to provide leadership, European leaders are starting to come round to accepting a mandatory quota system for resettling refugees to relieve the pressure on the worst choke points in Greece, Italy and Hungary. French President Francois Hollande said his country would take 24,000 as part of a plan to resettle across the E.U. 120,000 migrants currently stuck there.

“Faced with this inflow of refugees, we have to act with humanity and responsibility,” Hollande told a press conference.


That’s an act of some political courage in a country where the anti-immigrant (and very anti-Islamic) Marine Le Pen is already leading opinion polls for the next presidential election. Opinion polls in France still show 55% of the population opposed to the country opening its borders à l’allemande.

In Britain, which has an opt-out from the E.U. plan, Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday the U.K. will take 20,000 additional Syrian refugees after being wrong-footed by an abrupt surge in public sympathy. The gesture isn’t as generous as it sounds because the number is supposed to be spread over four years, but the pressure on Cameron seems likely to lead to much bigger concessions in the coming weeks.

But the focus remains squarely on Germany, which expects to receive 800,000 refugees and migrants–equivalent to 1% of its entire population–this year. Over 100,000 arrived last month alone.

“I am happy that Germany has become a country that many people outside of Germany now associate with hope,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told a news conference in Berlin Monday. “This is something to cherish when you look back at our history.”

Over the weekend, Merkel’s government put its money where its mouth is, fully aware that it can’t rely on volunteer contributions for the long term. The country stereotyped for most of this year as tight-fisted and narrow-minded in its dealings with Greece approved an extra €6 billion ($6.7 billion) of public spending to address the refugee issue.

But a migration crisis that goes far beyond anything seen either after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 or the Balkan wars of the 1990s can’t help but cause alarm, both at the popular and government level. Money is still tight and anti-immigrant sentiment still throws a long shadow in a Eurozone where there are still 17.4 million unemployed. Many, having seen images of European born-and-bred jihadis going off to join Islamic State, fret about accepting more Muslims who they fear would be hard to assimilate (albeit that fear seems ill-judged, given that many of the Syrian refugees are urban, educated, middle-class people who abhor the backward fundamentalism of IS as much as any wealthy white European).

Inconsistencies abound: while the British government prepares to take more refugees from the camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the Danish one is taking out ads in Lebanese newspapers warning them about how it’s making it harder for them to move and live in Denmark. The most strident opponents of the right to asylum are Hungary and other post-Communist countries, who seem to have forgotten how keen their citizens were to flee only two decades ago.

Attention is rightly focusing on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis right now. But it may start to shift soon. Both Cameron and Hollande moved closer to military intervention Monday, in a nod to those who argue that the best way to stop the crisis is to stop the cause of the refugee flow.

Cameron told parliament that Royal Air Force drones had flown sorties in Syria in August, killing British-born jihadis fighting for Islamic State. That’s despite parliament rejecting his proposal to bomb Syria two years ago. Hollande, meanwhile, said France would start military reconnaissance flights over Syria in preparation for possible airstrikes.

But a cogent military campaign is off the cards for now at least, due to the bewildering complexity of the situation on the ground. Both France and the U.K. are painfully aware they can’t secure peace with airstrikes alone. And keeping a coalition together seems impossible, given that Turkey, the region’s key NATO member, is increasingly in conflict with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Turkey’s airforce renewed airstrikes Monday against Kurdish PKK fighters in Iraq after the PKK attacked a military convoy in eastern Turkey Sunday, causing fatalities.

A military campaign, if it ever comes, will at least have a distinct start and end. But the battle for Europe’s soul–how to meet the demands of Christian charity and basic human decency while devising a practical policy for managing the ever-growing numbers straining its famed social safety nets–it would be foolish to expect an end to that in any foreseeable timeframe.


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