Europe cannot close the door and ignore the fire

Europe cannot close the door and ignore the fire
Comment: Refugees from North Africa and the Middle East are treated as economic and security challenges, rather than as a humanitarian crisis. That's European values in action, says James Denselow.
4 min read
20 Aug, 2015
21,000 people arrived in Greece last week, half the total number of 2014 arrivals (Getty)
European values in action appeared to reach a recent low in Kos this month in response to the continued humanitarian crisis across the Middle East and North Africa.

Refugees being held in a sports stadium under the blazing sun began to pass out as tensions spilled over into protests and violence. More than 7,000 immigrants have arrived in Kos this summer, an isle of 30,000 people.

Pictures from Kos of refugees emerging from the sea are dominating the media as Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since the second world war.

The movement of people is largely the result of a growing arc of instability across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet it is being viewed by policymakers as not as a humanitarian crisis, but a challenge to economies and security. In doing so, European values come under scrutiny.

The number of migrants at the EU borders reached a record high of 107,500 in July, officials say. A surge in expected asylum requests has been reported in Germany, which has seen a wave of migration from Syria and the Balkans.

There were 626,000 asylum applications across the EU's 28 member states last year. A new report from BOND, an umbrella group for international development organisations, warned that: "More and more people urgently require food, water, shelter and other assistance to survive, and new and ongoing conflicts force ever greater numbers of people from their homes".

Yet instead of focusing on these urgent needs, the political debate is dominated by a discussion on how to prevent more migrants arriving. There is also a rise in far-right anti-immigrant voices across Europe. In Germany, for example, migrants are experiencing an increasing number of hate crimes. 

This growing anger is not helped by how the issue is framed by European leaders. The British prime minister, David Cameron, described migrants in Calais as a "swarm of people" while his foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, warned that "marauding" migrants threatened standards of living. Both statements were condemned by various human rights groups.

The notion that somehow Europe can raise the drawbridge is not only morally questionable but is in the short term fundamentally unrealistic. Conflict is the biggest single factor "pushing" people from the Middle East and North Africa.
     The notion that Europe can raise the drawbridge is not only morally questionable but is in the short term fundamentally unrealistic.

Half of the entire Syrian population has now been forced from their homes and more than a quarter of a million people have died in the country's war.

Meanwhile the international community's willingness to even fund the regional response is drawing down; recently the World Food Programme reduced rations for refugees.

If people can't eat while living on the margins of their shattered countries, would it really surprise anyone that they are willing to risk everything to cross the Mediterranean?

The situation in Kos and the other European pinch-points are unsustainable and a huge challenge for collective decision-making in Europe, at a time where the financial crisis is tearing the union apart at the seams.

Developing effective policies must be underpinned by both values (the heart) and an agreed collective strategy (the head). Part of this must be a wider acceptance of greater responsibilities among Europe's richer nations.

The UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said that more countries in Europe should share the burden. "It is unsustainable in the long run that only two EU countries, Germany and Sweden, take in the majority of refugees," he told Die Welt, a German newspaper.

Secondly, more controversially and certainly a lot harder, is Europe addressing the seemingly permanent humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. No longer will problems "over there" stay there. The sooner Europe realises it is at risk when next door is on fire, the sooner it can realise its role in this humanitarian challenge.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the 'New Diplomacy Platform'. Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.