Solidarity or hate? European values put to the test

Solidarity or hate? European values put to the test
5 min read
29 Sep, 2015
Blog: For centuries, European countries inflicted suffering on each other and further afield. The current refugee crisis has challenged European values of acceptance and placed human rights under the spotlight.
Poland has seen demonstrations in favour and against giving refuge to Syrians [AFP]

Given that Europe is the home of existentialism, it is rather apt that one of the continent's biggest refugee crises is putting its own liberal values to the test.

For seven decades, peace and stability have been brokered - after centuries of bloodshed in Europe - through a commitment to respect, security, democracy, human rights and eventual integration.

The European Union has been the archetype of these ideas. It is a path newer member states from the former communist bloc of Europe are now following, but not without some evident teething problems.

Hungary's often brutal treatment of Syrian refugees and stubborn resistance to accepting its "fair share" highlights a dichotomy between the values of the EU's western founding fathers and the more recent adherents to its cause.

Glimpse of the past

Images of riot police baton-charging refugees and victims of war and persecution peering through barbed wire fence resonates with certain memories of Europe's past.

Hungary's populist Prime Minister Victor Orban has used rhetoric such as describing refugees as a "brutal threat" to the continent and its "Christian identity" have reverberations from Europe's darkest annals in history. 

Many countries in eastern and central Europe appear to have converged on a similar staunchly anti-immigration path, along with the UK's own Eurosceptic government.

These states are undermining European values by cutting their own path through the refugee quandary.

Hungary has been the most forceful, enacting draconian security laws that allow security forces to use non-lethal force against refugees.

It has also established separate laws for its border regions at the heart of the crisis, and put in place a rapid asylum process that rejects virtually all cases.

"The fact that the [Hungarian] army is brought in through the state of emergency only ensures that the border control measures can be implemented even more robustly," says Minos Mouzourakis, a coordinator on asylum issues at the European Council for Refugees and Exiles.

"There is definitely a demonstrative divide in Europe about whether this refugee phenomenon can be stemmed or stopped by putting barriers on the borders, or whether it is something that needs to be dealt with collectively."

Hungary's fencing off of the Serbian border has shifted the issue, he says, and made Croatia the new transit point for refugees trying to reach Germany.

Passing the buck

On Tuesday, Croatia reported record numbers of refugees entering its country - nearly 9,000 in one day.

Progressively minded Europeans fear that not only will Orban's measures and rhetoric threaten the EU project, but that he also feeds into a certain reactionary undercurrent in Europe that insists - contrary to evidence - that it is being "flooded" with refugees. 

The belief that a tough, non-sentimental approach will solve the crisis - for the bigots at least - is common in Europe.

"The reasons for Hungary [taking tough measures] appear to be more political rather than practical. Obviously this is linked to the fact that conditions in Hungary would not such to allow people to stay and be provided protection,” says Mouzourakis.

"But the actual motivation for stemming the flow are the way Hungary understands or perceives refugees. Hungary officially refers to entrants as legal immigrants or even economic migrants. This is obviously at odds with the worldwide recognition that people coming from places such as Syria are in need of protection."

Last week's EU meeting continued to allow certain member states to continue with policies of inaction towards the refugee crisis. 

Instead cash will be thrown at the problem for the sake of the European dream, perpetuating an endless cycle of unilateral measures taken by neighbouring European states, coupled with borderline racist rhetoric.

Turning points

It is a critical juncture for the Union, and Germany's border checks have been a partial admission that there are limits to European freedom of movement from the EU's strongest proponent.

Secessionists, populists and right-wingers are gleeful to point out that the custodians of the European project are essentially partially rejecting their own ideals. Conditions are ripe for the whole European project to implode, they say.

This is the danger we run, unless renegade countries are brought into line and a collective understanding of how to deal with the refugee crisis is issued - with punishments for offenders.

[Click to enlarge]

However, the crisis has brought some benefits to the Syrian people.

After being largely ignored by the public in recent months, the Syrian war is back in the spotlight.

Governments are now under more pressure than ever to provide adequate aid to refugee agencies and the largest host countries in the Middle East.

This is critical, given the substantial cuts to aid that have been announced by NGOs working with refugees.

Mouzourakis also says that the solidarity movements that have arisen in Europe have been impressive. 

Protests have forced anti-immigrant governments to concede and allow in some Syrian refugees - giving a small victory to European ideals of humanism.

"We have seen quite a remarkable surge in attitudes supportive of refugees over the past month," Mouzourakis said.

"There really has been a change even in the way the problem is identified. We more broadly call it a 'refugee crisis' referring to the needs of the people coming to Europe in need of protection. I would be more tempted to see more attention focus going on positive attitudes to refugees than hostile ones."

The spirit of Poland's anti-totalitarian Solidarity movement lives on with 'Refugees Welcome' campaigners.