Divided Europe faces worst refugee crisis since World War II

Friday 21/08/2015
Desperate measures to keep out equally desperate refugees

BRUSSELS - Faced with its worst refugee crisis since World War II, Europe has many sensible options to deal with people fleeing conflict in Syria and elsewhere -- but can't agree on any of them.

The situation has accelerated over the summer with a new stream of refugees arriving via the Balkans, adding to those braving death to cross the Mediterranean or risking their lives to enter the Channel Tunnel.

Efforts to redistribute refugees around the European Union have been hobbled by a lack of unity among governments running scared of right-wing populist parties.

Meanwhile, measures to stop the flow of asylum seekers at its source in the Middle East and North Africa have stalled because the turbulence in the region means Brussels has no stable governments it can deal with.

With no solution in sight, European countries are now resorting to desperate measures to keep out equally desperate refugees, such as a huge razor fence that Hungary is erecting on its Serbian border.

Officials and experts say EU states need to act quickly before the situation becomes uncontrollable, with no end in sight to the wars and political repression that are making the people flee.

"At the end of the day we need to do something, and it's much better to do something when you're still in control rather than when you're no longer in control," an EU diplomat said.

"We need to work on several strands at the same time: how to divide the burden among Europeans, how to control better the external border, how to increase the cooperation with the countries of transit."

European leaders were spurred to action in April after more than 700 people drowned in the Mediterranean, in the worst tragedy of its kind. But they later squabbled over a quota plan for the redistribution of refugees to ease the pressure on Greece and Italy.

A chaotic summer break -- which saw refugees being teargassed in Macedonia and Hungary experiencing its highest ever daily number of arrivals with 2,100 people -- has once again raised the sense of urgency.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande held emergency talks on Monday, calling for a "unified system".

Berlin has led the way in recent days, saying that it expects to take in 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015 -- more than the rest of the EU combined. It has also halted the deportation of Syrian asylum-seekers to their first point of entry into the EU, as countries are supposed to do under EU rules.

The European Commission hailed the German move as "European solidarity" and said it hoped the comments by Merkel and Hollande "will be echoed in other capitals."

But a ten-point refugee policy plan unveiled by Berlin this week hints at its frustration with the rest of Europe, calling among other things for a "fair distribution" of refugees in Europe and a "common approach" to border control.

The problem is that from Britain to Sweden to France, governments face a challenge from right-wing anti-immigration parties that have made any move to take more refugees politically poisonous.

Merkel's move to admit more refugees also comes in the face of what she has called a "vile" wave of “anti-migrant” protests and violence.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission chief, warned that EU governments had a duty to resist the "populists" and help share the migrant burden.

His calls were echoed by the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, who urged European leaders on Tuesday to avoid talking about "swarms" and "marauders".

Crepeau said the solution to the crisis was to open up labour markets to asylum seekers and migrants, calling for "smart visas".

"Building fences, using tear gas and other forms of violence against migrants and asylum seekers, detention, withholding access to basics such as shelter, food or water and using threatening language or hateful speech will not stop migrants from coming or trying to come to Europe," he said.

In the longer term, he said Europe must work with countries to create a sensible system for letting people apply for entry from refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

A crisis summit of EU and African Union leaders in Malta will focus in particular on tackling people smugglers.

An EU naval mission tasked with taking on the smugglers has been confined to rescue operations, because it has no mandate to intervene from the United Nations or from authorities in Libya, where most of the smugglers' boats originate.

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