Stopping the flow of refugees no longer an option
Osama Abdul Mohsen, the Syrian refugee who was tripped by a photographer near Hungary’s border with Serbia, was given asylum status and a football coaching job in Madrid — a gesture of support and solidarity by Spain, which has agreed to take in 17,000 additional Syrian asylum seekers.
But the story of Mohsen could be only the beginning of many thousands to come. Europe appears destined to be divided between hosts and hostiles.
At stake is an unprecedented increase in forced migration on a truly global scale. The United Nations estimated that 59.5 million people were displaced over the course of 2014, the highest figure since the second world war. The Middle East contributed 11.5 million refugees, the majority coming from Syria.
Refugees are trying to reach Europe in greater numbers, not only to flee unending domestic turmoil but also in search of a dignified new beginning that European liberalism has promised.
Of course, many Europeans will open their arms to receive their fellow humans but others will view the refugee influx as a challenge to the relative prosperity Europeans have experienced in the post-war era.
Intriguing questions include: How many refugees can Europe host and at what domestic cost? Can Europe avert a migration exodus and maintain control of its many borders? European leaders are pressured to answer these challenges that are confronting the continent with unprecedented urgency.
“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Europe can no longer consider the problem of poverty and forced displacement elsewhere as remote and of no concern. Sharp increases in the number of refugees and migrants — from the Middle East, Africa and further afield — seeking a better life in Europe point to alarming rises in global poverty, inequality and wars.
Europe is increasingly being implicated. In an interconnected and globalised world, space is rapidly shrinking between countries. Events in one place can have a direct impact thousands of miles away. At the same time, people are capable of moving from one place to another much faster than previously due to modern transportation.
Small boats can be locally and cheaply manufactured to carry large numbers of refugees across vast seas. Expanded and profitable smuggling networks across regions stand ready to bypass barriers and border controls.
Croatia, Hungary, Greece and Austria in recent weeks have witnessed tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum — a number that will quickly exceed the 1 million refugees the United States and many EU countries have declared as a permissible asylum quota to be fulfilled within the next year.
In a way, globalisation has not only helped Europe through open-border policies to expand its market economy but has exposed its vulnerability to foreign population influx. European lawmakers are faced with a decision: resort to isolationism or adapt to border fluidity. Both choices appear to have grave consequences that are sure to deepen domestic divisions.
What is more alarming is a rising tendency to politicise the displacement crisis. The massive movement of Syrian refugees across various countries has exhausted the capacities and resources of neighbouring states and has heightened the prominence of the Damascus government as a critical broker in future political settlements.
The number of Syrian refugees crossing into Europe will most likely expand the relevance of the Russian-backed Syrian regime as an important factor in helping resolve the refugee crisis. Accepting a refugee safe haven inside Syria may loosen the pressure on Europe.
Thus, the arrival of the refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep may play into the hands of refugees’ home states in appeasing political concessions or, as the case of the Syrian government, enabling it to attain international relevance and some semblance of legitimacy.
The economic and socio-political repercussions of the refugee crisis are sure to widen the wedge between EU members and call into question the very essence of the union. Already fractures are surfacing over EU strategy on border controls, response to asylum seekers and consensus on Middle East foreign policies.
US journalist Thomas Friedman once described the modern world as “flat” and perhaps Europe may need to revisit its asylum policies. Stopping a refugee invasion in such a flat world is no longer viable, at least in the long term. Traditional border controls may no longer suffice. Nor will simply aiding refugees in remote camps while protracted conflicts continue with no end in sight.
Instead, Europe may be in dire need to take on a proactive cross-regional role to help undermine the original reason for asylum seekers — a strategy that could have helped Osama Abdul Mohsen maintain his job as a football coach with Al-Fotuwa in Syria and relieved him from the experience of being tripped by a photographer in Hungary.