Refugees and Central European Illusions

To have fewer problems with refugees in the future, we must open ourselves more to them now.

Saying that Central Europe ceased to be the pet of European public opinion is quite an understatement. The countries so far admired for successful transition and internal stability have shown their less pleasant face, previously demonstrated only by the populist government of Viktor Orbán. We may assume that the rift in the Visegrad Group at the September Council of the EU (Poland, unlike the rest of the Visegrad Group, supported the Commission’s proposal to relocate the refugees), widely discussed in Warsaw, Prague, or Bratislava, will remain a minor episode for the rest of Europe. The diplomatic wrangling was overshadowed by the loud protests of Central European leaders against the alleged flooding of their countries by refugees and the dictate of Berlin in the European refugee policy.

Poland is perhaps losing the most here, although treating it on the same level as the other Visegrad countries is somewhat unfair: the government of Ewa Kopacz has never resorted to such xenophobic rhetoric as Robert Fico’s and Victor Orbán’s. In fact, the Polish government made a last-ditch effort to escape being categorized as the villain of the piece, disassociating itself from the spoilsport attitude of its partners towards relocation, but a bad taste in the mouth remains.

On the other hand, a new, different tone has also appeared in the debate—quieter and somewhat embarrassedly trying to make itself heard amid the media uproar. “Point taken, Mr. Orbán,” as even the liberal Economist wrote in a recent comment, and recalled that by putting up a wall along the border with Serbia, Hungary is only implementing the European law on the protection of external borders. The fears and objections of Central Europeans suddenly stopped being so offensive, becoming an expression of common sense and composure. The Central European elites supposedly contribute a necessary dose of realism to European debate. Especially in the face of the hypocrisy of Germans and their allies, wanting to transfer some of the refugees to countries to which they do not want to go and hence they would immediately flee them for the Arcadia on the Spree. In other words, the more Europe is convinced that an effective border control is the cure for all evils of migration, the easier it is to shed the xenophobic label for those who prefer to talk about the limits of refugee absorption than about human rights.

Very few would deny today that border protection, effective readmission policy for those not entitled to asylum, and perhaps even creating a common European border guard are necessary instruments of the future European migration policy. The most recent proposals of the European Commission, the pressure of the majority of member states, and the talks between European leaders and the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who holds one of the most important keys to reducing the rate of influx of refugees, rightly point in this direction. Nevertheless, the smugness of Central European (and other) advocates of “sealing the borders,” who increasingly feel that these and other actions, as well as the direction of European debate, vindicate their attitude, is somewhat premature. For we can hardly expect that these measures, although right and necessary, will significantly reduce the migration wave. Raising such hopes would be reckless and could lead to a rapid disappointment and frustration among those citizens who believe that tough policy will prove to be the right solution.

Channeling the debate along these lines has one more undesirable effect: it detracts attention from other measures, no less necessary for disarming the refugee problem and requiring bold political decisions. Instead of indulging in illusions, we should immediately start preparing for these measures.

There are many widely known reasons why the refugee wave will not stop quickly. It is not just the scale of misery in conflict-ridden countries such as Syria, Libya, and Eritrea (although this is the most important factor). Indeed, in the era of the Internet, spontaneous signals, such as the declarations of Angela Merkel about welcoming all Syrians, may provide an additional encouragement. But even without them Germany and other EU countries would be a coveted haven of happiness for most refugees, and the road leading to it would be worth risking their lives. This will not significantly change as a result of measures discussed and taken today by the EU and its member states. As Mattia Toaldo from the ECFR recently recalled, the experience of Italy, which under Berlusconi chose securing the borders as the primary means of stopping the refugee inflow, shows that such steps have a limited effect. The number of asylum seekers in Italy grew fourfold in this period. The same is happening in Hungary today: despite the fences and barbed wire, thousands of people still get across the border, going to Austria and then on to Germany. Even if we leave aside the humanitarian aspect, these actions make access more difficult, but they do not stop the refugees. “Fortress Europe” is not only disgusting, but it also simply does not work and cannot work, since the EU has thousands of kilometers of sea borders.

Readmission policy is based on the right assumptions—the EU cannot guarantee asylum to everyone and the people whose applications were rejected or who have come from the so-called safe third countries, must go back to where they came from. We can and should (firmly) talk about readmission with the Balkan countries aspiring to the EU. On the other hand, the percentage of migrants from this part of Europe is decreasing and becoming more and more negligible in the overall number of refugees. It is important to talk to Turkey on the subject (although the question appears what the EU could offer to Ankara in exchange for signing a readmission agreement and taking additional burdens upon itself). Spain is an example of a country which successfully solved the problem of immigrants from Africa through a joint readmission policy with Morocco and Senegal. But in contrast to these relatively stable countries, the areas from which the largest number of refugees is arriving today are fallen states—like Syria or Libya. Readmission policy is impossible when there are no credible structures and partners on the other side.

It is true that the European Union can and should support financially such countries as Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, so that the conditions in refugee camps, where several millions of Syrians are already living, are more bearable. However, the hope that such measures would stop them from attempting to reach Europe is futile. Living in camps means a miserable existence without prospects of a job and a decent school for children. So all indications are that the way to a better management of the refugee crisis (not to its overcoming, which is impossible without a change in the geopolitical situation) is more tortuous and demanding than the advocates of better border control suggest. Protection of external borders must go hand in hand with a carefully thought-out migration policy of the EU and its member states, a policy which would encompass opening wide channels of legal immigration to Europe and a strategy of active resettling of refugees from the camps outside the EU to European countries. Such a policy must be based on the assumption that controlling the refugee flows is possible only if we anticipate and successfully prevent processes which would be unmanageable. Another assumption must be that the greatest problem for the EU are not refugees or migration as such, but the scale of illegal and disorderly migration, which is the main source of criminal activity and problems we are fearing today.

The possibilities of legal immigration to the EU are limited today. Neither the EU, nor the majority of member states have a targeted immigration policy aimed at acquiring labor force. If such a policy did exist, a significant part of the well-educated, young, and wealthy Syrians could arrive in Europe without risking their lives. Moreover, the lack of sufficient legal possibilities of entering Europe forces thousands of people to use the services of criminals or to become criminals themselves, expanding the zone of lawlessness and violence in Europe itself. Tighter borders without opening new possibilities of legal immigration to the EU will only deepen this problem, serving not so much the security of Europeans, but the interests of smugglers and document forgers.

No less important is resettlement policy, coordinated by the UNHCR. Millions of refugees staying in camps in the countries bordering Syria are a natural and obvious reservoir of illegal immigration to Europe, and we have every reason to expect that it will intensify in the coming years. The EU countries should ask themselves the question if the refugees (or a significant part of them) should arrive in Europe in the manner observed so far or if we want to assume at least partial control over this process. The European Stability Initiative (ESI), a think- tank dealing with the Balkans and Turkey, in early October presented a proposal pointing this way. Believing that Germany is the key country in seeking solutions, the authors of the so-called “Merkel plan” (as the proposal addressed to Berlin is called) suggest that Germany should take over and grant asylum to 500,000 Syrian refugees now staying in Turkish camps (in exchange for that Turkey would commit itself to co-operation in readmitting those who would illegally reach Europe from its territory). They believe that other countries should then follow in Berlin’s footsteps.

According to most recent data of the UNHCR, European countries have admitted on the basis of resettlement just 45,000 of Syrian refugees since 2013 (of which 35,000 ended up in Germany). The UNHCR has admonished Europe for years that it should take more responsibility for taking over the refugees, without waiting for them to reach its shores. This time, especially in the context of Syrian refugees, such a policy not only is a humanitarian duty, but also lies in the best interest of Europe.

It is not hard to notice that all these measures taken together produce a paradox. Reducing the wave of refugees is not possible through steps intended at stopping their inflow (border control, barbed wire), but through a deliberate and active policy of bringing migrants (including refugees) to the EU. Recognizing and accepting this paradox—to have fewer problems with refugees in the future we must be more open to them now—is a real political challenge. For obviously it is now easier to make loud calls for border protection than to plan in advance for the arrival of thousands of resettled refugees. It is simpler to talk about the necessity of resolving the conflict in Syria (because nobody has a recipe for that anyway) than to attract voters with a bold immigration and integration policy. But a failure in this context would be very expensive for us all. And it would quickly smash the sudden smugness of the defenders of Fortress Europe.

Piotr Buras

is the Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He studied international relations at the University of Warsaw and is an expert on European and German politics. Before joining ECFR he worked as author and correspondent of the Polish daily “Gazeta Wyborcza” in Berlin (2008-2013). 2018-2019 Piotr is a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences working on the protection of rule of law in the EU.

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