Cut adrift at the end of Europe’s migrant trail
Do Europeans see themselves providing a haven from war or are they hoping the refugee problem will some day go away?
Migrants arriving at the port of Algeciras in southern Spain this week. They were rescued from 17 dinghies intercepted in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photograph: Reuters/Jon Nazca
Abu Abdo from Syria doesn’t care much about the rise of the far-right in Europe. That the supermarket nearest to where he lives, the Vial refugee camp on Greece’s Chios island, is a two-hour walk is not a major concern. The former taxi driver is simply glad to be alive: this past spring five missiles fired from Turkish jets demolished his home in Afrin. The city in northern Syria was occupied by pro-Turkish Syrian rebels in March, forcing tens of thousands of Kurds such as himself to flee. All around him in Vial camp are people relaying similar tragedies, voicing the same pleas.
I recently travelled 3,500km along Europe’s migrant trail from eastern Turkey to rural Austria. I wanted to see what has changed for people and places along the route since more than a million desperate people entered the continent in 2015. Aboard boats and trains, and on the streets of Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, the overwhelming sense among refugees and host communities alike is that they have been cut adrift.
On Chios and on half a dozen other Greek islands 17,137 refugees are today stuck in limbo. In Italy and Spain tens of thousands more languish in camps, often close to residential communities whose infrastructure is capable of catering for no more than a few thousand holidaymakers.
Outside the Vial camp on Chios, a local resident named Despina mans a colourful protest of Greek and EU politicians next to an elderly man who owns land adjacent to the camp. The landowner says he can’t grow crops because sewage from the camp has poisoned the soil.
Points along the migrant trail also throw up stories of hope and charity. Volunteers on Chios and in Belgrade continue to run support networks for recent arrivals, while a start-up in Vienna is employing refugees to give city walking tours that show day-to-day life for refugees.
Many Europeans regard the arrivals in a positive light: that they are an entire cohort of people ready to contribute to states’ tax coffers and fuel economic activity.
Yet the success stories are counterweighed by widely-held fears among both refugees and citizens of the Balkans and central Europe. From Turkey to Austria, refugees are struggling with increasing cuts to their already meagre state contributions.
The psychological toll of fleeing war makes the challenge of integrating into a new society all the more difficult. A Syrian couple I met in Austria are still haunted by images of their kitchen, bedrooms and neighbourhood streets in southern Damascus reduced to rubble during the purging of Isis from their district in May. Others say that opportunities to integrate are limited, particularly for adults.
The refugees’ presence in Europe has exposed people’s fears and prejudices
For refugees still awaiting official clearance to work, attending language classes is often an important outlet from which to escape the grind of domestic life. But the classroom environment doesn’t facilitate integration because the classmates they’re interacting with are refugees just like themselves.
Major companies in Germany that volunteered or were required to open job positions for refugees, such as Bayer and Eon, soon found that either they couldn’t fill those positions due to refugees’ insufficient skillsets or because they walked out before their training, which takes two years in some cases, was finished.
The very presence of refugees and how to cater for them has led to divisive debates across the continent, and sown lasting distrust between Europe’s leaders. The new European Commission proposals on controlling and managing the flow of migrants is an attempt to deal with this.
The refugees’ presence in Europe has exposed people’s fears and prejudices. A tiny minority has been charged with violent crimes in Austria, Germany and Turkey, and it’s easy to see why some people in these countries are fed up with inaction at European level, inaction that’s fuelling the rise of right-wing populists.
This autumn Denmark is likely to approve legislation that would see children of low-income families living in government-categorised immigrant-majority “ghettos” forced, from the age of one, to spend 25 hours a week away from their parents to learn “Danish values”.
As of last month in Hungary people found to be helping migrants can be imprisoned for up to a year.
Few claim to have ready-made solutions to the challenges migration throws up, and Germany, Sweden and other countries face a staggering task to facilitate and integrate the 1.5 million people they have collectively sheltered.
Europe’s response to migration is also as much about itself as about refugees
The stakes are high. France in the 1960s and 1970s showed exactly how not to approach the issue; its Algerian immigrants were left to their own devices in isolated Parisian slums with little or no input from the state. Extremism flourished.
West Germany at that time, however, got it right: the hundreds of thousands of Turkish migrants that moved there to help rebuild its post-war economy fuelled an “economic miracle” that turned it into Europe’s undisputed economic superpower, a position Germany continues to enjoy today. Now, as then, the latest wave of refugees and migrants will usher in a new era for Europe.
French president Emmanuel Macron grasped the nettle this month when telling the BBC that migration will continue to be an issue facing and troubling Europe for decades to come.
As long as dictators such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad continue to slaughter their own people and states in Africa are unable to provide a basic standard of living for their swelling populations – and as long as Europe remains a place of opportunity and openness – migrants will continue to come seeking safer better lives.
Europe’s response to migration is also as much about itself as about refugees – do Europeans want to see themselves as contributing to and facilitating a haven for desperate people fleeing war and religious persecution, or as a union of nations that turns inwards, hoping the problem will some day, somehow, disappear?
With almost 60,000 migrants reaching Europe so far this year, and thousands more setting out on the migrant trail every day, there’s little chance of the latter coming to pass. The sooner Europe’s political elite and citizenry grasp that, the better.