I’m in Berlin reporting for Newsnight at the moment on the crisis engulfing Europe. Here are a few of the wider issues I think it’s worth reflecting on.
People Are Seeking a Better Life
Arguments about names – “migrant” versus “refugee” for example – ignore the complexity of many peoples’ motivation.
Speaking to Faris, a Syrian from Aleppo, at the Berlin refugee reception centre, it’s clear that he is escaping a vicious war.
But when I asked him what he would think about a European Union quota system that might require him to move on to Poland or the UK he insisted, “I want to stay in Germany,” adding this was because of the quality of education available. As soon as he’s settled, Faris intends to send for his wife and children.
The current argument within the EU about the so-called “Dublin 2” rules takes us back though to the distinction between asylum seekers (or refugees in this context) and others.
The rules dictate that people fleeing persecution or war seek asylum in the first EU country they get to. In the current crisis, this would most often be Greece or Italy, but it’s clear that many have no intention of settling there.
By the simple definitions of the Dublin 2 rules, there’s not much debate – those who end up in places like the Berlin refugee centre are migrants since they have crossed through a number of other EU countries to get there. The search for a better life starts with physical security – but for a
great many it is also tied to questions of opportunity.
Guilt Only Carries You So Far
Another recurrent argument concerns the degree to which European countries are responsible for creating this crisis. There is clearly a case to answer in the matter of Nato’s overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan government, which removed the obstacles to people crossing the Mediterranean from there.
That said, this culpability is largely irrelevant to the other (and bigger) migration route through Turkey and the Balkans to Germany, Austria and Sweden.
Some chose to blame the West for not intervening (producing the largest single flow of refugees, that from Syria), others for intervening (in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya).
In the case of some of the other large contingents in the current crisis (Eritreans, or Nigerians for example) the issue of Western intervention or non-intervention is largely irrelevant.
Politicians and experts talk about the “push” and “pull” factors in these movements of people. War or abject misery pushes, opportunity in western countries provides the pull. There are other pulls too. Mohammed, a Syrian I met in a Turkish camp several months ago told he would try to get to Britain – because he had a brother already in Scotland.
The Slick and the Sticky
Look at the hotspots in this crisis and you see some European countries, like Hungary, getting into serious difficulties, while others seem hardly to be involved at all.
Croatia, and Romania for example might have figured more prominently in this, but for a variety of reasons do not.
Geography, visa regimes, and the fact that they are not members of the Schengen group (with its absence of onward border controls) make Croatia or Romania less desirable to transit or seek asylum in, even though they are EU members.
In fact asylum applications from Syrians only amount to a few thousand in those two countries combined. Opposite factors apply with Hungary, particularly in its desirability as an entry point to Schengen.
In some countries (including Greece and Serbia) the governments appear to have decided that so long as they remain slick, and refugees simply slide through them, these flows need not be a huge problem. In fact they can present a modest earning opportunity for the local economy. Providers of food, lodging, and transport are all gaining – as well as the people smugglers.
Many countries would be reluctant to impose tougher controls because that might mean tens or even hundreds of thousands of displaced people quickly accumulating on their territory.
They don’t want to be ‘sticky’ in that sense. Knowing that many are heading for Germany, the Hungarian prime minister this week stated that he reserves the right to keep migrants out of his country rather than have to stop there or use it as an unrestricted thoroughfare.
This has earned him much opprobrium abroad, but it’s fair to say this thinking reflects the attitudes of many southern and east European governments that have been resisting EU quotas to take more people.
The Path of Least Resistance
Looking at the routes people are flowing along in this crisis, evidently the largest numbers will follow the path of least resistance. One German columnist remarked to me, “We do not have the luxury of the English Channel.” Geography, risk, and official reluctance to help, have all limited Britain’s appeal, keeping the numbers down – to Downing Street’s liking. All of Germany’s neighbours are in Schengen.
Jumping on a goods train through the Channel tunnel is also a young man’s game – it’s not a route for grandmas or babies. By contrast, my producer spotted better off Syrians a couple of weeks ago in Hungary hiring taxis to take families all the way to the German destinations of their choice.
To suggest that visa regimes and geography (including that modified by man-made obstacles) can do nothing to alter the situation defies simple observation of where people are or are not going.
Hard Choices Lie Ahead
A new EU quota to distribute 120,000 refugees (onwards from Italy and Greece) will provide a short term palliative. Sampling the debate in Germany though there is little doubt as to the gravity of this crisis.
People talk about 800,000 arriving this year and the same next. Chancellor Angela Merkel has already suggested that it is one of the greatest challenges to Europe since 1945.
Indeed it’s possible that this situation is already developing into a more profound test for Europe and its core principles than either Greece’s tribulations with the Euro or Britain’s planned renegotiation.
The Schengen agreement is coming under increasing pressure, as is the Dublin 2 regulation on asylum seekers. Hungary’s decision to break ranks may be an isolated breakout, or it could point the way to increasing division between old and new members of the EU.
As debates on the best way to deal with this continue, all manner of principles from free movement to majority voting will be tested as popular pressure pushes leaders towards a fortress Europe. – BBC analysis
(Mark Urban is the diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight)