The recent deluge of refugees in Europe has posed serious questions on the political stability of the European Union. Effects of an ongoing bloody conflict in Syria on peaceful Europe is not surprising. Widespread protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government started in 2011 (remember Arab Spring) but later it turned into an armed conflict. Many belligerents like Islamic Front, Free Syrian Army got involved in the conflict. But gradually ISIL captured a vast portion of Syrian territory. ISIL’s rapid military gains exacerbated the already volatile situation. Now Syrians, in hundreds of thousands, have desperately started taking refuge in other countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The crisis began in 2011 with the Syrians crossing the borders to Lebanon and Turkey. The pace of migration has been increasing but in the last few months, an unprecedented number of Syrians are trying to go to Germany and other Western European countries. Desperate Syrians are crossing into European Union through South East Europe. Capsizing of ships carrying illegal migrants from Libya is very common. In fact Italian government continued Operation “Mare Nostrum” till November 2014 to tackle such accidents but it had to be discontinued for lack of funds. Now Operation “Triton” conducted by the Border Security Agency is the successor of Operation “Mare Nostrum”.
Under the Schengen agreement, the European countries have abolished border checks on international borders, though the countries with external borders are obligated to enforce border control regulations. This Schengen agreement has made Europe a unified place but in the recent times it has led to strained relations between the member states as the number of migrants entering Europe has reached colossal levels.
A large number of asylum seekers have entered EU through Hungary (by crossing Serbia Hungary border). To stop the influx, Hungary has been recently constructing a fence along its border with Serbia (a non EU state). But the influx continues in Hungary. Most asylum seekers want to use Hungary as an entry point to finally reach Germany and Scandinavia. Under the Dublin Regulations, if a person who has filed for asylum in one country, illegally crosses border to another country, he shall be returned to the former. But, in the last few months, enforcement has become increasingly difficult, as more and more asylum seekers headed for Germany. At one point of time, Germany suspended the regulations for ease of the asylum seekers. But such benevolent measure only increased the number of desperate asylum seekers to go to Germany. During the last fortnight, countries have started cracking down on asylum seekers. Austria which was providing passage from Hungary to Germany, is now reluctant to continue. Also Hungary has taken steps to control the movement of migrants towards Germany resulting in chaotic situations seen in Budapest railway station. Even Germany has established temporary border controls to limit the incoming surge. Austria too has established border controls alongside border with Hungary. Even Hungary has now criminalised unauthorised entry. But refugees have started taking a new route via Croatia to enter Hungary after Hungary decided to shut the EU’s external border with Serbia. As more member states introduce border control, though described as temporary measures, it seriously undermines the free Schengen movement.
Germany’s stand on this refugee crisis has also led to a serious political debate. An anti-immigration wave, which was dormant for a long time, has made a comeback. Christian Social Union has openly resisted the uncontrolled entry of asylum seekers in Germany. Blame game is also going on. Right wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has blamed Germany for the present crisis.
European Commission President Jean–Claude Juncker, backed by Germany, France and few western states, tried but failed to implement a migration quota system which would have forced individual countries to take on a share of some of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. Instead the members only agreed to share the asylum seekers on a voluntary basis. The move for quota system was opposed by East European countries like Hungary, Czech Republic and Baltic States. They argued that their economy cannot sustain the influx of asylum seekers. Also the asylum seekers want to go to Germany and Scandinavian countries where there are better social welfare measures.
The most affected countries by this influx are Italy, Hungary and Greece. Turkey shelters home to more than two million refugees but it also feels a lack of support from Europe in tackling the crisis. UNHCR should have done more to tackle this humanitarian crisis effectively. Even United Kingdom has been facing severe criticism for doing too little, probably prompting David Cameron to visit refugee camps in Lebanon.
Questions are also being raised regarding the composition of asylum seekers. What to do with those merely seeking a better life and not fleeing from war and persecution? Can economic migrants be allowed uninterrupted entry in Europe? Questions on asylum shopping are also being raised.
The European Commission in the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council has significantly increased the financial support to Syria and its neighbouring countries. It also stressed on stronger joint effort to secure the external borders of the European Union. But in the ongoing crisis, as Governments are trying to take positions best suited to their countries, rights of refugees seem to be ignored. European Commission President Jean–Claude Juncker has rightly remarked that giving refuge and complying with the fundamental right to asylum is very important.