During the month of January 2016, 55,000 migrants have crossed the Aegean Sea, or 21 times the number that made the same journey in January 2015. In 2015, a total of 856,000 arrived in Europe, 90 percent of them coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, there is an urgency in the face of this inexorable phenomenon, which is bound not only to continue but also to increase. It is expected that with the spring’s milder weather, there will be a surge of four times that number. The net result — Europe has a window of six to eight weeks to manage the crisis.
Everybody agrees on what should be done to stop the flow of refugees: end the war in Syria; defeat ISIS; provide financial help to the countries that have taken in the most refugees, i.e., Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey; police the Mediterranean by destroying the derelict boats ferrying the migrants and put a stop to the profitable business of the smugglers. But there has been an absence of a leadership in carrying out a common plan of action.
At the outset of the crisis Angela Merkel was the only one to offer a clear strategy. For her, Turkey was the key country to work with since three quarters of the migrants pass through its territory. She even made the trip to meet President Erdogan in Antalya. She supported the European Commission’s decision to pay Turkey three billion dollars for keeping 2.2 million refugees. The Turks demanded that amount every year, Europe settled for a bi-annual payment. Driving a hard bargain, the Turks demanded that Europe wave its visa requirements for Turkish nationals traveling to Europe. Ankara even asked for the resumption of the process of adhesion into Europe – a demand the European Union is refusing unanimously today as it has for 52 years..
Last September, Merkel announced she would welcome 800,000 refugees in Germany but she had not predicted the ensuing surge and her policy has backfired. She has become increasingly isolated as those countries, at first favorable to her policies, started closing their borders, practicing more restrictive policies toward the migrants, and expelling the ones not qualifying for the status of “refugees.”
After the alleged mass rapes of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, German public opinion has become increasingly hostile to the presence of hundreds of thousands of young Muslim men not used to mixing with women in public places. This event was reminiscent of the plight of many German women at the end of the Nazi period. “The collective memory of outrage has overcome the compassion for the migrants,” declared Michaela Wieger, the French correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on a radio talk show Jan. 30.
ARTE, the Franco-German television channel gave an overview of the migrant’s situation on Feb. 2. The three-hour- long documentary takes the viewer from Calais to Montenegro to Spain.
The situation in Calais in northern France is a festering problem. The number of migrants, who live in abysmal conditions, has grown from 2,000 a year ago to 6,000. Their lifeline is provided by humanitarian aid. The mood is explosive and turning ugly. The migrants are endangering the safety of the Euro-tunnel, which has been turned into a fortress.
The picture so far is positive in Germany, which finds in the migrants a much needed source of labor. The town of Passau, Bavaria, which is situated on the Danube, is the hub of communications. This is where the trains full of migrants converge. In an efficient manner, the new arrivals are greeted, trained and encouraged to learn German. In Leipzig, workers are building wooden homes that can house 60 people. The houses come in a kit and can be assembled in one day. A German firm has outsourced the construction of containers – turned into living quarters – to a Polish factory. The units cannot be built fast enough to meet the demand. However, all the people interviewed in the ARTE program say that they have already reached their saturation point and will be unable to absorb more migrants
There is consensus today that the priority for Europe is to protect its external borders. Greece is described as the number one “hotspot” whose job is to screen and process the migrants. This task is colossal and it is understandable that Greece cannot cope. Being reluctant to impose its own sovereignty, Brussels has decided to give the country three months to improve its work. If it does not, a large contingent of European Frontex officials and additional reserves will be sent as substitutes.
In addition, the EU may decide to deactivate Article 26 of the Schengen treaty. This will mean the suspension, for at least two years, of the free circulation of persons, goods and capital between the 28 member states.
Brussels would hate to make that very serious decision. Schengen has been called an “accelerator of growth,” since its creation, says Wieger, but it was intended to function in normal times, which these clearly are not. The cost to reestablish internal borders will reach at least 100 billion Euros a year. But, more importantly, the “Schengen Space” is one of the main pillars of Europe. Indeed, it is a core principle.
“The problem of migrants is, in fact, in front of us,” commented Sylvie Kauffman, senior editor of the French daily Le Monde. “Next, we will have to face massive flows of economic refugees from Africa, due to its demography”.
It is a difficult time for Europe, and for the French in particular, to abdicate sacred principles such as the right of asylum and to see the very existence of Europe threatened.
About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.