Europe must not shirk its refugee obligations

This is not merely a challenge to Europe’s organisational capability when confronted by an emergency – a test the EU has so far failed – but also a direct challenge to part of the European Union’s core identity. 

Mass immigration is certainly not a new phenomenon for Europe. And yet, the current mass refugee crisis caused by wars on Europe’s eastern borders – mostly Syria, but also Afghanistan and Iraq – seems to have caught the European Union unawares. 

Far from responding collectively and efficiently to a logistical challenge – as one would reasonably expect, from a union of the most economically and technologically developed countries in the world – we have instead seen a Europe seemingly incapable of adopting a common policy to respond to what is ultimately a pan-European crisis. 

As such, this is not merely a challenge to Europe’s organisational capability when confronted by an emergency – a test the EU has so far failed – but also a direct challenge to part of the European Union’s core identity. 

The EU was not created only to guarantee peace and economic cooperation within its own borders. Solidarity, respect for human dignity and diversity, and commitment to the European charter of Human Rights were also among the basic founding principles. 

This seems like a distant memory today. Since 2011, just under 300,000 Syrian nationals have applied for asylum in Europe. This number has dramatically increased in the last four weeks alone. 

Faced with the scale of this crisis, European countries must acknowledge that the people fleeing Syria fully meet the criteria for humanitarian protection; and that their own laws oblige them to provide it. 

The UN estimates that over 220,000 people have been killed in the four-year civil war. As Assad’s forces continue to barrel bomb civilians and ISIS militants pursue their barbaric purge, large swathes of the country have been destroyed. Ancient cities like Aleppo and Homs have been annihilated, and the once bustling and prosperous cities and towns today look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

One in five schools in Syria has been damaged, destroyed, or has been converted into a shelter for displaced families: leaving an estimated 2.6 million children out of school – more than a third of Syria’s children.

Yet Europe’s response has so far been inconsistent and fragmented. Countries have rejected a Commission plan to distribute refugees fairly across the Union: preferring to bicker and haggle over their own intake. EU states such as Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states have responded by trying to minimise their share. In the UK, Cameron’s plans to take in 20,000 refugees over four years seems laughable compared to the 800,000 refugees Germany is planning to take in this year alone. 

So far, on a voluntary basis EU member states have agreed to take in barely a third of the numbers now arriving in Europe monthly. This in itself constitutes only a fraction of Syria’s displaced population. Over four million Syrians have relocated to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighbouring countries. 

In the absence of a common EU policy, most powers over immigration rest with national governments: which regrettably still regard the humanitarian crisis as a security issue, and often pander to popular fears stoked by the anti-immigration lobby.

Such fears are misplaced in the present climate. Apart from the shocking images of thousands of Syrian refugees reaching Europe on foot – evoking memories of the mass exodus during WWII – one of the most striking things has been the burning desire of refugees of all ages for normality.

Young refugees interviewed in Budapest, where they were stranded before being allowed to enter Austria and Germany, expressed their desire to go back to school and become doctors, teachers and IT specialists. It doesn’t sound too different from the aspirations of our own youth.

‘Normality’, however, is one thing these people will not find back home. Faced with this reality, Europe must brace itself for a refugee crisis that can only be expected to intensify in the coming months and years. 

If the EU as a whole is powerless to take action, individual member states are not. Malta has in a sense led the chorus for such action, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently calling on the EU to guarantee ‘safe and legal ways’ to reach Europe.

And yet, Muscat also argues that Malta needs to be ‘cautious’ about issuing humanitarian visas, given its proximity to unstable countries such as Libya. This is nothing but an irrational excuse to shirk the country’s responsibilities: especially when Italy has been taking most of the asylum seekers reaching Europe by boat in the central Mediterranean.

Moreover, migration is vital to Europe’s economy, including Malta, especially given the aging population.

But any intake of refugees must be coupled by an all-encompassing integration and economic plan to ward against shocks to the system. If badly managed, it could give rise to resentment and anger among the low income earners and socially vulnerable classes in Europe. This could result in more far right parties winning power, which could spell the end of solidarity and human dignity in Europe.

Ideally, all this should be envisaged in a common EU policy. But with no such policy in sight for the foreseeable future, the responsibility to provide an adequate response falls to individual member states: Malta included.

History is unlikely to judge us favourably, if we also fail this test.