Not in my backyard: The European refugee crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Migrants wait for a chance to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia. [Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock]

European Union member states are ‘burden-shifting’ rather than ‘burden-sharing’ when it comes to the management of the recent influx of refugees, argues Manon Tiessink.

Manon Tiessink is a researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice.

Instead of approaching the situation as a shared responsibility, and finding sustainable and humane solutions for what has been said to be the worst global refugee crisis ever, national governments are mainly concerned with keeping people out, and – when the situation becomes untenable – pushing people out, thereby shifting the problem to neighbouring countries. This ‘burden-shifting’ approach is symptomatic for Europe’s response to the mass influx of refugees, of which the consequences have become painfully evident to the public over recent weeks.

When the Macedonian government declared a state of emergency on its borders in response to the growing flow of refugees entering its southern border from Greece – almost 42,000 in the last two months according to its ministry of the interior – they deployed the army and police in an attempt to ‘control their borders’. In short, they used razor wire, teargas and stun grenades to drive back the refugees. The situation has led to thousands of refugees being caught in a no-man’s land on the border between northern Greece and Macedonia with no shelter, food, water or sanitation.

When the situation became untenable, the Macedonian authorities decided to allow people to enter the country so that they could continue their journey to Hungary and subsequently Germany. Since then, the streams of people have moved from one country to another, each time making it another country’s ‘problem’: relocating the problem, not solving it. In early September – a few weeks later – the Hungarian policy responded similarly to the Macedonian police. After a two day standoff, they withdrew their presence enabling thousands of people to continue their journey to Germany, making it now a ‘German problem’, as the Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán said in Brussels during a meeting of European leaders on the topic.

Whatever goes on in the EU’s backyard must be a shared responsibility of all EU member states. Although Macedonia is not (yet) part of the European Union, it is a favoured transit country for many refugees seeking passage to (re-)enter the Schengen area, many of which ultimately wish to apply for asylum in Germany, Austria, Sweden or Great Britain. At the same time, many of these typical transit countries bordering the EU do not have the capacity or resources to provide immediate shelter and process the high influx of refugees and migrants. They often resort to relatively cheap, yet outdated and counterproductive measures, such as the Hungarian wall. Intensifying border control will actually lead to more smuggling, sometimes with devastating results, like the recent death by suffocation of 71 people in a lorry in Austria in late August, or the recent drowning of 12 Syrians, including the 3-your old boy Aylan, who became a symbol of the human aspect of the crisis.

Over-burdened transit countries like Macedonia should receive additional assistance and resources from the EU in order to offload responsibility. This will bring about a more manageable, humane and fairer distribution of refugees across the EU region, with immediate benefits for other EU member states as it will contribute to counteracting smuggling and improving domestic border control.

A burden sharing system – as proposed repeatedly by Angela Merkel –  can act as a preventive measure for humanitarian disasters like the ongoing drownings in the Mediterranean, ensuring that in sudden worst-case scenarios of a massive influx of refugees, it is clear how the burden will be shared and who will be the implementing parties. It will also help focus our policymakers on identifying potential areas at risk and setting up early warning systems.

Where other political leaders resort to ‘burden-shifting’, Merkel has taken Orbán’s remark very seriously, demonstrating leadership once again. As an emergency measure, Merkel will spend an extra €6bn in order to house 800,000 people. The German approach is a great example of what a comprehensive migration policy could look like, focusing on short-term humanitarian solutions, as well as investing in long-term sustainable solutions.

The German Chancellor is the first European leader to acknowledge that the current situation can no longer be dealt with by a single country or organisation, and that shared responsibility and coordination is needed to benefit all parties – and refugees in particular – involved. Unfortunately, the idea of a mandatory burden sharing system was rejected by many European leaders during the June summit, as national governments still favour more outdated measures that allow them to maintain their sovereignty to ‘control’ domestic borders.    

As long as we continue to resort to 20th century short-term solutions like building walls in our back yard, marking refugees on their skin and sending them to camps without informed consent, and fail to understand the relationship between our (lack of) foreign engagement in countries like Syria, Libya and Eritrea and the root causes of forced migration, a comprehensive migration policy will, at very best, only solve the symptoms. In order to address one of the most pressing challenges Europe has faced since the Second World War, we are urgently in need of more leaders like Merkel. 

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