Europe

The price of regime change

Print edition : October 16, 2015

Migrants wait on the Serbian side of the border with Hungary in Asotthalom on September 15. Photo: LASZLO BALOGH/REUTERS

Migrants’ children demonstrate with placards in the transit zone of Western (Nyugati) railway station in Budapest on August 31. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

A migrant holds a crying boy out of a train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border. The train was stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital, on September 3. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

With the large influxes of asylum-seekers into Europe continuing unabated, the refugee issue is now threatening the very concept of European unity.

With the exodus of refugees to EUROP-ean countries showing no signs of easing, the European Union (E.U.) is facing a crisis that could threaten its very survival. Schengen visa rules that allow passport-free travel in E.U. countries have been suspended. Border controls have been re-established and fences have reappeared on the continent for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Europe so far has responded woefully to the refugee crisis, the biggest since the Second World War.

The sheer scale of the migration no doubt has caught the European authorities by surprise. But they should have read the writing on the wall. The refugee flow started accelerating after the regime change that the West imposed on Libya in 2012. Under Muammar Qaddafi, thanks to effective policing, the number of economic migrants illegally crossing into Europe was limited. After the Libyan state collapsed, the floodgates were opened. Thousands of migrants have died on the high seas in the past couple of years while making the hazardous journey from the Libyan coast to Italy.

The refugee crisis was further compounded by the United States-instigated war in Syria. At the start of the war four and a half years ago, the U.S.’ allies in the region, such as Turkey and Jordan, were virtually encouraging Syrians to cross over. Refugee camps were kept ready to receive them. The whole idea was to show the world that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in Syria because of the policies of the Syrian government, giving the West the pretext to intervene militarily. The West has used the Right to Protect (R2P) civilians norm for regime change in many countries.

Things, however, did not go according to the script envisaged by the West and its regional allies in Syria. With the war dragging on, the refugee crisis has become unmanageable for the West. Half of Syria’s population has been turned into refugees and four million people have left the country, most of them headed towards Turkey.

It should be remembered that until 2011 Syria was a politically stable country. This correspondent, a frequent visitor to Syria in the past decade, could traverse the length and breadth of a country that was completely peaceful. In 2010, nine million tourists visited the country. Then the West, flush with its triumph in Libya, decided to do a regime change. The results have been catastrophic for the Syrian people and others in the region. Now western European countries, allies of the U.S., are also facing the consequences of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The United Nations has reported that wars and insurrections have made 14 million people refugees in North Africa and West Asia this year alone. An additional 15 million people have been displaced in sub-Saharan Africa.

Preferred route

Owing to their geographic proximity to Turkey, East European countries have now become the preferred route for refugees, the majority of whom are from war-ravaged Syria. Italy and Greece had borne the initial brunt of the refugee tide. Hungary, an E.U. member, has sealed off its borders with Serbia and Croatia, using concertina wire fencing. This happened in the second week of September after thousands of refugees used Hungarian territory to move on to Austria and Germany. The German government’s relatively tolerant attitude towards refugees, coupled with its strong economy, made the country a magnet for refugees. Many of the refugees also have a preference for Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Norway, which have a tradition of accepting refugees from war-ravaged countries.

The German position towards the refugees also seems to have been hardening in recent weeks. The German Parliament is considering new laws that will make it easier for asylum-seekers to be deported to their own countries. The laws, if passed, will reduce incentives like cash payments for new refugees. Manfred Schmidt, the president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, resigned in the second week of September. Many Germans blame him for triggering the refugee influx into the Balkans. He had tweeted a post that suggested that all Syrian refugees were eligible for asylum in Germany.

Other big European states, like France and the United Kingdom, have not been as welcoming as Germany. These two countries, along with the U.S., have only agreed to take in a token number of refugees.

The right-wing government in Hungary announced in the second week of September that the refugees and migrants who tried to cross its borders would be sent to jail and repatriated. In the second week of September, the Hungarian police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse desperate refugees trying to cross over. One man who managed to slip through the razor wire fence was arrested and promptly deported. That left Serbia, an applicant for E.U. membership, in a bind. Serbia had become a gateway for the refugees flooding into Eastern Europe. The tens of thousands of people, many of them women and children, then decided to use a more roundabout route through neighbouring Croatia to reach the German borders.

The Croatian government initially allowed free passage for 48 hours, but then it abruptly decided to seal its borders saying that it was unable to cope with the influx. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic had earlier criticised Hungary’s attitude, saying that the refugees did not want to stay in either Croatia or Hungary. He said that Hungary should have allowed them free passage to their final destinations. Thousands of refugees, their numbers increasing by the day, are now stranded in Serbia.

Sealed borders

The Serbian government has been very accommodative and understanding so far. However, its limited resources are being stretched. The Serbian government has protested “in the strongest terms possible” against Hungary’s brutal treatment of the refugees. Serbian officials said that Hungary was using the country like a concentration camp. Serbia, which has a population of seven million, welcomed 120,000 refugees. Many of them were unable to make the onward journey after Hungary and later on Croatia sealed their respective borders.

The Serbian economy is not doing all that well. There is a 20 per cent unemployment rate. Hungary wants Serbia to host the refugees indefinitely. The Serbians say that they cannot force the refugees to stay against their will. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, while condemning Hungary’s “brutal behaviour”, called on E.U. member-states to behave in accordance “with European values”. David Miliband, the chief of the International Rescue Mission, said that Hungary’s behaviour revealed the “dark side of the European character”. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, has characterised Hungarian actions as being motivated by “xenophobic and anti-Muslim views”. The U.N. refugee agency said that it was “shocked and saddened to see Syrian refugees who have already suffered so much being treated this way” by the Hungarian government.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that the refugee issue is not a problem to be resolved by the E.U. as it is a problem created by Germany. German leaders have been saying that the refugee problem should be addressed collectively by all E.U. member-states and that all European states have a “shared responsibility”. The issue is now threatening to go out of hand and is challenging the very concept of European unity. The leaders of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, known as the Visegrad countries, met in the first week of September to discuss the refugee crisis. They unanimously rejected the German-supported E.U. proposal that the refugees and immigrants should be distributed evenly among all E.U. member countries.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had proposed a plan to share 120,000 refugees. The numbers to be distributed among countries would depend on their population, gross domestic product (GDP) and other factors. Speaking to the European Parliament in the second week of September, the European Commision President reminded the governments of the region that “Europe is a continent where almost everybody has been a refugee”.

But his appeals fell on deaf ears. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has stated that his country will not like to take in any refugees. Senior Slovakian officials have explicitly said that Muslims will not be allowed in as they will not be able to integrate into their society. It is another matter that very few of the refugees want to stay on in these countries, given the hostile reception they are getting.

On deaf ears

The Catholic Church in these countries, despite Pope Francis’ plea to Christian parishes to give shelter to the refugees, has sided with the respective governments. A Catholic bishop in Hungary, Lazlo Kiss-Rigo, said that the mass of hungry and destitute people who passed through Hungary were not refugees. “This is an invasion. They come over with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. They want to take over,” he said. The Czech Cardinal Dominic Duka warned against “enemies” being allowed to cross the border. Stories have appeared in the local media that terrorists intent on doing harm have infiltrated the ranks of the refugees.

There are reports that E.U. Ministers, during their recent meeting, discussed plans for setting up refugee camps in Italy and Greece to hold undocumented refugees. According to reports, the Ministers also discussed plans to set up camps on the African continent to house refugees to prevent them from coming to Europe.

The refugee tide, meanwhile, shows no signs of ebbing. In the third week of September, there were reports of another boat full of refugees sinking in the Aegean Sea. After Aylan Kurdi, another body, this time of a four-year-old girl, was washed ashore on a beach in western Turkey.

Hundreds of refugees are now stranded in Slovenia. They had made their way to the former Yugoslav Republic through Croatia after Hungary denied them direct passage to Austria.

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