World Review | The crumbling fortress: Europe’s heartless refugee and asylum policy

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The crumbling fortress: Europe’s heartless refugee and asylum policy

The crumbling fortress: Europe’s heartless refugee and asylum policy
Sept. 2, 2015: refugees rest at a temporary shelter on a square in Athens, Greece

During a public television debate on asylum and refugee policy in July 2015, a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, Reem Sahwil, asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel why she and her family might be deported back to Lebanon, even though her family was fully integrating in Germany and she was attending school. Merkel answered that ‘sometimes politics can be very hard’ and ‘not everyone can come and stay’. Reem started to cry. Overwhelmed by this unexpected situation, Merkel went over to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder.

Reactions in social media ranged from praise for Merkel’s sympathy for Reem, to massive criticism for her tactless answer to the girl’s question. It also showed how controversial are the topics of refugees coming to Europe and the way asylum policy is being handled.

Instead of landing in safety, refugees landing in Greece or Italy are locked in overcrowded refugee camps under atrocious conditions, stuck in bureaucratic procedures, not knowing whether they can stay. To prevent uncontrolled refugee movements to other European Union countries, France temporarily suspended the Schengen Agreement and re-established border controls at its frontier with Italy. EU policy makers discuss how to distribute the refugees, but not everyone is willing to cooperate, some even openly refuse to accept any of them.

Countries like the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, or Denmark are very reluctant to accept any refugees, while Germany expects up to 800,000 by the end of the year. Nevertheless, it is now heatedly discussed how and where to settle them inside Germany. Many municipalities claim that they don’t have sufficient accommodation, and even if they find space for at least a couple of refugees, these locations often come under attack from right-wing extremists. A map displayed by Google showing all the locations of refugee accommodation throughout Germany was just recently taken offline again, as critics feared that right-wingers might use the information to coordinate their attacks.

Hungary went a step further: the government, under Prime Minister Victor Orbán, has just completed a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border. Many refugees use Serbia as a transit country to enter the EU, and Hungary, as an EU border country, has taken drastic measures to keep them out. Xenophobia, racism, and even anti-Semitism are on the rise in Hungary, and not only there. Orbán has just taken another step down that shameful road when he has described the refugee crisis as a German problem, not a Hungarian or European one.

Outsourcing asylum seekers is a very common practice in the EU, and the 2003 Dublin Regulation states that whenever a person applies for asylum in an EU country, it has to be evaluated whether they are entitled to stay under that status, or whether the application is rejected and the person deported. This includes consideration of the so-called ‘safe third country requirement’: if a refugee applies for asylum after entering the EU from a country with this designation, it is almost certain that their application will be rejected.

But some ‘safe third countries’ have questionable records on protection of ethnic minorities. Even some EU member states are breaching existing legal frameworks for the protection of minorities, such as for the Romani people in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.

While Reem and her family will be allowed to stay in Germany, as a small sign of humanitarian empathy, it is uncertain with the remaining refugees. The current crisis calls for a solidarity act by all member states, not just by a few. With only nine out of 28 EU members willing to accept refugees, Europe is at the brink of being torn apart.

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