Obligation: The European Refugee/Migrant Crisis

As I write this, a crisis is unfolding in Europe. The four-year long Syrian civil war has displaced millions. In recent months, tens of thousands from Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict zones have made their way to Greece with the ultimate goal of reaching richer European countries. The numbers are expected to grow to hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Transit countries like Greece and Hungary, as well as well the Balkan states, are so far bearing the brunt of the crush. For many of these refugees and migrants, the ultimate goal is Germany, an economically sound country with billions on offer.

As the number of refugees and migrants increased, some countries began to respond negatively. Slovakia announced that they would only take a couple hundred refugees, and only if they were Christian. Interior Ministry spokesman Ivan Metik claimed the country’s lack of mosques would make it difficult for Muslims to integrate. Hungary responded to the early waves of people by building a fence on its border with Serbia.

In response, European Union countries had to quickly come up with a plan to handle the flood of people. On 9 September, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced there would be quotas put in place to distribute the refugees and migrants among the EU member nations. Days later, some countries began refusing the quotas. Hungary has since effectively closed their border with Serbia, declaring a state of emergency and deploying police along their border. Austria and Slovakia has re-imposed border controls, in opposition of the EU’s Schengen Agreement, as migrants make their way to those countries.

Why are these Eastern European countries so opposed to the migrants and refugees pouring in from conflict zones, and do they have legitimate reasons to refuse to help?

Moral obligations aside, why should EU countries take in migrants and refugees? The first answer will obviously be the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Countries that signed on agreed to take in refugees as long as they qualified under the terms of the Convention, as many migrants coming into Europe right now do. And of course it’s easy to tell countries they must be bound by the agreement and help refugees. But shouldn’t other factors also be considered when faced with a burden now being experienced by Eastern Europe?

Economically, not all countries who signed the agreement are equal. Germany, the leading destination for many migrants, is an economically sound country. Greece, the main landing point for the majority of migrants fleeing Syria and other conflict zones, teetered on the edge of default earlier this year. The Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos have beared the brunt of the influx, the daily arrival of migrants taxing the islands economically and emotionally. Germany, one of the most economically sound countries in Europe, estimates it could spend up to 10 billion euros in 2015 helping the refugees. This isn’t so much an issue for a country whose budget is over 300 billion euros. Greece, Hungary, Croatia…these countries don’t have the luxury of a strong economy to support the refugees and migrants, even in transit. The transit countries – with more being added seemingly daily – are being overburdened. Their police and security forces are being overrun at the borders and in transit centers. They don’t have the facilities to accommodate the thousands of migrants and refugees who arrive daily.

Hungary is also being flooded with migrants on their way to Germany. Most are streaming in via Serbia, prompting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to build a 175 kilometer long fence on the border. Orbán just announced he would begin extending the fence along Hungary’s border with Romania, as well as along Croatia’s border. Migrants finding themselves unable to get through Serbia to Hungary made their way to Croatia. That country initially welcomed the migrants before being overwhelmed with nearly 7000 in a single day. Croatia’s interior minister threatened to seal the border if the migrants continued to flood in.

Hungary has taken a stance on how to deal with the refugees: keep them out. Building a fence, deploying police and the military to enforce its borders are are Hungary taking a stand in the migrant crisis. Croatia tried to welcome the migrants and had their borders overrun. Croatia responded by closing their border with Serbia, not just to people but to nearly all traffic, inflaming tensions between the two countries. To deal with the migrants who did make it into the country, Croatia began busing them to Hungary, resulting in raising tensions between those two countries, as well. Between Germany’s welcoming attitude and Hungary’s rejection, Croatia has become a how not-to example of dealing with the refugees.

Economics aside, Orbán has his own reasons for keeping out the migrants: history. In citing Europe’s Christian roots and decrying the migrants’ Muslim faith, Orbán is in essence recalling the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, as well as other events from Hungary’s history. Hysterics or not, the reality is Hungary had suffered under over a hundred and fifty years of Muslim rule via the Ottomans, when much of Christian Hungary was made to convert. Following Ottoman rule was a reconquest by the Habsburgs. Much of the 20th century saw Hungary occupied as well, by Germany then the Soviets. European history is not quickly forgotten.

Like it or not, Orbán’s and Metik’s views aren’t isolated. Though Orbán’s Fidesz party has seen a slip in popularity since his election (mainly due to economic issues), how Orbán handles the migrant issue could give him and the party a boost. Not as far right as Jobbik, center-right Fidesz still promotes nationalism, a Hungary for ethnic Hungarians. Some Hungarians and EU “officials” have been quoted as saying Orbán doesn’t have control of the situation, that Hungary should welcome the migrants, but others see him as a hero protecting Hungary.  Hungary was one of four nations who voted against the EU’s plan to distribute the migrants among all its member. Slovakia, Czech Republic and Romania also voted against the plan. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico opposed the quota plan due largely in part to the majority forcing the migrants upon member countries when most of the migrants want to go to Germany. He also maintains the – echoed by Metik – stance that Muslims would find assimilating in Slovakia difficult. Fico plans on bringing legal action against the EU.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees will continue to stream into Eastern Europe from Greece through the Balkan states with the goal of reaching Germany. What Orbán and other leaders are seeing is a mass occupation of their countries by migrants and refugees, and their countries’ identities compromised. Many of the countries in Eastern Europe are largely Christian; Orbán, Metik and their supporters want it to remain that way. They also see what has happened to other countries – the multicultural experiment and immigrants failing to assimilate – in Western Europe and don’t want to see it at home.

The nations carrying the burden of this crisis never asked for the migrants and refugees to come; they are caught in the middle. They are being asked to allow the migrants and refugees to enter their countries, feed, shelter, process and transport them with little to no help from the EU. Both Greece and Hungary have received some help, but not enough to deal with the thousands arriving daily; they have been left to deal with the migrants in their own way. In Hungary, officials and volunteers offering help have been met with some refusals of food and water, the migrants claiming they don’t want anything but to go to Germany. 

As the migrants and refugees continue to pour into Europe, more countries are getting fed up with the lack of planning and assistance, and with the migrants themselves. Even Germany is setting up restrictions to implement some sort order. Is forced assimilation and financial burden enough to challenge the obligation to help the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees? It is easy to sit back and criticize the countries balking at taking in refugees and migrants. It is not as easy to learn and understand the history behind their reasons. The monetary consequences should also be considered when they have to make a decision regarding the welfare of their country. None of these reasons are right or wrong, but does the EU and the rest of the world get to disregard the concerns? Is the EU looking out for the best interest of the EU, its members, or the migrants and refugees? And at which point does the forced obligation create more disruption and help no one? The real solution is to address the cause, as well as treat the symptoms.