Last week saw the anniversary — on 3 October — of the tragic drowning of more than 300 migrants when their overcrowded vessel capsized off the coast of Italy. Despite such tragedies in the Mediterranean region, European countries are still debating how to tackle the migrant/refugee crisis. It has taken almost five years for some EU states to sign a draft proposal. The EU itself signed an agreement with Turkey in 2015.
In the same year, European Interior Ministers approved a plan to redistribute the migrants (a term which I shall use to include economic migrants, refugees from unrest and asylum seekers) who continue to arrive on the shores of the continent, mainly in Greece and Italy. The intention is for each of the 28 EU member-states to share responsibility for dealing with the crisis.
The European Commission prepared a mandatory plan to distribute 160,000 migrants currently in Italy and Greece to other EU countries. However, this has turned into an "East-West rift" and created a huge split in Europe. Germany has urged other countries to show "solidarity" by helping Greece and Italy as they are "front line states" which are overburdened with the influx of people from Asia and Africa.
According to Eurostat, with 28 per cent, Germany was the first choice country that the migrants applied to in 2018. It was followed by France, Greece, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. Germany thus carries a heavy burden in terms of migrant applications for residence. It is clear that the existing asylum rules have literally split opinion in Europe countries.
Highlighting the expected refugee crisis, Germany's interior Minister Horst Seehofer warned all European countries last week of a bigger migrant influx in Germany than in 2015; he hopes to gain support for his plans for an EU quota system for the migrants who are rescued on Europe's coasts.
EU-Turkey Refugee Deal
After the migrant influx in the summer of 2015, a deal was signed by the EU and Turkey for every Syrian migrant-refugee fleeing the conflict in their country to be returned from the Greek Islands to Turkey. Briefly, the deal highlighted the uncontrolled mass and illegal crossings of refugees from Turkey to Greece via the Aegean Sea, and it allowed Greece to return "all new irregular migrants" from its islands, as of March 2016, to Turkey. In exchange, the EU pledged an offer of Schengen visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens and additionally pledged €6 billion to improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Neither of these pledges has been fulfilled, with less than half of the promised financial aid being paid to Turkey to date.
In recent months, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned about a new influx of asylum seekers, stating that there are 3,650,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. His country needs international support to handle this influx. However, the internal dispute and severe rifts between the EU member states has caused a lengthy delay in tackling this tragic migrant-refugee Odyssey.
Last week, top officials of the EU and Turkey gathered in Ankara for the first time in quite a while in order to save the refugee pact and continue healthy cooperation on the migration issue. There has been no concrete statement issued about this meeting but if there is a bigger influx into the Greek islands in the coming months, this may destroy the whole process; Turkey and the EU must, therefore, sign a new agreement to solve the crisis.
Europe's apparent hatred for "multiculturalism" has also created disagreements across the continent. Some European politicians, like Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Urban, for example, have provoked ethnic tensions with their comments. Urban made one of the most controversial statements on migration when he said: "We don't see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders." Non-Muslims in Europe should be as worried about such rhetoric as Muslims are. Hatred like this generally stems from ignorance, but wilful racism cannot be ruled out. European society should be worried about the influence and agenda of Urban and those like him. Extremists can be found in every community but, in any case, the basic tenets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam carry more similarities than differences. This should be borne in mind when we hear talk of Europe's "Judeo-Christian" heritage and culture.
The administrative and political debates about migrants in Europe should be more positive about what they bring with them. Many are not impoverished, uneducated people. Yesterday they were doctors, teachers, writers and other professionals in their home countries. This alone should counter any scare-mongering if for no other reason than to find a mutually beneficial solution to this tragic odyssey.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.