Masses of people are fleeing to Europe in what has become the continent’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. But the response of European and world leaders is: Keep out.
Some 430,000 refugees and migrants are now estimated to have entered Europe this year, taking perilous sea voyages over the Mediterranean, mainly from the Middle East and portions of Africa. Thousands more are arriving in Europe each day. The German government says it expects up to 1 million refugees and migrants in 2015.
The recent pictures of the body of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child who perished along with his brother, mother and at least nine other refugees in the Mediterranean, shocked people around the globe and led to anger at such senseless and preventable deaths.
This appeared to force some previously recalcitrant political leaders to soften their rhetoric on accepting refugees – for a time. But the line is now hardening once again, as various European leaders tighten borders and institute immigration controls, with the complaint that their governments simply can’t handle the daily influx of refugees.
But this stinginess is in sharp contrast to the willingness of these same leaders to safeguard bankers and business leaders – not to mention devote resources to the very wars and occupations in the Middle East that have contributed to the exodus of refugees. It is also in contrast to the outpouring of solidarity and support from many ordinary people across Europe and the world who are responding to the tragedy unfolding before them by doing what they can to help.
By all accounts, the crisis has been escalating. On Saturday alone, some 13,000 refugees arrived in Munich, the main entry point to Germany for refugees – leading Mayor Dieter Reiter to declare that the city is at its “limit.” According to reports, refugees are sleeping in the open air at the city’s train station, some with only a jacket to cover themselves as the fall weather turns cooler.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had previously won praise for her government’s supposed willingness to take in a large number of refugees. While it’s true that Germany had quietly relaxed restrictions stating that refugees must be fingerprinted and registered in the first European Union country they come to before being allowed to move onto another country, Merkel has only reluctantly spoken out in defense of refugee rights – in the midst of far-right violence, including arson attacks against refugee centers and days of racist protests in the city of Heidenau.
But starting on September 13, the German government ordered temporary border restrictions to cut off rail travel from Austria and institute spot checks on train cars – a sign that it will crack down on the number of refugees and migrants allowed into the EU’s richest economy.
The New York Times described the restrictions as a message “to other European Union members that Germany was growing weary of shouldering so much of the burden in Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis in decades without more help and cooperation from other nations.”
Yet Germany is by no means the hardest hit by the crisis. Greece and Italy are both major points of entry for those fleeing across the Mediterranean. The Greek island of Lesbos, which has a regular population of some 85,000 is currently housing some 17,000 refugees in its capital alone – leaving the island “on the verge of explosion,” according to one report.
As this article was being written, emergency talks involving European Union leaders stalled. Rather than a plan to take in some 120,000 asylum seekers, as had been proposed, EU ministers agreed to take just 40,000 refugees currently in Greece and Italy, and only on a “voluntary” basis. New talks will not take place until October – leaving thousands to suffer in the meantime.
And beyond Fortress Europe, the situation is far worse across much of the Middle East. Of Syria’s population of some 20 million, an estimated 8 million are now classified as “internally displaced” and 4 million have been forced to flee to other countries, including Lebanon, which has taken in more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees.
The “burden” that wealthy European nations like Germany are complaining about now is minor in comparison.
Following Germany’s lead, other EU nations are also planning to implement further border controls and punitive measures against refugees.
Austria, for example, announced that it is dispatching armed forces to guard its eastern frontier. “If Germany carries out border controls, Austria must put strengthened border controls in place,” Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner said in a joint news conference with Chancellor Werner Faymann.
Slovakia added temporary controls and at least 220 officers along its border with Hungary. And Dutch authorities announced they will begin “spot checks” at the border with Germany.
The ugliest response is probably that of Hungary’s right-wing government, which recently passed laws, set to go into effect on September 15, making it a criminal offense – punishable by up to three years in prison – to enter the country unauthorized. As this article was being written, NPR’s Lauren Frayer reported on September 14 that “[h]undreds of Hungarian police and soldiers have just moved in to make a human chain along the [country’s southern] border. Trucks have moved in, Humvees, and they are quickly unfurling a chain-linked fence topped with barbed wire to seal off this border.”
The government has set up detention camps – large pens topped with barbed wire – in which hundreds and even thousands of refugees are already being held. On September 9, Frayer visited one camp, located in a rural area more than 100 miles outside of Budapest – “far away from any public transport – and from the eyes of international media,” Frayer reported – that houses more than 1,000 refugees, including children from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Frayer described the scene in the camp:
I stick my microphone through the fence, and dozens of people run over, pleading for help. “We can leave [and travel onward] with our own money – we have enough! Just let us leave your country – that’s it,” says one Syrian man. “Please help us, if you can!” pleads his wife. Their toddler screams: “We want go!”
Meanwhile, video taken on September 9 from the Roszke refugee camp in Hungary showed a crowd of desperate refugees attempting to catch plastic bags packed with sausage rolls and bottled water being thrown by the police into the crowd. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the two police-run detention centers at the Roszke border are known as Hangar 1 and Hangar 2:
[D]etainees are kept in small clusters of tents in open-air pens created by metal fences, often in overcrowded conditions with insufficient bedding and space for the numbers of persons detained in the pens. Interviews with people held there established that they are given little or no information about the legal rules and safeguards governing their detention and administrative procedures followed by the Hungarian authorities…
Many of those interviewed appear to have been held beyond the 36 hour limit allowed by Hungarian law for detention for police registration purposes at the border, and said they had virtually no access to medical care in detention. All of those interviewed said they received barely any edible food, and were not informed whether the food was halal – that is, suitable for Muslims to eat. Drinking water in the camps is in short supply, and many said they had resorted to drinking the unclean water provided for washing.
These scenes of human misery – and the images of detention camps ringed with barbed wire that bring to mind the horrors of Europe’s past – will only get worse if EU governments are allowed to continue to shirk their responsibility to refugees and migrants.
EU politicians are playing a deadly and cynical game of politics with refugee lives, calculating the bare minimum that they can do to placate popular demands without committing themselves to providing real resources. In this light, the newly discovered “humanitarian” impulse of officials like Germany’s Angela Merkel is entirely suspect. Insofar as it exists at all, it is a product of political calculation, not an impulse to save lives.
In Britain, after a public outcry following his initial suggestion that the government would not increase the number of refugees it accepts, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a plan for the UK to take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. “Given the scale of the crisis and the suffering of the Syrian people, it is right that we should do much more,” Cameron said.
Given the scale of the refugee crisis and the wealth of Britain – a country whose bombing campaigns as the junior partner of US imperialism have helped fuel the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East – this number is a pittance. But incredibly, the Cameron proposal has an even crueler twist: It was later announced that all those accepted for asylum in the UK would have the right to remain in the UK for only five years – and Syrian refugee children who are allowed in under the new measures could be deported when they reach age 18.
By comparison, Germany has been more welcoming of refugees – but there is an ulterior motive at work. The country faces a labor shortage of some 600,000 workers, and business is looking eagerly to immigrants to fill the gap. The head of Germany’s Chambers of Commerce and Industry has already spoken about weakening minimum wage laws so refugees can enter the labor market more quickly.
Those on the far right across Europe, meanwhile, are eager to use the crisis to further scapegoat immigrants. As socialist Mark Bergfeld noted on social media, the right is pushing back against those who would defend refugee rights and call for borders to be opened:
People are sharing photos, videos and articles about German people celebrating the arrival of Syrian refugees in Munich, Frankfurt and Dortmund.
While it is true that the German people have been showing empathy and solidarity with Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing their war-torn countries, homes of refugees and asylum seekers continue to burn daily. Just last night, asylum seekers’ homes burnt in the federal states of Thuringia and Baden-Württemberg, according to Spiegel Online.
Even in North-Rhine Westphalia, Nazis wanted to “greet” a train full of refugees on the weekend. I also have seen a number of swastikas painted around the train station in the town of Horrem, where you usually wouldn’t spot anything of the kind.
In Denmark, meanwhile, the right-wing government has taken out advertisements in the Lebanese press warning refugees not to come and bragging that the government has toughened immigration laws and cut benefits.
And in Dover, on the southern coast of England, some 200 neo-Nazis rioted on September 12 at an anti-immigrant demonstration called by the National Front and the South East Alliance, a splinter of the far-right English Defense League.
Our answer to these repugnant politics lies in the outpouring of solidarity for the refugees from ordinary people – from the thousands across Europe who have offered to open their homes to host refugees to those who volunteered to escort and protect refugees as they marched, sometimes spontaneously, from one country to another.
It lies in the massive demand to “let them in” that was heard in cities across Europe on September 12, with more than 50,000 marching in London, 30,000 in Cohenhagen and thousands more in other cities, including Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki and Lisbon.
And of course, it lies in the actions of the refugees themselves. They have risked their lives to travel to Europe, only to find that they have to fight for their rights.
But fight they have. After being trapped in Budapest when trains were closed to them, more than 1,000 refugees marched more than 15 miles to the Austrian border, forcing the Hungarian government to temporarily back down on regulations preventing refugees from leaving the country. The refugees were met in Austria by volunteers holding handwritten signs saying “welcome,” and handing out clothes, food, water and milk, blankets and rain gear.
In the coming days and weeks, it will be paramount to organize more solidarity for the refugees and resist the efforts of EU governments to scapegoat them and to pit their desperate needs against those of other workers and the poor. Our message has to be that there is enough to go around – and to let them in.