A Syrian tragedy turning into a European tragedy

grass-fence-border-propertyGëzim Krasniqi, Fellow at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, traces the shifting routes chosen by refugees from Syria—and how the EU’s lack of a coordinated policy has been turning the Syrian tragedy into a European one. It has left the Balkan states with a refugee crisis impossible to master.

The current mass movement of refugees and migrants to Europe crossing several state borders, including the borders of the ‘EU fortress’, is unparalleled in the continent’s modern history. Far from taking a unified stance on the ensuing crisis, countries in the European Union have acted in what has turned out to be a selfish and rather irresponsible manner, with few exceptions. Moreover, the growing refugee and migrant influx has led to a series of diplomatic disputes between EU member states. All this has only made the crisis worse, with consequences both for transit and destination countries as well as for the refugees and migrants themselves. Beyond the mere humanitarian dimension of the situation, the current flow of refugees and migrants raises a number of important issues.

The first issue concerns the role Europe has played in contributing to the worsening of the current situation. Syrian refugees form the bulk of the people crossing to Europe at the moment, but this is not a recent phenomenon. Since the war erupted in 2011, millions of Syrian refugees have been fleeing their homes looking for safety within Syria or in neighbouring countries. Many have already spent years in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, often in appalling conditions, and with their hope of a quick return home fading before making the perilous journey to Europe. A number of EU member states – such as France and the UK – promptly offered support to the anti-regime opposition in Syria, thus contributing to the escalation of the conflict. Yet, they, or the EU as a whole, showed no willingness earlier on to offer shelter to the growing number of refugees escaping a brutal war. The EU is therefore facing the consequences of its own lack of vision and inability to grasp the sheer scale of the unfolding human tragedy in Syria.

The lack of a coordinated and well-planned EU strategy for resettling Syrian refugees has left the latter with no other option but to use any means possible to escape the conflict and the overcrowded camps in the region. The refugees have thus forged a route through Europe, crossing border after border. Such mass movement of people has put the existing state-controlled border and asylum management system of the EU into question. As a result, the Dublin II Regulation that sets the criteria and mechanisms for processing asylum applications lodged by non-EU nationals in member states has all but collapsed. Although the objective of this regulation is to prevent asylum seekers being transferred from one country to another, the dysfunctional reception system in countries of entrance such as Greece, as well as the failure of member states to share the burden of refugees, has led directly to the situation the system was set up to prevent. In a way, refugees have become a ping-pong ball in a nasty political game. To make matters worse, EU members have responded by closing borders and erecting fences.

Not only has Brussels failed to formulate an effective and unified response to the refugee crisis, it has also practically passed the problem onto the Western Balkans states. Faced with a growing number of refugees and migrants, and without any substantial support from the EU, the Greek government closed many of its reception centres this spring and allowed refugees to leave Greece without having processed applications according to EU rules. As refugees and migrants crossed into Macedonia and then Serbia on the way to Hungary, which is an EU and Schengen member, the ‘Balkan corridor’ became the refugees’ and migrants’ chosen route. Following Hungary’s decision to close its border with Serbia, the refugees have now turned to Croatia hoping to cross into Slovenia and then Austria.

The EU has left the Balkans with a refugee crisis on such a scale that it is impossible for these countries to deal with. Most of the Western Balkan countries face chronic unemployment, widespread poverty and ill-equipped state institutions leading many of their citizens to migrate to EU countries in search of a better life. Incapable of either preventing refugees from entering their territories – the Macedonian police has on several occasions used tear gas and stun-grenades to dispel crowds at its border with Greece – or offering them shelter, these countries mostly stayed idle as growing crowds of people moved into Hungary. Unlike state institutions, ordinary people and local NGOs in the region have shown great solidarity with refugees by providing food, clothing and often shelter. Important as this may be, it does not and cannot compensate for non-existent state aid.

The human tragedy of refugees and migrants crossing to Europe has a darker side – that of criminality and human trafficking. Many of the people coming to Europe are victims of local, regional and international criminal networks that charge incredible sums of money and exploit the vulnerability of those who have set off on a perilous journey with nothing but their savings. Old and new human trafficking networks have surfaced in the region, often working in plain sight or in cooperation with the local police, effectively building a multimillion business. This only adds to the frustration and helplessness experienced by refugees as they search for a safe place to live and a dignified life. In addition, refugees and migrants are very often victims of abuse, maltreatment, robbery and violence, although these incidents are rarely reported.

As many states in the Middle East and North Africa were plunged into war and chaos following the Arab Spring, the situation regarding refugees and migrants is not likely to improve any time soon. However, the EU’s approach to it can, and must, change. It is time for the EU to unite in solidarity and sympathy with refugees by sharing the responsibility for providing shelter and protection, while taking an active stance in addressing the root causes of the problem. Regardless of how much EU leaders may wish this situation were just a nightmare that would fade away as morning comes, the crisis won’t go away without an effective Europe-wide strategy. Time is running out for EU leaders as the current practice of erecting fences and closing borders risks turning the Syrian tragedy into a European one.


Dr Gëzim Krasniqi is the Alexander Nash Fellow in Albanian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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