The refugee crisis: zooming in and out

Posted on 01. September 2015

by Doris Manu

doris-manuRefugees are making the headlines every day, their stories reach us more or less directly and a recent opinion poll shows that Europeans see immigration as one of the major challenges the EU is facing at the moment. There are reasons to worry more and more about this issue.

Not so long ago, when I was regularly touring the Western Balkans, having a group of Syrians on the bus from Skopje to Belgrade would have been as probable as having a group of aliens on there. This is not the case anymore. The common route refugees are taking to escape the war in Syria and reach Central Europe is Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary. Hundreds of Syrian people board the buses and trains going from Skopje to Belgrade these days. On their journey to safety, many of them stop to get some sleep and plan the rest of the trip in the park next to the Belgrade bus station. A Serbian friend recently told a story about being in this bus station and meeting a Syrian family who was trying to reach the border with Hungary – they wanted to buy a ticket but the cashier did not speak any English and my friend had to translate. He listened to their story and found out they would spend the night in the park as no hotel wanted to take them in because they had no identity cards.

Many more people are sleeping in the open air on the other side of our continent, in Calais. In desperate attempts to reach the UK territory, they try to cross the Channel, jumping over the fences again and again during the night and hiding on Eurotunnel trains. Those who don’t succeed wait longer in the camp known as ‘The Jungle’ of Calais.

Dramatic stories of refugees keep appearing in the newspapers and in the UNHCR newsletter, but do not seem to reach the EU leaders, who seem to be more preoccupied with the numbers than with the people. After the Commission’s proposal to relocate 40.000 refugees from Greece and Italy to other EU countries, discontent appeared among heads of state and government. Germany and France called for further negotiations, Spain rejected the Commission’s proposal altogether, and Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic refused to support a mandatory system and wanted the countries to participate on a voluntarily basis instead. Other countries supported the deal, on the condition that they would get paid for each refugee they would take in – Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia were offered 6000 euros per refugee. There are also measures that aim to prevent refugees from reaching their destination of choice: EU leaders agreed to establish a mission that would ”identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers” and Hungary is erecting a wall along the border with Serbia to prevent irregular crossing onto its territory.

It is as if EU countries do not look beyond their borders. Syria is at war for many years now and, according to the UNHCR, Syrians are the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. In Yemen a ruthless war has been raging for several months and people don’t have access to food or medicine. In many other countries, such as Libya and Eritrea, human rights abuses are the rule and not the exception.

If anyone is genuinely interested in finding a solution to the refugee crisis, the needs of those who already made it to Europe need to be addressed, while the international community should do more to build peace and stability around the world. Ending the ongoing brutal conflicts would also end the suffering and insecurity, and so many people would not be forced to flee. Peacemaking is possible and we have seen it recently. Deals that seemed impossible just a few years ago were concluded very recently: the Belgrade-Pristina agreement, and the nuclear deal with Iran just a few weeks ago. Why not have Syria next on the agenda of peace talks?