The face of Europe today – Is it hidden in the Turkish sand?

Posted on 14. September 2015

by Darija Maric

darija-maricI am sure we all saw the photo that made our hearts sink – a little boy, lying in the sand, face down. It is a photo of a toddler, a Syrian refugee, who was found dead somewhere on the Turkish coast. And I am sure that when we saw the photo, we all had the same thought: how horrible it is. How devastating and inexcusable. And how painstakingly tragic.

The refugee crisis that is going on hit Europe like a hurricane. But was it really unexpected? Or were there alarms going off that no one was paying attention to?

Although these questions might – and should – be debated, this time the focus will be on the way Europe as a whole has responded to the ever growing number of refugees trying to reach first its shores and then some of the Western, more economically developed countries. We can see their faces on the television, in the newspapers but also on our streets.Hungry, desperate, yet hopeful and determined men, women and children. Struggling for a chance to be given a better life and any kind of future – which is more than they have in the countries they come from.

At the European Leaders Summit in Brussels in June 2015, it was very clear that there is a strong division between the European countries when it comes to this particular issue. Angela Merkel described this as “the biggest challenge she has seen in European affairs in her time as chancellor”1. Expressing his frustration with the voluntary scheme they’ve eventually agreed on, which meant accepting 60.000 refugees in total, but excluding Hungary and Bulgaria from it, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker described the plan reached at the Summit as one of “modest ambition”.2 Surprised by the economic arguments raised by the opponents of the voluntary scheme, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi commented that “if we think Europe is only about budgets, it is not the Europe we thought of in 1957 in Rome”.

As the situation escalated, the responses of countries to the crisis varied. In the UK the Prime Minister referred to thousands of refugees trying to cross the English Channel from Calais as a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life”3. He went on to state that since many of them are economic migrants rather than asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution, they cannot be allowed to “break in” to the UK. When we add the fact that The Royal Navy ship sent to join a Europe-wide mission to tackle the Mediterranean migrant crisis has not rescued a single person since its deployment to it4, as well as the comments made by the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond about the Britain needing to protect itself from “marauding” migrants”5, we can conclude that the UK took a firm stand against receiving any more immigrants and refugees. Similar rhetoric could be heard from senior politicians from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovakia.6

On the other hand, Germany has been a polar opposite to the UK when it comes to this particular issue. Not only has it accepted the most refugees – almost 800.000 by the end of 2015, it has also effectively opened its doors to any Syrian refugees that wish to claim asylum there by suspending the Dublin protocol for Syrians, which requires that refugees seek asylum in the first European country in which they arrive. The country’s federal ministry of interior confirmed that once the asylum application is accepted, persons granted asylum or refugee status receive a temporary residence permit and are given the same status as Germans within the social insurance system. This entitles them to social welfare, child benefits, child – raising benefits, integration allowances and language courses as well as other forms of integration assistance.7 Germany’s approach is supported by Italy and France, with the three countries’ interior ministries making a joint statement that “the current refugee crisis is putting the European Union to a historic test” and that “Europe must protect refugees in need of protection in a humane way, regardless of which EU country they arrive in.”8

When it comes to my country of Serbia, both the people and the Government have shown a lot of compassion towards the refugees coming mainly from Syria, but also from other conflict areas such as Iraq or Afghanistan. While the neighbouring Hungary has started to build a 4 meter high and 175 km long wall on the border with our country in order to, in the words of their foreign minister, “defend Hungary and the Hungarian people from the immigration pressure”9, Serbia has received around 90.000 of refugees since the beginning of the year10. However, it is a transit country and according to the official data, most of the migrants do not plan or want to stay in Serbia, but want to continue their way to Hungary and from there to Western or Northern Europe. This is probably due to the fact the economic situation of the country is hard, living standards are low in comparison to the majority of other European countries and we are still not a member state of the European Union, although we do have a candidate status.

Although this situation affects many people on different levels, it also affects me on a personal level. When war broke out in Yugoslavia in 1992, my family was one of the many who fled their home in Bosnia with a couple of suitcases and a pack of baby diapers (my brothers were 2 at the time). Although I was very young, I do remember that particular night. I remember my parents whispering not to wake us up, because we were sleeping (or supposed to be) on the back seat. I remember that the atmosphere was oddly tense, and how I felt that my parents were strangely nervous. I still distinctively remember that I felt afraid, although I did not understand why I felt that way – there was something in the silence, the night, the empty roads and the low, desultory voice of my parents. And I remember the long sigh when we approached the border to Serbia. And the anticipation in the air which was so strong you could almost touch it. And the relief and smile on my mother’s face when we managed to cross the border. A couple of hours later all the borders were closed. If we had arrived only a few hours later, there would be no way out from the country which was already starting to count the dead.

But there is something I hadn’t remembered that my father told me about. It happened on dawn the following day, when I was already tired and sleeping. I guess I was feeling that everything was all right and that the danger has passed. However, as my Dad recalls, both of my brothers were wide awake and were making as much noise as two babies can make. My family car, a red Volkswagen Golf 2 (the most popular and beloved car in that time in old Yugoslavia) stopped at the gas station. My Dad went out to refill the fuel tank when a man walked out from a car that came to the station at the same time as we did, only from the opposite direction. He approached my Dad, looked at our car, glanced at the woman sitting on the passenger seat and the children’s heads on the back seat and afterwards gave a long look at the registration plate. Then he asked in a low yet determined voice: “Do you have anywhere to go?”

My Dad nodded. He had an aunt in Belgrade, which was where we were heading to. After hearing that, they shook hands and the man drove away. But even after all these years, my Dad never forgot his face, or the question he asked.

That was the face of Europe more than twenty years ago. Today, imagine Europe was that man in the car who stopped at the gas station and noticed a family in a car with a registration plate from a country in which there was a war raging. Would he come and ask if those people have anywhere to go? Would he offer to help? Or would that very man representing today’s Europe just drive away, not really caring about other people’s misfortune and suffering?

There are many economic, political, sociological and cultural issues that make the migration problem more difficult and complex than one might think at first. But it should be a basic human instinct to offer a helping hand to the ones in need. And then, when they have their basic needs met, we as Europeans should work jointly on a long term solution that could bring this crisis to an end. Compassionate, caring, yet decisive and dedicated to solving the problems – that would be the face of Europe we could show the world and be proud of.

Once we lose our humanity, Europe will definitely lose its face, for good.

Footnotes

1. Reuters, 27.06.2015, accessed on September 4th 2015
2. Independent accessed at September 5th 2015
3. Independent, accessed at September 5th 2015
4. Independent, accessed at September 5th 2015
5. Independent, accessed at September 5th 2015
6. Independent, accessed at September 5th 2015
7. Independent, accessed at September 5th 2015
8. Ibidem.
9. Independent, accessed at September 5th 2015
10. Novosti, accessed at September 5th 2015