Refugee (noun): A person who has been forced to leave his country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Economic migrant (noun): A person who travels from one country or area to another in order to improve his standard of living.
The European refugee crisis of 2015 refers to the migration of war refugees and economic migrants from various areas like the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or across South-East Europe. It acquired the nature of a crisis in April-May 2015 when at least 1200 people were drowned when five boats carrying them capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.
In total, about 19 million people have been forced to flee their homes, driven by a variety of reasons, in this century.
The situation prior to 2011
Wars and famines are common in sub-Saharan and Northern Africa. For decades, they have uprooted people lives, and caused migration. Usually, the migration occurs to camps in other places inside the same countries, but in many cases, also to camps in neighbouring countries and sometimes all the way into Europe. Similarly, people displaced by the US-led war on Afghanistan have also been trying to escape war-torn areas since the start of the century (after 9/11).
The most convenient location of entering Europe is crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in Northern Africa. For long years, the EU had employed Muammar Gaddafi (the Libyan leader) to intercept refugees who were trying to do this. Gaddafi was successfully managing to keep the vast majority of refugees from reaching Europe.
How the situation exploded in 2011
But in 2011, the Arab Spring happened and Gaddafi was ousted from power. So, with nobody there to do Europe’s dirty work anymore, refugees now got a clear passage across the Mediterranean.
Further, the Arab Spring also led to Syria’s Civil War, conflict in Yemen and rise of the ISIS in Iraq. So, apart from the refugees and economic migrants from poor African countries, the number of people migrating also began to include war refugees from all these countries. Initially, for a couple of years, the Syrian migrants went into camps in neighbouring countries (like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey). But then, from the summer of 2014 (because winters are too cold to move), the number of refugees attempting the perilous journey via sea into Europe started rising like hell.
A few reasons have been attributed to this. First, the camps themselves started becoming overcrowded and dangerous. Second, when a person leaves his house to move to a camp, he always envisages that he will return after the war is over. But since the war in Syria shows no sign of ending, the refugees in camps realized that it is better to move on and start a new life elsewhere rather than hold on to the minuscule hope that they will ever return to their homes. Third, as the wars became too complex, even those people who had not moved finally gave up and started migrating. Fourth, smugglers grew in number and managed to convince more and more people that they can safely take them across the Mediterranean.
The situation in Europe
The Schengen agreement is an agreement signed by 26 European countries (till date). It states that there shall be no policing or checking of individuals who cross a common border from one of these countries to another. Let’s say you, a resident of France, want to travel to Germany. You can simply pack your bags and drive into Germany. You don’t need a passport; there will be no checking in to customs and no need for anything, in fact. It is like moving across states in India; free to go where you want.
So, if you manage to enter Hungary, you can freely move through Slovakia, Poland, Germany, the Benelux countries, France and Spain into as far as Portugal. The same thing is happening for the refugees. Once they are granted entry into the Schengen area (usually via Italy or Greece), they are free to apply for asylum into whichever country they want. For example, Germany has received by far the most number of asylum applications despite it being pretty far away from the Mediterranean.
The European countries do not want to waste their resources on feeding and sheltering refugees. Taking in large numbers of refugees also requires accepting that those refugees might bring changes to a nation’s identity or culture. So, there is a large of change. Plus, many are also inherently suspicious of the refugees because most of the refugees are Muslims. If a large number of migrants were to arrive in Kerala from the Gulf, India as a country would collectively take responsibilities for all of them and distribute them across various states. But rules of the European Union do not imply that refugees have to be collectively provided by all EU countries. Under the ‘Dublin Regulation‘, the two or three countries where most refugees arrive have to end up caring for all the refugees until their asylum claims are processed.
For example, the UK wants France to keep refugees away from the UK. France wants Italy to keep refugees away from France. Italy, like Greece, wants the rest of Europe to take its refugees. But pretty much all of Europe agrees that Turkey, which has the largest refugee population on earth, most of them Syrian, should be handling it. Germany is the rare exception. It has waived off the Dublin Regulation for Syrian refugees. So, Syrian applicants for asylum into Germany can move into Germany even before their applications are processed.
Europe has shown scant regard for the refugees. At various points of time, there have been various maritime operations in the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic by various European countries to help migrants-at-sea reach European shores safely. Search and rescue missions have helped migrant ships/boats that had wandered off course in correctly arriving at destinations. But all these operations have been winded down or vastly reduced in effectiveness as the crisis has worsened. The reason given was that success of Mare Nostrum encouraged more refugees to attempt the crossing.
- Operation Mare Nostrum was a naval and air operation commenced by the Italian government on October 18, 2013 to tackle the increased immigration to Europe. It helped in the arrival of about 150,000 migrants safely into Europe. But it was politically unpopular (Why waste public money on refugees?) and extremely costly for just one EU state. After Italy did not get funding it had requested from other EU states for continuing it, it was ended on 31 October 2014.
- Operation Triton has began on 1 November 2014 and involves voluntary contributions from 16 European nations (both EU member states and non-members). But its operational area (the parts of the ocean where it looks for migrant ships) is very small compared to Mare Nostrum. And it only patrols sea borders; there are no search-and-rescue operations.
- EU Navfor Med was launched as a consequence of the April-May 2015 shipwrecks. It aims to identify, capture and dispose off all vessels as well as other assets used or suspected of being used by smugglers or traffickers.
The result, predictably, has been deadly: an estimated 2,500 people have already died so far this summer. This is not an accident. It is the result of European policy meant to keep out refugees. Within Europe also, countries are trying to restrict refugees from getting to or staying within their borders. Hungary has erected a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia in an effort to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe over land. The Hungarian government also shut down train service to Germany in an apparent effort to discourage refugees from using Hungary as a transit country on their way to seek asylum there. And Austria has now introduced border checks along its internal border with the rest of Europe (as a violation of the Schengen agreement) to search for refugees and other immigrants being smuggled into the country.
This is all an indication of the failure of the UN. The rich and powerful are getting away with bloody murder while the poor and helpless are left to rot and die. Not just the European refugee crisis, elsewhere also refugees and migrants are not getting what they deserve, and the UN is simply looking without wielding any power. In Myanmar, a Muslim minority group known as the ‘Rohingya’ (called the ‘boat people’ by the international media) has endured brutal violence and ethnic cleansing, sometimes with the tacit support of the Myanmar government or even at the hands of government forces themselves. But thousands of fleeing Rohingyas have become stranded at sea, marooned in dangerous boats because neighboring countries (like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) refuse to take them in, arguing that taking them in will encourage others to attempt the same. In Central America, gang violence and lawlessness made thousands of families so desperate for their children’s safety that they sent those children on a perilous journey northward to safety in the United States. The US has stepped up efforts after this child migrant crisis, including steps like sending aid to Central American countries in exchange for efforts to keep children from making the journey to the United States. In all these cases, the whole idea is to keep refugees from showing up in the first place – even though these efforts never solve, or often even address, the underlying crises that cause the refugees in the first place.
The wealthy countries are the most ideal ones to accept the refugees, and the world watches in horror while they are not only refusing to entertain the refugees, but actually making it more difficult for the refugees to reach them.