Immigration/Social Policy

Europe’s failure to confront the refugee crisis: towards a nationalist backlash

August 18th 2015 - by Dr. Oliver Schmidtke, Director of the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria

Europe is currently facing the world’s biggest refugee crisis since 1945. According to the United Nations in 2015 alone more than 225,000 refugees have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Over 2,100 migrants are presumed to have died during the treacherous journey. The latest incident happened just about two weeks ago when over 200 refugees perished when their overcrowded boat capsized. Another point of destination for those refugees is Hungary. From January to the end of May 50,000 migrants were detected trying to cross from Serbia into Hungary - an 880% increase compared with the same period a year ago. And the situation is getting more and more desperate for many migrants who hope to flee by land through the Balkans before Hungary will have completed the barbed-wire fence in November that is meant to deter migrants over the 175-kilometre border between Hungary and Serbia. The situation is similarly dramatic in Greece: The UN refugee agency's division for Europe stated recently that 124,000 refugees and migrants have landed in Greece coming from Turkey since the beginning of the year, - arriving in a country that, with its deep economic crisis, feels overwhelmed even to provide the most basic of supplies and shelter. Some of the daily media images are unsettling: refugees in their flimsy boats frantically seeking to reach the shores of Greek islands like Kos or Lesvos where privileged sunbathing tourists enjoy their vacation. 


The Hungarian border fence is emblematic for how Europe has reacted to what by all measures is a veritable migration crisis and, in many instances, a humanitarian catastrophe. In the wake of one of the most spectacular accidents in April, in which more than 900 migrants died when their Italy-bound ship sank, the European Union agreed on an action plan on migration to address the urgent challenges in the Mediterranean. This plan primarily consists of implementing migration control measures, such as the reinforcement of surveillance missions in the Mediterranean or military operations destined to destroy boats used by smugglers. It proved far easier to agree on measures to deter desperate refugees to reach the shores of Europe than to come up with a coordinated, pan-European strategy to assist them and to share the burden across the 28 member states of the European Union more equally.

The main justification for the inability to come up with an effective European approach to facing the refugee crisis has been that many countries are at a breaking point when it comes to housing all these newcomers from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa (the most important sending countries are Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria). The argument is not entirely groundless: For instance, experts expect Germany to receive more than 400,000 migrants this year alone. It proves to be an administrative nightmare to house all of these newcomers. Yet, the often-heard claim that the arrival of refugees has reached intolerable proportions demanding drastic actions needs to be put into perspective. If one compares the numbers of refugees coming to European counties with those of a small country such as Lebanon that is home to close to 1.2 million or Turkey that hosts over 2 million Syrian refugees, then the challenge for Europe appears in a different light (this is not the place to go into any details about Canada’s meagre record of having provided only about 1500 refugees from Syria with a new home until the spring of 2015).

The hysteria with which many political actors have reacted to the latest wave of refugees sheds a dark cloud on a continent that prides itself to be beacon of democracy and human rights. Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s major, went as far as to state: "We are witnessing a genocide caused by European selfishness". The ethical failure of European states and the European Union is tangible in the daily images of desperate refugees who risk everything on their hazardous journeys from Africa and who often find a continent with closed doors. Yet, what might be even more damaging politically for the future of Europe is that we are confronted with an unnerving resurgence of xenophobia targeting the weakest and most desperate of the continent’s migrants. Right-wing populists are pushing governments across Europe to the right. Nationalist sentiments have gained ground, undermining attempts to come up with a European solution to the unfolding humanitarian emergency. Next to a horrific degree of human suffering the legacy of the refugee crisis in Europe is likely to be a strengthening of exclusive nationalism, fortified borders and another blow to the idea of Europe united under the banner of transnational solidarity.