Mariah Franklin, Olivia Cleveland, and Taylor Guidi
The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the European Union
The European refugee crisis has dominated headlines for months, sparking debate as to the extent of responsibility destination countries have towards asylum seekers and refugees. With well over half of a million refugees in Europe, the crisis has stimulated significant changes in the operation and cohesion of the European Union, as the diversity of political and practical responses to the influx of refugees has illustrated pre-existing sociopolitical division within the EU (BBC News).
The Syrian refugee crisis developed in the period following the Arab Spring, when Syrian dissidents attempted to engage in protests to facilitate a transition from the dictatorship of longtime President Bashar al-Assad to a more egalitarian style of government (Beauchamp). The Assad regime responded to calls for reform with intense repression, practicing mass imprisonment and engaging in chemical warfare, provoking the Syrian Civil War (Salopek). The Syrian Civil War has been the subject of much international debate, with the possibility of intervention a topic of political conversation in a number of countries. In addition to the domestic politics of individual nations, the reluctance of the international community to involve itself in the Syrian Civil War is partially the result of the recognition of geopolitical realities; Russian support for the Syrian government has lent the Assad regime a certain amount of security from intrusion by foreign states. As the war progressed, the militant terrorist organization ISIS intervened, seeking to establish a caliphate on Syrian territory (Beauchamp). The brutality of both ISIS fighters and forces loyal the Assad regime has driven an estimated four-million Syrians from their homes in the years since the conflict began.
The mass flight of Syrians to European nations comes as relatively little surprise, as the ostensible stability of Europe stands as a marked contrast to the near-anarchy of war-stricken Syria (King’s College London). The lengths to which refugees have gone to enter Europe provide a stark illustration of their assessment of the dangers of either remaining in Syria or negotiating the limited capacities of Middle Eastern countries to handle the escalating crisis (King’s College London). The idea of Europe as a bastion of stability is, however, somewhat belied by the disorganization and inadequacy of its response to the influx of refugees. Accused variously of providing refugees with deplorable housing facilities as well as expressly violating their human rights, the European Union has recently come under fire for what observers have termed a highly disordered approach to managing a major humanitarian crisis.
Coincident with the continuing increase of the number of refugees entering Europe, tension among the member states of the European Union has ballooned. The possibility of the collapse of the Schengen Agreement looms over European politics, as both Germany and France have experimented with the reestablishment of border controls (Harding). While the German government’s brief closure of its borders in the summer of 2015 served as a direct response to the massive influx of refugees into Germany, its policy has largely been one of welcome, and, despite opposition, its borders were re-opened shortly thereafter. In contrast to Germany’s momentary institution of border controls, the previously reform-oriented French government seems set to reconstruct its policies with a stronger emphasis on national security in the wake of the November shootings.
Related to the broader decentralization of EU policy is the extent to which national governments have differed in the level of assistance provided to refugees. The adoption of relatively welcoming approaches to the refugee crisis by countries such as Germany and Sweden has been mitigated by the reticence demonstrated by other EU member states. Germany’s suspension of the controversial Dublin Regulation, which provides a method for determining which EU member is responsible for asylum claim, has stimulated accelerating waves of migration, leaving Germany responsible for a plurality of refugees in the EU (Holehouse). In marked contrast to Germany, the Hungarian government has been a particular subject of controversy, as it has categorically refused to grant asylum to Syrian refugees, constructing a steel fence to inhibit the crossing of its border with Croatia and declaring that refugees found within Hungary will be diverted to the similarly immigrant-hostile Slovenia (Al Jazeera English). The disparity between Germany’s open-door policy and Hungary’s border closures ultimately illuminates a widening rift between the principal approaches adopted by EU member states in response to the crisis, suggesting vastly divergent potential futures for the European Union.
The polarization of refugee policy among the EU’s member states is partly reflected in the radicalization of the social and political spheres of individual European countries. While Germany’s official responses have been welcoming, within German society numerous anti-immigrant organizations have formed to protest what they see as the “Islamicization” of Germany (Martin). Routed in xenophobia, these organizations have, on multiple occasions, been responsible for attacks on refugee hostels, leading to multiple deaths. Far from isolated to Germany, the radicalization of the European political sphere has also taken root in Sweden, where the virulently anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats recently won over thirty percent of the vote by campaigning on the promise that, upon their election, refugees would be removed from Sweden (Adler). Notably, Sweden, like Germany, has voluntarily taken in a large number of refugees, forcing the over capacitated Swedish government to attempt basic provision for the refugees. The overwhelming volume of refugees in relatively welcoming countries has been seen as contributing to the poor living conditions of the refugees in those states (Adler).
The most effective methods of addressing the Syrian refugee crisis as it exists in Europe formulate a unified European response to the crisis. Because the unequal distribution of refugees has most adversely affected the countries tasked with integrating them into their societies, a more functional solution will need to provide a system capable of ensuring that a small number of countries aren’t left overwhelmed by the volume of refugees crossing their borders while other European nations are allowed to relinquish any responsibility toward refugee intake. Similarly, the issuing of humanitarian visas may prevent some of the more hazardous means by which refugees attempt to enter European countries. Stronger enforcement of pre-existing EU laws, such as Article 18 of the EU Charter, relevant to the humane treatment of refugees, would facilitate a more solid level of societal cohesion among the member states of the EU, in addition to supplying refugees with improved living conditions, and, perhaps, a less acrimonious environment in which to settle.
The refugee crisis exists at the intersection of cultural and political globalization. The choice of Europe as a destination appears to indicate that a view of the West as a kind of bastion of stability has diffused into Syria, suggesting that an amount of dissemination of cultural ideas has taken place, spreading the West’s idea of itself into the Middle East. The crisis also provides an example of political globalization by the European Union, as it attempts to formulate a single policy to address the refugee crisis and remain relatively politically unified. Ultimately, the mass movement of peoples signals potential for major demographic shifts, with the accompanying possibility of significant cultural change among both refugee communities and the societies in into which they’ve integrated.
Adler, Katya. “Sweden Far-right Party Makes Gains from Migrant Crisis – BBC News.” BBC News. N.p., 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
“Hungary Seals off Southern Border to Refugees.” Al Jazeera English. N.p., 17 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
“Why Is EU Struggling with Migrants and Asylum?” BBC News. N.p., 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Beauchamp, Zach. “Syria’s Civil War: A Brief History.” Vox. N.p., 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Harding, Luke. “Refugee Crisis: Germany Reinstates Controls at Austrian Border.” The Guardian. N.p., 13 Sept. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Holehouse, Matthew. “Germany Drops EU Rules to Allow in Syrian Refugees.” The Telegraph. N.p., 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
King’s College London. “Why Do Refugees and Migrants Come to Europe, and What Must Be Done to Ease the Crisis?” The Telegraph. N.p., 04 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
Martin, Michelle. “German Anti-Islam Protest Swells on Fears about Refugee Influx.” Reuters. N.p., 19 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Salopek, Paul. “Fleeing Terror, Finding Refuge.” National Geographic. N.p., Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.