Instead of cooperation and solidarity, Europe is going through a period of rising nationalism, selfishness and tragic lack of humanitarian empathy: a challenge for Europe as a whole, which could tear the Union apart and make every country potentially follow an independent national policy rather than a common one. If there is a chance to increase solidarity among the member states, the way is through humanitarian solidarity.
Aylan Kurdi’s body was lying on the beach, motionless, with his small head in the water. This image has become the symbol for the current refugee crisis and the inability of Europe to cope with it. He is one of thousands of refugees who did not survive the long and dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea. Those who survived and made it to Europe are facing the ordeal of being squeezed in overcrowded refugee camps and being mistreated by security forces, while the hosting society receives them with harsh and hostile reactions. Hungary has recently built a fence all along its border with Serbia, but the wall has not stopped refugees willing to enter Hungary. The image of the barbed wire fence right at the border of the EU, however, symbolizes the message that many in Europe are unwilling to accept this new reality.
Unwillingness and Open Resistance
Though presumably a transit nation, Hungary does everything thinkable not only to drive the refugees out of Hungary, but its government under Prime Minister Victor Orbán makes also very clear that his country does not feel any responsibility for taking care of the refugees in any way. In the past few days we have witnessed chaotic conditions at Budapest’s Keleti railway station, with refugees desperately trying to get on the trains that would bring them to Austria and later to Germany. The authorities have first let the refugees get on the trains without any previous registration, but have then stopped them in the railway station, forcing them to sleep outside the station, without beds, without sanitation. After that, refugees have managed to leave Budapest on an overcrowded train, except being stopped a few kilometres outside the city to be relocated into a refugee camp. Dramatic scenes have followed: desperate people not wanting to be transferred to the camp, some even going on a hunger strike as a sign of protest.
The Orbán administration shows itself unimpressed by the obvious chaos that they themselves have caused in the past few days. In fact, Orbán has stated that he “only followed the rules of the Dublin III regulation”, which provides that refugees need to get registered in the country where they first enter the EU territory. In addition, Orbán keeps blaming Germany for having caused the crisis in the first place as “Germany has announced it will not return Syrian refugees applying for asylum”. In short, he declared the refugee crisis a “German problem”, as all refugees just want to transit Hungary in order to get to Germany. But Hungary is not the only EU country that is “washing” its hands in this refugee issue. Taking a look at the map showing the number of asylum seekers’ applications in EU member states, you can see a clear East-West divide. Germany expects up to 800,000 refugees by the end of this year, while other countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Poland accept far less refugees; the map also shows the number of pending asylum applications, with 306,000 in Germany and only 2,500 in Poland. But even western European countries like Denmark and the UK show unwillingness to accept a higher number of refugees. In the UK, the Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to the migrants as a “swarm” flooding into the UK through the Eurotunnel.
The March of the Refugees, the #Marchofhope
With no trains, no busses and the sensation of being trapped in a camp in the middle of Hungary, thousands refugees decided to walk to Austria. Like a mass movement that reminded of the refugee movements at the end of World War II, people started to walk the more than 200 kilometres route from Budapest to Vienna; through the city, on roads and motorways. An image from the past, that Europe had not seen since the end of World War II. But it is actually happening, in Europe, in a presumably unified and peaceful Europe, in the year 2015. By today, up to 10,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Austria, a country that has provided, together with Germany, special trains to bring the refugees across the border. These days, the first refugees have arrived at Munich Central Station, where they have been welcomed by hundreds of locals with water, food, and warm words.
Austria and Germany are both exceptions to the current European trend, which does not help the refugees, but rather push them back, preventing them from entering certain countries or treating them like cattle. The images from Hungary sadly remind of times from the dark ages – ages we thought would never return in the early 21st century.
At the moment, Europe is witnessing a clear division between eastern and western European countries, in which Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia refuse to accept the refugees they should receive according to the quota system. Their argument is that a quota would just “encourage” the movement of refugees, while their aim is to prevent mass refugee arrivals in their countries. As Orbán has repeatedly stated: “They don’t want large numbers of Muslim refugees”, and goes on suggesting that “the EU hypocrites should take care of them”. Europe is witnessing not only a massive movement of people, but also – as a severe symbol of non-unified crisis approach – very uneven distribution of refugees according to the proposed quota. As announced a few days ago, the EU is even considering sanctioning those member states that choose an opt-out from the quota scheme that should relocate 120,000 refugees. Was this development in the mind of the EU’s founding fathers? Certainly not.
At the core of the original idea of European integration were solidarity, assistance and support of each other, to create a sphere of peace and wealth. However, none of the founding fathers could imagine that the EU would eventually face masses of refugees trying to come to Europe, escaping the war in their home countries. Instead of trying to solve the crisis and find a sustainable solution for the refugees’ wellbeing, the member states just blame each other for having caused and worsened the crisis, not showing any willingness to highlight the humanitarian features of this crisis within the European community. Specifically regarding Hungary, it is fascinating to see the development of the attitude towards the refugees issue. Back in 1989, when East German refugees tried to escape the dwindling situation in the former GDR, Hungary was the first of the former Eastern Block countries to open its borders to the West – hence Austria. Also, it was Czechoslovakia that sheltered thousands of East German refugees before letting them travel to West Germany. In short, both countries, Czech Republic and Hungary, have a historic record of support and help for refugees, but are nonetheless acting today in the opposite direction.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said: “if the Euro fails, then Europe will fail”. This line needs now to be updated: Europe will surely not fail due to the Euro as a common currency, but due to the lacking solidarity among its members amid the biggest humanitarian crisis Europe still has to face. As things are currently evolving, the dissent among the member states is getting more severe and serious than in the wake of the Greek debt crisis. Unable to agree on quotas and with several national governments unwilling to contribute even to the line of the leading EU institutions, the EU has basically entered the first phase of its own demise, questioning the very foundations of its core integration values. As a prove of that, many claim that the Schengen Agreement should be suspended in the view of “uncontrolled refugee movements”. Let there be no mistake: as soon as this happens, people can start to say good-bye to a common European idea.
Remembering the victims
Aylan Kurdi’s body was buried in Syria, alongside with his mother and his brother. His father, Abdullah Kurdi, said that the only thing he wanted was to “sit next to his son’s grave until he dies”. These images of despair and resignation are Europe’s wake-up call for instant action and for common sense. Very recently, the UK has announced it will accept thousands of Syrian refugees, despite still refusing to accept distribution quotas among all EU member states. Thousands of refugees arrived in Austria and Germany, happy and relieved after having experienced a nightmare over the past weeks, having risked their bare lives and leaving everything behind. In Germany and Austria, they will have a chance to start a new life in peace.
It is, however, too late for Aylan and his family.