History is testament to the fact that despite elaborate legal instruments stressing the importance of civilian-military distinction in international warfare, common people continue to be disproportionately affected in conflict zones across the world. In order to confirm this hypothesis, one need not look beyond the barbaric atrocities of recent wars in Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Each of these conflicts brutally disrupted the lives of common people and forced many of them to seek new homes. As a result, from 2014 to 2019, millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa made their way towards Europe, often undertaking perilous journeys through the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Those that survived this journey and made it ashore were often met with inhumane conditions, lack of employment opportunities and other problems that arise as a result of undocumented living. The incompetent and unsatisfactory response of the European Union, which was yet to completely recover from the Euro Zone debt crisis, coupled with the polarized political environment in many European States further compounded the problem. This article will be specifically addressing the political challenges, at both domestic and regional levels, that emerged during and in the aftermath of this crisis.
Before addressing the main topic of this article, it is important to explain two basic concepts with regards to international migration. The first is the distinction between ‘Refugees’ and ‘Economic Migrants’ and its implications. According to international legal instruments, refugees are those individuals that are fleeing persecution as a result of their identity, war, famine or natural disasters. In other words, when people are forcefully uprooted from their homes and have no option but to look for survival in foreign countries, they are said to be refugees. On the other hand, economic migrants are those that leave their country of origin by choice. People usually do this to avail better economic opportunities in countries that are relatively well-off than their own. Why is this distinction important? It’s because under international law, states are obligated to offer protection to refugees without exception. In the case of economic migrants, however, states have the autonomy and freedom to make their own policies. A state can’t be held accountable for not permitting an economic migrant to enter or stay. One of the major problems that European states faced was distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants. Illegal smuggling networks managed to manufacture fake documents to pass of economic migrants as refugees and demand asylum in a European country. The second concept is the principle of non-refoulement which is enshrined in Article 33 of the Refugee Convention 1951. This principle prevents states from transferring refugees to a region where they are likely to face violations of certain fundamental rights. For example, a Syrian refugee arriving in Greece cannot be asked by the Greek administration to return to Syria because it is likely that he will face persecution if he goes back. Hence, European states had an unequivocal obligation to allow refugees into their territories as refusing to do so would have been an infringement of the principle of non-refoulement. Now that these concepts are clear, it is time to outline the political implications of this crisis.
Any discussion about the political dimensions of a crisis in Europe has to begin by evaluating how the European Union reacted to it. There are several notable observations in this regard. Firstly, even though the EU is widely hailed as one of the best regional arrangements in recorded history, its member states exhibited a severe lack of co-operation while dealing with this crisis. This shouldn’t be a surprising fact as migration has always been a politically divisive issue that was, in this instance, further aggravated by the dire economic conditions that many EU states were facing as a result of the 2008 global recession. While countries such as Germany, Sweden and Netherlands were quite vocal in their support of giving protection to refugees, many Central European countries like Austria and Hungary were highly antagonized by the seemingly relentless flow of refugees into Europe. One would have expected Britain and France, countries with a long history of inclusivity and democratic traditions, to favor Germany’s bloc but even they were averse to extending too much support to refugees. The European Parliament witnessed unprecedented name-calling and blame games while hundreds of refugees died every week. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and a staunch supporter of giving refuge to persecuted people, bore the brunt of the abuse as her statements were accused of incentivizing more migrants to make their way towards Europe. Secondly, this crisis exposed the fragility of many EU agreements that had been hailed at their inception. One of these was the Dublin regulation which was signed in 1990 and came into force in 1997. This regulation mandated that the asylum applications of refugees were to be examined only by that state where the refugee first arrived. So, if a refugee arrived in Italy, then the latter had an obligation to screen the former’s application. In case the refugee decided to make his way to any other state in Europe, the regulation mandated that he be deported back to the country of arrival, in this case, Italy. As you can imagine, this placed a disproportionate burden on the border states of European Union such as Greece and Italy, who incidentally, had also been hit hard by the 2008 global recession. Unable to cope with millions of applications, Italy and Greece decided to stop processing them and let the refugees cross their borders into other European states thus blowing the Dublin Regulation to smithereens. Even the sanctity of the Schengen agreement, which allows people to cross borders of EU member states without any border or visa checks, was put into question as several states erected border fences to stop people from entering their territory. When EU decided to implement a quota system, wherein each country was required to accept a particular number of refugees, many member states vehemently opposed it. Hungary even held a nationwide referendum about whether it should accept the quota system proposal and 98 percent of the voters said ‘NO’. Thirdly, the most adverse consequence of the refugee crisis was Brexit i.e. Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Euro skepticism in UK had been on the rise for a long time and this crisis proved to be the final nail in the coffin. By a narrow margin, the population of UK voted to leave the EU thus throwing the prospect of solidarity among the European Community into complete disarray.
The political responses at the domestic level varied from country to country. However, it is possible to recognize two common elements. Firstly, this crisis contributed to a considerable rise in Xenophobia (fear of ‘outsiders’) and Islamophobia (fear of ‘Islam’) among citizens as well as the political elite in many countries. They were convinced that the influx of refugees would mean loss of jobs, dilution of their culture and an increase in terrorist activities. Some politicians also went on to endorse a conspiracy theory called ‘Eurabia’- the idea that all migrants are conspiring to launch a mass invasion to ‘Islamicize’ the European continent. Cases of hate speech and violent attack on Muslims in Europe skyrocketed as a direct result of the refugee crisis. Secondly, right wing parties used this issue to increase their popularity. Normally, European states had power tussles between centre-left and centre-right mainstream parties but the onset of ultra-right wing parties completely shattered this delicate balance. The best example of this is Marine La Pen’s National Rally party which pushed the discourse considerably to the right in France even though she failed to win the Presidential Elections. The rising popularity of leaders like Viktor Orban, the Hungarian President and Nigel Farage, founder of the Reform UK party is further evidence of a dramatic rightward shift in EU member states.
While it is pretty much impossible to properly elaborate upon all the political implications of this crisis, this article has tried its best to at least outline, if not explain, most of them. As a result of the refugee crisis, Europe’s destiny is now shrouded in darkness and uncertainty. It is still too early to make definitive predictions about what the future holds for Europe. But for now, in almost all states of the EU, democratic values of inclusivity, tolerance and peace are giving way to exclusion, bigotry and hate crimes. It would be naïve to dispute the fact that the EU is only one major crisis away from total collapse. This article hopes that European Parliamentarians take note of this fact and scramble to save this sinking ship instead of abandoning it.
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The one word that defines him is curiosity. Always looking for new things to explore and learn. Apart from this, he is an avid debator which largely stems from his habit of reading voraciously. Currently pursuing Political Science (Hons.) at Ramjas College, Manraj is a movie buff and a huge football fan.