The Refugee Crisis: Europe’s Humanitarian Imperative

Dubbed the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, masses of refugees — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Kosovo — have taken to border authorities in several Central European countries at great risk to their lives in attempt to reach safer lands. An estimated nine million refugees are reported to have fled their homes in Syria since 2011. The image of the lifeless body drifted ashore of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who drowned on the coast of Turkey along with his mother and brother in an attempt to flee his war torn town of Kobani, sent shockwaves around the world and came to symbolize the height of the tragic plight of displaced refugees seeking asylum in neighboring and Western countries.

European receptions to the thousands of vulnerable refugees have been mixed, ranging from plain unwelcome, to reassuring bouts of hospitality as exhibited — for example — by scores of Austrians and German citizens who took to the streets to welcome tens of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers to their country with “Refugees welcome” signs and bottles of water in August of 2015. It is no wonder that Angela Merkel has been portrayed as a champion of a relative open-door policy for refugees and somewhat of a darling among disenfranchised and weary asylum seekers. In a similar display of humanity, Finland’s prime minister responded by offering his residence to refugees. A far cry from Germany’s neo-Nazi and right-wing groups like PEGIDA, who have seized on the issue, organizing demonstrations outside homes for asylum seekers and triggered more than 200 arson and other attacks on facilities for refugees. Even for the relatively friendlier welcome by Germany, the costs of providing adequate shelter and care for such a large number of people for years to come, coupled with a right-wing anti-Islam animus that rings throughout the continent, one wonders just how welcome and integrated Syrian refugees communities will truly feel in Europe, and for how long.

Europe’s reaction to the humanitarian crisis — four or more years in the making — revealed just how unprepared the continent is for shouldering its share of the crisis’ repercussions. Razor-wire fences have been raised along borders in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and France. Poland and Slovakia will only accept a few hundred refugees; on the condition that they be Christians only. In Hungary, thousands of desperate migrants were stranded for days until they were finally allowed passage to Austria in early September. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary warned that “Europe’s Christian roots” were being threatened. In the Czech Republic, immigration police label refugees’ arms with numbers using permanent marker; an image eerily reminiscent of the tattoos the Nazis put on Jewish concentration camp inmates. Denmark placed anti-refugee ads in Lebanese newspapers, to dissuade aspiring asylum seekers to come to Europe. Most central European countries, strongly opposed the automatic allocation of refugees quota proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.

The massive refugee crisis is a timely test for the soul of the flourishing and powerful European continent in the 21st century. It is painfully ironic, that a continent who saw its fair share of anguish and suffering on a mass scale in the World Wars, would give the cold shoulder to those fleeing horrors of war and destruction in hopes of a better and brighter future for themselves and their children today. The commendable position of Pope Francis is one that truly exemplifies the “Christian” spirit of Europe so many nationalists are keen on preserving: in a statement he made on the crisis, he called on parishes across Europe to take in refugees. The Vatican itself has housed two refugee families. The Pope warned European Christians of their duty towards the displaced by saying: “it is violence to build walls and barriers to stop those who look for a place of peace. It is violence to push back those who flee inhuman conditions in the hope of a better future.” Because the flow of refugees shows no signs of abating any time soon, it is a moral and humanitarian imperative for EU countries to do their best in extending their capabilities towards absorbing this global crisis through a consistent and fair policy consensus on the status of asylum seekers.

Yet, whatever solutions the EU proposes, asylum seekers in the continent will have to deal with major obstacles such as racist backlash, poverty, unemployment and successful integration in hostile societies. The most tenable solution is the need to set up well-equipped prefab cities where refugees can remain in integrated safety until the conflicts in their homeland are resolved. Though far from ideal, tent cities allow for families to remain together and facilitate a safe return for the displaced when a peaceful resolution to the conflict is set in place.

Though selective images of Europe’s reaction to the crisis have flooded world news outlets in August of 2015, little global attention has been paid to the efforts of Jordan, a country that has been at the helm of absorbing the humanitarian crisis since the conflict started in March 2011. The small arid desert kingdom absorbed about 1.5 million refugees, and set up a tent city for another 700,000, while in oil-rich Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the refugee intake is zero. Europe and other countries can take a lead from Jordan in its hospitable policy towards displaced asylum seekers, and the international community should work together to reach long term solutions to protect refugees and grant them dignified and havens of safety, but perhaps more importantly, to work towards stopping the fighting in Syria, so that the millions can return have a safe eventual return to their homeland. As the Somali poet Warsan Shire aptly reminds us: “no one puts their children in a boat unless the boat is safer than the land.”

Farah El-Sharif is a PhD candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.