With thousands of people seeking refuge by entering the European Union (EU) every day, leaders of the 28-nation bloc have announced an emergency meeting in Brussels on Sept. 14 to find a common strategy for facing a humanitarian crisis of “unprecedented proportions.” But with member nations riven by disunity, the prospects for wholesale change seem dim.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom, have been pushing for a new common policy, and those calls have become more urgent since the discovery last week of 71 decomposing bodies in a deserted refrigeration truck in Austria. Authorities there believe they had fled either Syria or Afghanistan, and suffocated after being transported by human smugglers.
“This is the first time Europe has faced a mass influx of refugees from outside the region,” said Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford. “And the supposed common European asylum system was not designed to address such situations. The one area in which there is now agreement in Europe is that the status quo is dysfunctional.”
More than 2,500 refugees have died since January, the vast majority of them on the Mediterranean Sea as they make their way to transit points, primarily in Italy or Greece. Many are fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, among other countries. After entering the EU through eastern and southern countries, many then attempt to make their way to western and northern European countries with stronger economies or more liberal asylum policies.
“Between the northern EU countries that figure as preferred destinations, and the southern and eastern countries where migrants and asylum seekers first arrive, lies a large swath of countries doing very little to share responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees,” wrote Judith Sunderland on Monday, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “In the immediate term, EU countries should significantly increase their pledges to relocate asylum seekers, particularly from Greece.”
The International Rescue Committee on Monday notes that the tiny Greek Island of Lesbos alone is currently holding more than 13,000 refugees.
Germany, which receives the largest number of refugee applications of any EU country, expects more than 800,000 asylum applications this year, more than four times the number it received in 2014. In the first half of 2015, German asylum applications accounted for some 43 percent of all EU applications.
Urging other nations to share the burden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin on Sunday: “If Europe has solidarity and we have also shown solidarity towards others, then we need to show solidarity now. … Everything must move quickly."
But Europe does not have solidarity.
Hungary, for example, has resisted efforts to make the current system more amenable to asylum seekers, having focused largely on security measures to prevent people from entering the country. To that end, Hungary is in the process of building a large fence on its border with Serbia to keep out people hoping to enter the country. "So what we’re trying to re-establish at the borders of Hungary and Serbia … is law and order — put some kind of discipline into this huge influx of illegal migrants," said Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs, about Budapest's efforts to stem the tide of refugees.
"They are extremely harsh,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of Hungary’s recent moves, in an interview to Europe 1 radio over the weekend. “Hungary is part of Europe, which has values, and we do not respect those value by putting up fences.”
The growing East-West divide is especially stark on the issue of quotas. Some western EU members, including Germany, have proposed a new system establishing quotas for the number of refugees each EU country would take in. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico on Monday said that his country “will never agree” to quotas. “We will wake up one day and have 100,000 people from the Arab world, and that is a problem I would not like Slovakia to have,” Fico said. His position was echoed by leaders from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.
In western Europe, there are divisions. The United Kingdom, for example, which granted asylum to more people last year than the majority of other EU countries, has laid part of the blame of the current crisis on the Schengen system of open borders. Twenty-six EU member nations participate in the Schengen regime, but the U.K. does not, and it has underlined its opposition to open borders with tight security at its border with France, across the Calais tunnel.
“These tragedies [migrant deaths] have been exacerbated by the European system of no borders,” wrote U.K. Interior Minister Theresa May in an op-ed in the Sunday Times on Sunday. "When it was first enshrined, free movement meant the freedom to move to a job, not the freedom to cross borders to look for work or claim benefits," she wrote. "We must take some big decisions, face down powerful interests and reinstate the original principle."