At this time last year, already over 300,000 refugees and migrants had made the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean into Europe. During 2017 so far, many thousands have followed and 2360 would be migrants (say UNHCR) have died in making the attempt. 

They were seeking safety from persecution, war and in some cases, simple poverty. For many years now, since the war in Syria sparked a mass exodus, migrants have departed from the northern shores of Africa and perished in droves in the Mediterranean Sea. Of those who make it many have been settled, whilst many more are currently living in camps in Greece and Italy, where they land after the perilous journey. Unsurprisingly after years of this influx, the two states are ill-equipped to deal with such considerable numbers. There are around 14,115 people currently housed in facilities on just the five Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, which is almost double the ‘official capacity’. 

The issue of how to accommodate refugees in Europe has proved extremely divisive, revealing deep fissures in the fabric of the union. The reality is that no nation actually wants immigrants. It is more a matter of perceived humanitarian duty where refugees are concerned. Chancellor Merkel of Germany set the tone by accepting a million such refugees, most of them escaping the horrors of the wars in Syria and Iraq, even some from Afghanistan, that had already made it to Europe. They were milling about trying to get to prosperous Northern Europe, but snagging on frontiers in every direction. Germany’s generous decision saved that crisis, yet the flow has hardly slowed. 

With ongoing wars refugees were one thing, yet economic migrants are another. They do not have the international recognition and ‘rights’ of political refugees, but in many cases their homelands are also hot-beds of violence, a powerful reason for seeking a better life. With Syria and Iraq looking at possible closure of the violent disruption of their internal wars, this category probably now dominates the exodus currently moving unrestricted through the Mediterranean from ungovernable Libya, since the western-assisted overthrow of that nation’s strongman, Colonel Qadaffi. 

When it was proposed within the EU that European states should each take a share of refugees to reduce the burden on the struggling southern Mediterranean member states, certain countries voiced their discontent clearly. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania voted against this relocation scheme. Given that since their accession, these countries have benefited enormously from the largesse of wealthier European nations, they have been accused of not only mean-spiritedness, but of open prejudice - many of the arguments against refugees stem from fears that these racially homogenous nations will be diluted by the arrival of Muslim “others”. The rhetoric in Hungary, led by the ultra-nationalist, Putin-imitating Viktor Orban and, in neighbouring Poland have been particularly toxic. 

Poland, which, at the time of the relocation proposal, was under a different government, that of the current opposition Civic Platform, generally opposed it, but ultimately voted with the EU majority to accept it. Subsequently, the Polish government has changed and since the ultra-conservative Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, rhetoric has hardened and the prospect of relocation dismissed out of hand. In the face of a Europe weakened by Brexit, these Eurosceptic governments seem to feel emboldened to oppose decisions they see as imposed by Brussels.

The situation within Poland is complex, as its clash with European standards does not reside only in the refugee issue, but is much broader. The Law and Justice party, founded and led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is a reactionary bastion of Catholicism, which, since claiming a majority in 2015, has persistently attempted to pass legislation that contravenes the values of the EU. Last year the government pushed a law that would effectively criminalize abortion, and only backed down after mass protests and pressure from the European Parliament. Along with interfering with the rights of women, the Law and Justice party has made a sustained attack on the hard-won democracy that had succeeded communism imposed by the USSR. Its most recent assault has also provoked mass protests: a plan to reform the judicial system in a way that would gravely undermine the separation of the judiciary and the executive. In the planned reform, all of Poland’s Supreme Court judges would have been forced into retirement. The Justice Minister, who is also the Prosecutor general, would be able to appoint judges. The President would also be able to issue regulations for the work of the Supreme court. This law was passed in July, to the consternation of the European Union, which has repeatedly expressed concerns about this undermining of the independence of the judiciary. Last week the first vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, suggested that if Poland did not reverse the law, it would consider suspending the country’s voting rights in the EU -something which has never been done before. 

In the face of this, it seems that Europe may not have to resort to this, as President Andrzej Duda, although a senior member of ‘Law and Justice’ and sympathetic to all of its views, has in fact announced he will veto two of the three contentious bills. He will only approve the bill that transforms the way in which local courts function. Duda said that his decision was informed principally by the advice of Communist-era dissident Zofia Romaszewska, who apparently told him, “Mr. President, I lived in a state where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do everything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” 

Whether the threat of this “nuclear option” from the EU had influenced his decision or not, Polish politicians find it easier to inscribe any major decision within a narrative in which Poland reasserts its national identity against foreign imposed values: in this instance a refutation of anything that bears the hallmarks of Russian-imposed communism. This is a line of defence that could just as easily be applied to European-imposed liberalism. With regards to the issue of refugees, the nationalist leaders of Hungary and Poland share a two-fold argument: they believe both that their sovereignty is being imperilled by proposals like mandatory relocation quotas of immigrants; and that the identity of their nation is imperilled by the arrival of migrants who are of different ethnicities and religions. 

In 2015, Jaroslaw Kaczynski claimed that refugees were bringing “various parasites and protozoa” to Europe, including dysentery and cholera. The same year, President Duda has said the government should protect its citizens from refugees bringing in "possible epidemics". The rhetoric recalls, to some, the language deployed by the Nazis to convince Aryans of the Jewish “illness”. This attitude is not the preserve of the political elite; it is an attitude widely shared in Poland. A 2013 study undertaken by the Centre for Research on Prejudice, which is a professional academic centre at the University of Warsaw, concluded that as many as 69% of Poles do not want non-white people living in their country. 

In neighbouring Hungary a similar persuasion, both among the population and the politicians, can be identified. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power since 2010, is famously disenchanted with European values. He too has vexed Brussels with propositions to change the judicial system, attempting to obstruct EU wide legislation assuring rights for same sex couples and muzzling the opposition media. With regard to refugees, his approach is punitive: he ordered the construction of a wall along the southern border to Serbia which has been a major stopping point on the Western Balkan route further into Europe. He also made illegal border crossing punishable by up to three years in jail. All refugees in Hungary are now legally obliged to wait in detention camps (made out of shipping containers which are patrolled by soldiers). He also purportedly sympathizes with Donald Trump’s views on immigration restrictions. His stance reflects views that are widely held in Hungary; around 70% of citizens are found to support his ideas. Having been re-elected in 2014, it can only be concluded that his views resonate with the mood of the population (indeed - his is not the only party to espouse anti-European and anti-immigration ideas - there is an even more extreme right wing political party in Hungary, the neo-Nazi ‘Jobbik’). 

Last year a poll from the Pew Research Center found that 82% of Hungarians believed refugees to be a “burden on our country, because they take our jobs and social benefits”. Orban draws on the same line as the Polish politicians when explaining his position. “Hungary will not be a colony!" he famously proclaimed in March 2012. Evidently, Hungary was vociferous in its opposition to the mandatory refugee quota. The statistics speak volumes. According to a 2014 survey, Hungary had taken a fraction more refugees than the Czech Republic, which had apparently only approved the asylum request of 12 people before slamming the door. In 2015, Eurostat found Poland accepted just 0.21 asylum-seekers per 1000 citizens, compared to 0.5 per thousand in the United Kingdom or 8.43 in Sweden. The EU had initially suggested that Poland take 1000 refugees. According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, Poland pledged to accept just 100 Syrian refugees between 2016 and 2020. 

The EU is understandably disappointed with the response of Eastern European states which have been major beneficiaries of its assistance. Some have asked them to cast their minds back to their long years under Communism when their citizens sought asylum abroad and were received sympathetically in the West. Not only this, but there is further evidence that Poland in particular has a glaring double standard, accepting aid a-plenty during periods of difficulty, such as the era of martial law, and now consistently failing to contribute its committed sum to development aid. According to OECD statistics, Poland was the lowest contributor of development aid, in proportion to gross national income in 2014. 

However, the fact that the countries of the former Eastern bloc have been such great beneficiaries of EU membership, should indicate that, for all of their bluster, it is unlikely that they will overplay their hand when negotiating. The EU’s response to the obstructive attitude of Poland and Hungary is to suggest that countries that refuse to accept asylum seekers should pay €250,000 for each individual they turn away. Equally, the European Commission has now taken legal action against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for their refusal to accommodate refugees, a process that may result in financial penalties being imposed, but one that may take years! Orban has dismissed the threat of penalties out of hand, saying, “We will not give in to blackmail from Brussels and we reject the mandatory relocation quota.” At this point in time, with the delicate situation surrounding the ongoing phenomenon of Brexit, the EU may be hesitant to impose severe penalties. Although the election of Emmanuel Macron to the Presidency in France has bolstered the European project, the EU is still undergoing a delicate phase in its post-Brexit existence. 

Equally, although the new French president heavily praised Angela Merkel for “saving the dignity of Europe” with her response to the refugee crisis, the French government has been accused of failing to rise to the challenge of the refugee crisis. It is reported that the government refuses to allow vessels carrying migrants from docking in its ports. Nor has France apparently accommodated it’s ’fair share’ of immigrants as per the relocation quota, (although France probably gets far more than ‘its share’ of illegal immigrants, from N. Africa). “After saying they understand our problem, it doesn’t seem like France wants to help us concretely ... we need more solidarity,” says Mario Giro, Italy’s deputy foreign minister. In Italy the populist Five Star movement is gaining strength, and it could well exploit the stress Italy is facing as a result of the refugees, to make gains in elections which will take place next year. This year more than 93,000 migrants have already arrived in Italy, a 17% increase over the same period last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration. 

Italy is becoming increasingly frustrated with Europe’s failing to effect a solution on the issue. Officials recently threatened to shut their ports to rescue ships, other than those flying the Italian flag, unless the EU agree to disburse more funds to the country to help it to cope. Overcrowding and insanitary conditions make the period of detention for refugees nightmarish, and a sense of precariousness is overwhelming. Apparently around 62,434 people are stranded across Greece, a country which has its own debilitating debt problem. It hardly surprising that 85% of people there apparently think Europe has handled the refugee crisis badly. 

One of the major steps the EU took in an attempt to manage the situation, was its agreement with Turkey, in March 2016 , which saw the union offer Ankara €6 billion euros for assistance with refugees, if it would stem the flow of Syrians into Europe by Greece and the Balkans. This way, it became possible for Europe to simply send immigrants back to Turkey. This plan has been heavily criticized. Amnesty International has contested the idea that Turkey (which is becoming an increasingly repressive regime) is a safe place for refugees. The conclusion, one year on from the Turkey deal, was that Greece was ‘being used as a testing ground for degrading asylum policies that fall short of the democratic values Europe would normally uphold’. It may be that Europe’s way of handling the crisis has been to simply push refugees back, rather than dealing with the root problem and the circumstances that facilitate the mass movement of people. Yet the stark, widespread troubles in the middle east and Africa, that stimulate this life chancing emigration of families and individuals, are beyond the capacity of just the EU bloc of nations to resolve. 

Evidently the population-displacing civil war in Syria was the original catalyst, with refugees more concentrated on Turkish territory, where many camps are well organised. For those determined to try their luck, it is a less risky, because short sea journey to Greece, but the fact of the absence of government in the large lawless state of Libya, means that the whole process of moving has become both infinitely easier and infinitely more dangerous for refugees. They find themselves there unprotected by authority, at the mercy of a substantial and well connected criminal class of people traffickers, in this vast anarchic territory. 

Reports from people working with refugees in Italy have highlighted the fact that often people seeking asylum have already been abused in Libyan detention centres as they negotiate their costly journey across the sea. The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said after a visit to Tripoli that he was “shocked at the harsh conditions in which refugees and migrants are held” in Libya, which he said was “generally due to lack of resources”. Some of the facilities are run by the nascent local version of ‘government’, some by smugglers, but all seem to fall short of reasonable standards.

Since the western powers had ‘the bright idea’ of overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in 2011, 
these are the consequences. The UN’s efforts to restore some sort of order in Libya, now a lawless territory no longer a state, where violence rules supreme, have failed and the security situation with no solution in sight, is deeply worrying. Anarchy rules and that looks likely to continue! An issue remains the fact that whilst many of the migrants are ‘classic refugees’ genuinely seeking safety and political asylum, the establishment of a pathway and networks have greatly encouraged economic migrants too (who are willing to pay the traffickers and risk theirs and their families lives, for the prospect of something better). But individual motivations are hard to distinguish, whilst so much of the Dark continent is in a state of seemingly perpetual war so commonplace as to be hardly ‘on the radar’ of European nations and peoples. 

Apparently as many as 95,000 people, with the majority from sub-Saharan countries, have arrived by boat in southern Italy so far this year, which is a 17% increase on 2016. Many of them are fleeing poverty and famine, as opposed to repression. In the long term the one thing that could deter this mass movement is substantially improving conditions within these stricken countries and taking steps to reduce poverty. This seems to be an approach Chancellor Merkel is now taking. At the G20 in Hamburg this July, she launched a “Compact with Africa”, something of an equivalent to the Marshall plan, to bolster state and private investment in Africa in such a way as to reduce poverty and ultimately make European shores less attractive. It is doubtless an ambitious, laudable plan and one that seeks to address in the long term the imbalance and the precariousness for people whose lives have been radically affected by factors out of their control: climate change and the iniquitous choices of corrupt dictators. 

But inevitably such a process to succeed, has to shut down the casual violence and killing endured in so many distressed parts of less advantaged regions and these things together must mean a co-ordinated effort by the world’s richest and most powerful states. 

However, tackling the causes of the crisis, does nothing to resolve the current problem of relocating people who have already made the journey! Indeed it is problematic to consider that whilst encouraging more sustainable development for Africa, and focusing on important matters like job creation to meet the requirements of a booming, youthful population, the Europeans are inevitably negotiating with unsavoury regimes in Eritrea and Sudan, in order to quell the tide of migration. In other words anything to stop the flow!

It can be seen, that in the long term, the refugee crisis is not just a European problem - it is obviously a global problem. It is surely what the United Nations was invented for, if only its powerful members could delegate the necessary powers and resources to such a supra-national body - it is not restricted to single continents. As such, the negotiations on how to ameliorate the situation require the concerted efforts of dozens of countries. Given how hard it has been to arrive at any agreement within the 27 countries of the European Union, one can imagine how challenging reaching a broader consensus would be. Yet the UN, with a broader and more relevant remit has been in existence since long before the EU. If the will is there, the means can be found. 

Yet current attitudes are not set in stone and governments change. In Poland, it is interesting to note that the Catholic church, whose interests Law and Justice claims to represent, has argued for much more clemency and humanity towards refugees, regardless of their religious background or their ethnicity, following the line of the Pope. There are pockets of hope and reasons to believe that a hegemony of hate is not a permanent fact. There are also always profit motives. Countries like Poland and Hungary cannot indefinitely afford ‘to bite the hand that feeds them’. As President Duda’s veto of the judicial reforms has demonstrated, pressure, be it from grass roots protests, or via clashes with heads of EU member states can stymy the ascent of authoritarianism. That is something to be grateful for. 

Sara Bielecki