Refugees in Europe: Mixed news as various nations make choices

Several European countries announced new plans Thursday for dealing with the refugee crisis that dominated 2015. 

AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris
African refugees play soccer at a refugee camp in Athens on Thursday. Greece’s coast guard have raised the death toll from a migrant boat sinking Thursday to 25, after recovering seven more bodies from the sea off the northern coast of Samos, an island near the Turkish coast. Ten of the dead are children.

In the midst of Europe’s refugee crisis, Britain and the Netherlands stepped forward Thursday to open doors to refugees. At the same time, other countries are moving to slam their borders shut.

The Paris attacks in 2015 and the New Year’s Eve sexual assault scandal in Cologne hardened the hearts of many Europeans towards the thousands of refugees still awaiting asylum in the European Union.

This month, decisions about accepting or rejecting refugees seem to vary widely from nation to nation. Just days after the EU pressured Greece to better enforce its borders, the Dutch have announced that they are working on a plan that would allow the European Union to accept up to 250,000 refugees. Independently, Britain announced a plan to accept unaccompanied migrant children.

The announcements from the Dutch and British governments may provide a much needed light in the darkness for asylum seekers, many of whom spend months in refugee camps, waiting for their applications to be processed.

Recent hostility towards refugees has deterred countries like Poland from accepting more. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who led her country to accept approximately one million refugees in 2015, has come under fire for her policies recently in the wake of the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

Right wing parties across Europe reacted to the Cologne attacks by condemning their countries’ acceptance of refugees.

Most recently, Denmark passed legislation that would allow officials to confiscate valuables from migrants. Ostensibly, this policy reflects Danish joblessness policies, which require unemployed Danes to sell assets such as jewelry. However, both critics and supporters say that the policy will deter refugees.

Some, like anti-immigration Danish People’s Party leader Martin Henriksen, say, "We hope this will start a chain reaction through Europe where other European countries can see there's the need to tighten the rules on immigration in order to keep European culture."

Wednesday, the European Union cracked down on Greece, which it says has failed in its duty to control migration into Europe.

More than 850,000 refugees have traveled to Europe via the Greek islands this year. In response to the EU crisis, the Dutch have developed a plan.

Under the Dutch plan, the EU would take 250,000 refugees a year from Turkey, provided migrants who have already made the crossing to Greece return to Turkey by ferry.

This proposal is aimed at solving the Greek border crisis. It could also reduce migrant deaths in the dangerous ocean crossing by deterring migration to Greece. Two hundred migrants have died in the Aegean Sea in the last month alone.

Amnesty International condemned the proposal, however, citing Turkey’s treatment of refugees. John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International, said, “No one should be fooled by the humanitarian sheen of this fundamentally flawed proposal. It is political expediency, plain and simple, aimed at stopping the flows of desperate people across the Aegean Sea.”

Britain also announced a refugee plan on Thursday. Pressure from humanitarian groups like Save the Children convinced the UK to accept up to 3,000 unaccompanied young refugees. Save the Children claims that there are 26,000 such children in Europe, although Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said that the UK would focus its efforts on children in Middle Eastern camps.

Mr. Brokenshire said that while most refugee children would be better off with family members, some displaced children are traveling alone. For that reason, he said, "we [Britain] have asked the UNHCR to identify the exceptional cases where a child's best interests are served by resettlement to the UK and help us to bring them here."

The British government will also aid these children by offering more funding to the European Asylum Support Office, which attempts to reunite refugee children with family already in Europe.

Additionally, Britain will uphold its previous commitment to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020.

But even as the Netherlands and Britain work to allow some refugees in, Sweden seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

In 2015, Sweden was one of the most desirable destinations for refugees. The country’s acceptance of migrant applicants was a beacon that drew 163,000 last year alone.

Now, it has announced plans to deport about half that number due to strained resources. If the refugees do not choose to leave voluntarily, they will be forced to leave by police.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of the advocacy group called The Human Rights Watch, condemned the scrambled European response to the refugee crisis.

In a report published this month, Mr. Roth urged European leaders to remember the example they set for the world. “Europe’s response, or lack thereof,” writes Roth of the refugee crisis, “affects the ability to build societies elsewhere that respect people of different cultures, religion, and sexual orientation.”

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