The migrant crisis in Europe has taken another turn in its tortured path, as a meeting between Austria and Balkan states concluded with increased restrictions on migrants trying to enter their countries.
Greece, arguably the country mired most deeply in the immigration mess confronting the continent, registered a rare diplomatic protest at its exclusion from the meeting.
As the barriers to entry seem to be growing higher and more robust throughout Europe, with entry points for migrants diminishing both in size and number, is there a way forward?
“What is happening in Greece today is extremely concerning,” says Yves Pascouau, director of migration policy at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Belgium, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “There is an urgent need for other member states to help Greece, not only with border control and refugee hotspots [reception centers], but also in relocation.”
Of 66,000 refugees supposed to be relocated from Greece to other EU member states, as of Feb. 23, a mere 295 had been so dealt with.
Migrant protesters carrying young children shut down a motorway in Greece Wednesday, demanding passage to Macedonia, a crossing permitted only intermittently by border guards, who allow a trickle of refugees through at a time.
Meanwhile, several EU countries have reinstituted internal border checks within the Schengen zone, Austria has limited asylum claims at its southern border to 80 a day, and some Western Balkan countries have slammed the door on Afghans, a group that makes up about a third of all the asylum seekers currently hammering at Europe’s doors.
This only strains the capabilities of Greece even further, a country that would struggle to close its borders to migrants even if it chose to, so littered with entry points is its coastline.
“Europe’s relocation strategy right now seeks to redistribute 160,000 refugees,” says Kirk Day, the International Rescue Committee’s Europe regional representative, in a telephone interview with the Monitor. “Estimates suggest it will take 100 years to achieve that, with the way things stand at the moment.”
But the EU appears in no frame of mind to work as one. If anything, tensions are rising, with some groups of countries implementing restrictive policies and even lashing out at other member states, openly criticizing them.
Yet the actions being taken by countries such as Austria and the Western Balkans are understandable from a national and political perspective, Mr. Pascouau of the European Policy Centre says.
“But there is a discrepancy between the political discourse, taking a tough stance, and the legal possibilities, which are grounded in humanitarian values,” he continues. “All these states have legal duties linked to the Geneva Convention and obligations to refugees.”
Moreover, it is simply unfair for Europe to force Greece into shouldering this burden, a country so recently wracked by financial crisis itself, as Megan Greene notes in Foreign Affairs.
“Never before in the EU’s short history has solidarity been in such short supply – and never has it been so badly needed,” writes Ms. Greene. “If European leaders cannot pull together to defend the EU’s external borders, internal borders will no doubt be reimposed.”
The consequences of this could be significant, with immediate economic cost and the threat of the Schengen free-travel area’s disintegration.
And how has Europe found itself in these harrowed parts? By refusing to plan or prepare, when the warning signs were piling up in reports and news, says Pascouau.
“This is why the answers we’re seeing today are not satisfactory or fair, neither for the migrants nor the member states. Because there was no planning, we find ourselves in an emergency situation.”
But now that the European Union is embroiled in this quagmire, how can it begin to extricate itself? How can it begin to restore that element of unity so central to its essence?
“If there isn’t a real plan put into place by the EU and others, you’re going to have even more people in harm’s way, being pushed back into the arms of smugglers,” says Mr. Day of the International Rescue Committee. “Already, horror stories are emerging of what’s happening to some women and children.”
There is one possibility currently on the table that, more than anything else, could provide some immediate relief: the relationship being nurtured with Turkey could begin yielding real results, reducing the number of migrants showing up at Europe’s gates.
“This would change the landscape and allow tensions to cool down,” says Pascouau.
An agreement between the EU and Turkey has long been mooted, with Europe offering inducements such as money, an easing of visa restrictions and fast-track membership of the union, if Turkey helps ease the flow of asylum-seekers leaving its shores for the EU.
Details of such a plan have yet to be hashed out, a recent meeting between Turkey and EU leaders cancelled when Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu had to pull out due to a bombing in Ankara. The summit has been rescheduled for early March.
But most observers say the promise of a lasting solution comes from ending the war in Syria, dealing with the root cause of this mass migration of refugees, the worst the world has seen since World War II.
“While a reduction in [migrant] flows is highly desirable in view of often overwhelmed national and local authorities,” reads a statement by the European Commission, “there should be no illusions that the refugee crisis will end before its root causes – instability, war and terror in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, notably continued war and atrocities in Syria – are addressed in a definite manner.”