For months now the world has been watching as hundreds of thousands of people have journeyed from some of the most poverty-stricken and worn torn regions toward Europe. In October, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 218,000 immigrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Incredibly, this monthly total surpasses the yearly total for 2014 of 216,000 people. Such a migration may seem large, but it represents just a minute percentage of the 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide, now more than at any other time in recorded history.
These migrants are from dozens of countries in the Middle East and sub-Saharan African including Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Egypt, Gaza, and Iraq. And all these refugees have one thing in common: they are fleeing failed states, ungovernable conflicts, and regions obliterated by war.
For an example of the conflicts people are fleeing we can look to Syria, which has been the epicenter of this immigration crisis. What began as a peaceful protest for Democracy and the resignation of Bashar Al-Assad in 2011 escalated quickly. Soon the country was descended into civil war as rebel brigades faced off against forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad.
250,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the conflict. Additionally, numerous human rights violations have occurred including the use of chemical weapons, blocking access to food and water, and deliberately targeting civilians. 11 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes since the start of the conflict and 4 million have migrated to other countries. 62% of the immigrants reaching Europe this year have come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, where people have endured raging conflicts and numerous human rights abuses.
As a consequence of all of this, the burden has fallen to Europe to handle the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to their borders each month. This represents an immigration crisis that has been a controversial issue to say the least. However, one leader whose voice has stood out above the rest is that of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. She has been unwavering in her commitment to welcoming refugees. Under her leadership a four part policy is taking shape: “unapologetically absorb refugees; share the burden across Europe; strengthen controls and processing of asylum seekers at Europe’s external borders; and negotiating with transit countries.”
Although this policy is straightforward it has become increasingly divisive as countries strain to support massive influxes of immigrants, and the policy might not survive after the terrorist attacks in Paris. A passport found near the body of one of the Paris attackers suggested that he had come from Syria and crossed through European Union internal boundaries to get to Paris. Not only does this raise concern about the possibility of ISIS fighters coming to Europe disguised as immigrants, but also threatens the open door policy currently existence between EU member countries.
Since the attacks, French far right leader Marine Le Pen has called for an end to the Schengen Agreement, which protects open borders within the EU, and wants the flow of immigration into France to be cutoff. The attacks have called into question the efficacy and safety of Ms. Merkel’s plan to register immigrants at processing centers and distribute them throughout the EU under a quota system. The plan, originally, was to distribute 120,000 immigrants form Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea from Hungary, Greece, and Italy. However, a few countries have now refused to accept the quota. Germany itself is estimated to take in 800,000 immigrants this year and is counting on the rest of Europe to pull their weight. Additional angst stems from the lack of success that the EU has had negotiating with transit countries like Turkey, in an attempt to get Turkey to stop migrants from taking to the sea.
If security fears lead to a lasting closures of international borders the result could be a rapid build-up of immigrants in border countries like Greece, Italy, and the Balkans. Countries like Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Croatia have already promised to build fences around their borders if an agreement is not reached to ease the burden the most exposed countries. Many of these border countries also lack the resources to support hundreds of thousands of immigrants by themselves and being forced to accommodate these migrants during the winter months would lead to disaster. There would be a humanitarian crisis in Europe in addition to the already innumerable crises already occurring in the Middle East and Africa.
To avoid great tragedy and the loss of human lives there must be solidarity among member countries of the European Union. Fences will not hold back the masses fleeing destitution, war, and death. Since the start of 2015, 3,500 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean and many more immigrants fall pray to human traffickers and robbers. To mitigate further losses and to be able to adequately provide for these refugees in the coming months European countries must distribute the burden and accept responsibility for the victims fleeing to their borders.