EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is based on a lecture delivered at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, on December 3, 2015, and draws on material previously published in Revista Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares and Mittelweg 36.
Since the November 13 attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and injured 350, and the New Year’s Eve melee in Cologne, where the police recorded 379 allegations of sexual assault and robbery, it has become increasingly difficult to have a sensible discussion about the refugee question in Europe. Even though the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were almost all French and Belgian citizens, and the suspects in Cologne were mostly Moroccans and Algerians, politicians, commentators, and citizens throughout Europe have pointed to the events to justify the rejection of asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. They allege two things: a possible fifth column of terrorists traveling among the asylum seekers, and the impossibility of integrating these refugees into Western societies. What has been lost in the debate is the recognition that the recent influx of asylum seekers and the wave of anxiety it has generated have revealed the refugee question rather than having created it. Indeed, there is a long-standing distrust and hostility in Europe toward non-Europeans fleeing persecution and violence.
The so-called European refugee crisis is a moral issue before it is a demographic one, and the extent to which it even is a demographic issue is not entirely clear. At the end of 2015, the European border agency Frontex released statistics about the entry of 710,000 migrants into the European Union from January through September. These “massive numbers,” as the report characterized them, made headlines and fueled xenophobic reactions across the continent. It was only after the figures were criticized by human-rights activists that the agency added a “clarification” on its website explaining that “a large number of the people who were counted when they arrived in Greece were again counted when entering the EU for the second time through Hungary or Croatia.” It is estimated that this overcounting has increased the figures by probably one-fourth, thereby exaggerating the perceived size of the influx. Similarly, the obstacles on the Eastern European routes created to deter the movement of people seeking to reach Germany or Scandinavia have produced a glut of dramatic images of crowds blocked behind border fences, clogged at passage points, or confined in train stations, which have also fed anxieties all over Europe.
In reality, the 500,000 to 600,000 migrants who, according to the adjusted estimation of Frontex’s figures, entered the European Union during the first nine months of 2015 represent barely more than one person per 1,000 of the total EU population. In contrast, refugees in Lebanon count for approximately one-fourth of the country’s population—proportionally, 250 times more. And in comparison with other historical periods, the current refugee tally is barely higher than that of the early 1990s, when people fled to the EU from conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. The problem today is the unequal distribution of these asylum seekers among the nations of the EU. For first-time asylum applicants between 2014 and 2015 as recorded by Eurostat, there is a stark contrast between countries that have refused to take their share—notably the United Kingdom and France, with an increase from 2014-15 of 19 and 20 percent, respectively—and countries that have demonstrated their willingness to offer protection to refugees, such as Germany (with 442,000 new asylum seekers in 2015) and Sweden (with 156,000), representing an increase of 155 and 108 percent, respectively.
With parity and solidarity among EU members sorely lacking, what could have been a collectively manageable problem has been met with populist rhetoric in some member states and led to a costly generosity on the part of others. The criticisms expressed in Munich on February 13 by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, which he called “unsustainable,” represent a clear indication of the profound divide among European leaders with respect to the values of the 1951 Geneva Convention. “Europe cannot take in all migrants from Syria, Iraq or Africa,” Valls stated. “It has to regain control over its borders, over its immigration or asylum policies.” The fact that Valls is the head of a socialist government, whereas Merkel leads a center-right coalition, shows that the crux of the refugee crisis is more moral than political.