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Migrating to a more empathetic reality

Migrants are being escorted by police and army personnel through the fields as they walk towards the Brezice refugee camp.  

On a weekend in October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu took a break from their meetings in Istanbul and went for a walk along the Bosphorous. Parts of their skilfully casual conversation were captured by the media. They ambled along the bank discussing sightseeing plans; ships could be heard blaring their horns in the background. “They’re greeting us,” the Prime Minster explained, and they both waved back in acknowledgement. The waters were choppy and the sky overcast, not unlike the background to their weekend of discussions -- the largest migration of humans since the Second World War, most of whom are travelling from West Asia and making their way to Europe. The meetings in Istanbul revealed that the European Union (EU) is potentially willing to pay €3 billion to Turkey primarily so the latter can effectively contain the flow of some 2.2 million Syrian refugees from its soil into Europe.

It is no secret that the focus of the negotiations among EU members and with their external partners has been “managing” the flow of refugees and migrants. The goal appears in official agendas and meeting minutes, press releases and political speeches; it is also the underlying rationale for financial transfers. Donald Tusk, European Council President, was widely quoted in the press as saying, “The agreement with Turkey makes sense only if it effectively contains the flow of refugees.”

The humane treatment of refugees and addressing their needs certainly does find mention in diplomatic and political processes as well as action on the ground, but it is not the focus. Europe and the economically developed countries have the money, infrastructure and space to address the crisis in a substantive and positive way. What is being done in terms of money and people is miniscule compared to what is feasible and needed. The debate needs to be turned around and reframed to be predominantly from a refugee perspective rather than an overwhelmingly Eurocentric or developed-country perspective. Only then will it generate the empathy required to scale up and speed up these ameliorative measures.

There are some, including powerful executives of the EU such as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel, who have a vision of Europe that is broader than that of the majority of decision-makers involved in the current debate. This allows them to act as a pivot for those sections of government and civil society that view refugees with compassion and place them at or closer to the centre of this crisis. That Europe has the resources, the space, >and the historic obligation to itself if not to others to do much more about the refugee crisis is an idea that needs more vigorous championing. Those with a broader view have to not just contend with the political right across Europe but also with more visible opposition in their own constituencies.

Managing the inflow of refugees is therefore a crucial element to the overall success of a comprehensive, humane and workable strategy to address the crisis but it is not an end in itself. Flow mismanagement is a roadblock to welcoming and rehabilitating a significantly higher number of refugees rather than something that will save Europe from the imagined danger of cultural and demographic ruin. That is not to say that everything will be smooth sailing. There are genuine security concerns and risks that need to be mitigated and there will be challenges ahead such as integrating people into their new countries, managing friction, ensuring that children get enrolled in school, matching people to jobs and educating everyone about their rights and responsibilities.

When asked about these risks, Ketty Kehayioy, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officer in Athens told The Hindu, “Indeed in today’s climate of rising panic, it deeply worries UNHCR that refugees are becoming mixed up with security concerns, confronting hostility in places where they thought they were safe. They are made scapegoats for any number of problems, from terrorism to economic hardship and serious diseases and perceived threats to their host communities’ way of life. But we need to remember that the primary threat is not from refugees but to them, as refugees are themselves victims of these terrorist groups.”

According to the UNHCR, just over 740,000 refugees and migrants have entered Europe by sea this year (excluding Turkey); 53 per cent from Syria, 18 per cent from Afghanistan, six per cent from Iraq, and the rest from Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Bangladesh. Germany alone received over 200,000 migrants in September and is expecting a total of 800,000 (1.5 million by some estimates) before the year ends. The UNHCR data confirm that most of these individuals are fleeing terror and war – the Islamic State and government forces in Syria, the fighting in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabab in East Africa; they are mostly refugees, not economic migrants.

“Ninety-four per cent of arrivals to Greece come from the world’s top 10 refugee producing countries and are therefore not economic migrants,” Ms. Kehayioy told The Hindu.

So far the EU has agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees in total -- hardly a large number given that reports say Slovenia, a small country of two million people, received some 75,000 refugees over just 10 days in October.

Last week, a group of EU leaders met to discuss migrant and refugee flows along the Western Balkans route. The action plan that was agreed at this meeting includes improving refugee reception facilities between Greece and Germany to facilitate 100,000 refugees with the help of the UNHCR, 12.5 per cent of the expected numbers this year at best.





Reception is just the first step towards resettling refugees. Many more are expected to arrive over the following months; over four million people have already become refugees in Syria’s neighbouring states; Turkey alone houses approximately 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Another 7.6 million people were internally displaced in Syria as of July this year; it does not require a wild imagination to believe that many of these people will soon become international refugees.

Add to Europe’s current absorption the absorption of several other countries in the global north – Australia, the United States and Canada for instance -- and it still does not amount to much given the size of the problem. Australia has a set 13,750 places for refugees each year and recently agreed to resettle an additional 12,000 directly from camps in Syria and Iraq – still just 0.1 per cent of its population. The U.S. has taken 70,000 refugees this year and has a stated goal of 100,000 in 2017. That will still be just 0.03 per cent of the total U.S. population. The U.K. government, caving under public pressure, decided to finally re-settle 20,000 refugees from camps in West Asia by 2020. News of the hopelessly small volumes being accepted is being drowned out by complaints, panic and self-congratulatory noises.

There is more than enough space and money for a few million refugees in Europe – way above current numbers. Almost all the EU-28 member countries have showed a decline in the proportion of their young population (0-14 year olds) between 2004 and 2014 according to data from the European Commission. While this decline is just a couple of percentage points or less in most cases, it still leaves plenty of room, in absolute numbers, for refugees, who, hard as it may be for the political right to swallow, are not coming to corner benefits but to leave behind terror, deprivation and death, to survive and, if given the opportunity, to work and thrive in their new countries. According to Mr. Juncker, the flow of refugees into Europe, as of September 2015, represented just 0.11 per cent of Europe’s population. Mr. Juncker compares this to Lebanon, a poorer country than your average EU member state, where 25 per cent of the population is refugees.

The money, too, is available, but the willingness (or necessity) to spend on the crisis has rested with a few countries – Germany, Austria and Italy for instance. Germany, most notably, has agreed to spend an additional €6 billion on 800,000 refugees but the rest of Europe lags behind. Italy expects to spend €3.3 billion on refugees this year -- the financial responsibility is far from evenly distributed across Europe.

Looking beyond Europe to the United States, the country contributed $1.2 billion to the UNHCR budget in addition to other monies spent on refugees in country. These are not small sums of money in themselves, but pale in comparison to the country’s other expenditures and its GDP of close to $ 17.4 trillion. As a comparator, consider the U.S.’s war expenditures: the Congressional Research Service, the United States Congress’s in-house think tank, says Congress approved $1.6 trillion for the U.S.’s war expenditures over the last 13 years – that is an astronomical $123 billion per year on average. Some of this contributed to the refugee situation in the first place.

Clearly, much more can be done. Proponents of this view in government have to contend with their respective constituents’ expectations in addition to the vitriol and propaganda from extreme quarters which fuel reasonable concerns the public may have and transform them into irrational and exaggerated fears. This task becomes more difficult if the financial and demographic burden is concentrated in a few countries.

Slovenia’s experience last week, where 60,000 refugees arrived in five days in a country of just two million is indeed cause for concern. Ms. Merkel’s experience of throwing open Germany’s borders to refugees in September and then finding that the equivalent of a city relocated to Germany in a span of a few days is cause for concern. In Germany’s experience earlier this summer, borders with Austria had to be sealed as the Bavarian government, which was receiving most refugees, could not cope with the influx. Recent reports say that Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian government, is planning to sue Ms. Merkel’s government for its refugee policy. But surely a union of 500 million people can afford to take in a few million terrorised, exhausted, mostly helpless, suffering people without the risk of imploding? There are real infrastructure issues, and an unmanageably high volume of refugees in one region is bound to raise demographic and cultural fears, even in a country like Germany, where citizens are all too aware of the dangers of xenophobia and nationalism, given the country’s past. Germany’s Pegida is a case in point. The group was formed last year on an anti-Islamisation and anti-immigrant platform and is gaining momentum by mobilising support against refugees.

The less wealthy countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where refugees first enter the EU, have been reluctant to accept the idea of forced refugee quotas being pushed by Germany and the European Commission. They may neither have the experience nor adequate resources to handle such a large influx of refugees. These are legitimate concerns and if not addressed will further bolster xenophobic and fundamentalist lobbies within and outside government. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has advocated keeping out Muslim refugees because Europe is Christian in his view and ought to stay that way. Poland and Switzerland, in their recent elections, have also moved further right partly due to immigration fears. Carefully managing the flow of refugees and ensuring that the responsibility for them falls fairly across all EU member states will help prevent the formation of pressure points across the continent.

Europe as a continent is profoundly familiar with wars, dispossession, migration and relying on the kindness of others who have no legal obligation to help you. The Second World War created more than sixty million refugees – and Europeans were displaced within the continent as well as seeking refuge in the Americas, Australia and other parts of the world. Mr. Juncker once more has shown leadership on this front, saying in his emotional State of the Union address in September, “This is first of all a matter of humanity and of human dignity. And for Europe it is also a matter of historical fairness.” He went on to highlight that more than 20 million Polish people had been living outside their country, driven out by border shifts and expulsions and that the Second World War had created more than sixty million refugees in Europe and that “nearly all” Europeans have been refugees somewhere along the line. This idea of historical fairness – and more than that, compassion and empathy for the other, what the self once was and could again become someday – is not heard often enough.

This is not the time for endless negotiations and academic debates on what the world will look like if a few million refugees settle in Europe and other developed countries. Although logic and reasoning clearly support admitting many more refugees and quickly, these are unlikely to shift progress into higher gear. What will cover the distance more effectively at this point is fostering empathy. A quick way to engender empathy is to harness civil society directly, for instance, by governments providing subsidies to families to take in refugees temporarily, until they can stand on their feet. A proportion of the 100,000 refugees for whom reception space is being created under the Western Balkan action plan will be housed by host families. More than 10,000 people in Iceland offered to open their homes up to refugees in September. This “crowd-sourcing” for a solution not only takes any alleged pressure off of government budgets but has the advantage of allowing citizens to get acquainted with those who have arrived as refugees in a personal and direct way. Myths and fears are likely to be replaced by facts and realistic expectations. This is likely to accelerate the movement towards a new, more refugee-centric and refugee-friendly approach.

“Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border,” Juncker said last month. This empathetic approach is unfortunately not what most of Europe seems to be today. It is not the world either. It is however what is needed to bring change on a much larger scale and soon. Winter is fast approaching.

This article has been corrected for factual error.

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