Europeans distraught, divided as migrant crisis worsens

Story highlights

Migrants flooding across the Mediterranean have divided Europe

Many are welcoming, but governments remain cautious

Germany is allowing higher numbers of refugees to settle

Europe's principle of free movement at stake

CNN  — 

“These are not ‘quotas,’ they are human lives.”

That was one sentence in a Facebook post by the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, protesting what she described as the Spanish government’s “pathetic” response to the migrant crisis now gripping much of Europe.

The sheer numbers flooding across the Mediterranean, the harrowing images of children drowned at sea and of desperate families scrambling to board trains, have divided people and governments in Europe, young and old (though not always how one might expect) and east from west.

Outpouring of sympathy

There have been remarkable demonstrations of compassion. Across Germany at the weekend, banners were hoisted at Bundesliga football matches that said simply “Welcome Refugees.”

German champions Bayern Munich have announced plans to set up a training camp for refugee children which will provide football sessions as well as German language classes and meals. Police in the German city said they’d been ‘overwhelmed’ by donations for refugees.

The hashtag #refugeeswelcome has spread virally among Twitter users in Europe.

In Britain a petition to ‘accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugee migrants’ had nearly 300,000 signatures by late Thursday. And in Barcelona, in response to Colau’s appeal, hundreds of residents have offered rooms in their homes to migrants who might be admitted to Spain.

Toxic issue

But those rooms may remain empty.

Immigration – legal and otherwise – is a toxic political issue in many European countries, accounting for the rise of far-right parties in Scandinavia, the surge of UKIP in the United Kingdom and the National Front in France.

Conservative governments in the UK and Spain have taken a hard line on migration, insisting that the focus of European efforts should be on targeting the human traffickers – the enablers of the crisis – and improving conditions in the migrants’ countries of origin.

Standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected the idea of ‘quotas’ of refugees for each EU state. “Some countries don’t want refugees,” he said. “You can’t force anyone.”

Spain has agreed to take fewer than 3,000.

Refugees or economic migrants?

Some argue that the majority of those who have arrived in Europe are not refugees escaping political persecution but migrants seeking better economic opportunities. It’s a distinction Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopecz makes.

“Our decisions have to be first of all effective in bringing help to those who need it, not for those who see chances for a better life in Europe,” she told a news conference Thursday.

To others that’s immaterial. Europe is a large, rich but aging continent that actually benefits from immigration, they contend, much as America does.

To veteran political journalist Philip Stevens, the handling of the crisis has seen “lofty rhetoric about collective action gainsaid by a fearful retreat into the narrowest of nationalisms.”

“The rich nations of the EU had other things on their mind: austerity, recession and the never-solved euro crisis,” Stevens wrote in the Financial Times Thursday.

Long-term issue

It’s not as though the European Union has been taken by surprise.

At the start of this year, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker called for a common asylum policy – complaining that “one and the same applicant for asylum can have a 70-75% chance of being granted asylum in one country of the European Union and less than 1%, with the same reasons, in another country.”

In April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke of the first surge of arrivals as the weather in the Mediterranean improved.

“It is unthinkable that in the face of such a tragedy, there isn’t the feeling of solidarity which Europe has shown in other instances,” he said.

In the months since, little has changed. Juncker’s proposals were rejected at European summits in April and again in July.

At the last summit, a Commission plan to share some 32,000 asylum-seekers among EU states was voted down. Just two months later, and the Commission now wants member states to share 160,000 asylum-seekers.

Arrests fail to stem tide

What did change was Europe’s readiness to police the Mediterranean, with the budget of the frontier agency tripled in April and member states contributing more in the way of naval and aerial resources. This may have led to greater apprehension of smugglers – but it’s done nothing to dent the tide of people heading north.

After the debt crisis that very nearly broke up the Eurozone, Europe is again divided.

Germany is prepared to take 800,000 asylum seekers this year alone – four times the number in 2014 and more than all other EU countries put together last year. No wonder that exhausted, hungry Syrians chant “Germany” in Macedonian fields and Hungarian railway stations.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel said it was a question of principle.

“If this close link with universal civil rights is broken,” she said of the right to asylum, “then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”

Sweden has been one of the few European countries to share the German approach.

Relative to population size, it received the highest share of the more than 600,000 asylum seekers who arrived in the EU in 2014, according to figures from the EU statistics body Eurostat.

Making things worse?

To some observers, these countries have taken the moral high ground; to others this generosity has only exacerbated the problem, luring the desperate now trampling through southern Europe to reach Germany.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, complained that the crisis was more a “German problem” than a European one.

The countries of eastern Europe have been most resistant to accepting refugees. Some of that resistance is because of the likely impact on public budgets. Much of it – plainly – is down to fear of an influx of Muslims into countries with little experience of immigration.

Slovakia has said it will accept only non-Muslim refugees. “Slovakia as a Christian country can really help Christians from Syria to find a new home in Slovakia,” said government spokesman Ivan Netik.

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban was more candid, speaking in Brussels Thursday.

“All countries have a right to decide whether they want to live with large numbers of Muslims in their countries,” he said. “If they want to, they can. We don’t want to, and we have a right to decide we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.”

Read more: West to blame for Europe’s migrant crisis, say Erdogan, Putin

Principle of free movement in jeopardy

That won’t cut it with Germany, whose munificence comes with a price tag – and a veiled threat.

Unless member states of the EU accept mandatory quotas going forward, said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, the whole principle of free movement within most of the Union, enshrined in the Schengen Agreement, will be in jeopardy.

“If nobody sticks to the law, then Schengen is in danger. That’s why we urgently need European solutions,” he said last month.

European solutions, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, include mandatory quotas.

In the face of the scale of the crisis, and the images flooding television screens and social media, the language has begun to shift. Polish Prime Minister Kopacz spoke of “a moral duty to accept refugees” Thursday, while resisting quotas.

Britain, which had pledged to admit only 1,000 refugees, is now revisiting its policy. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of being moved by the image of a drowned Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach and declared Thursday: “Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfill our moral responsibilities.”

That photograph - of the lifeless body of two-year old Aylan Kurdi – has moved tens of thousands of people, including Presidents and Prime Ministers. It may yet help move Europe to action.

Read more: Syrian toddler’s dad: ‘Everything I was dreaming of is gone’