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Stranger within your gates – Some notes on the current “European refugee crisis”

Stranger within your gates – Some notes on the current “European refugee crisis”

Petr Štica


Soon after the “Greek/euro crisis”, another crisis began to occupy headlines in European newspapers – “a refugee crisis”. Rightly. It grew to unexpectedly large dimensions in recent months: Already last year, the number of refugees was at its largest since the end of World War II. At the end of 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recorded 51.2 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. This figure stood at almost 60 million one year later. This startling increase evidences that the political situation in some regions has deteriorated significantly. Since Syria – which is in close proximity to Europe – is the current main country of origin of refugees, the influx of refugees to Europe has manifested even more dramatically. The number of refugees in Europe far exceeds the last major refugee wave from the 1990s, when people fled war in former Yugoslavia. In Germany, for example, the destination for the largest group of refugees, the number of asylum applications in 2012 was approximately 77,500. A year later the figure had increased to 127,000, the next year to 200,000. This year, the number of asylum applications is estimated at 800,000.

It is not only the alarming numbers that show us the urgency of the “refugee crisis”. The media provide alarming pictures and stories: On the one hand, they show refugees making the unsafe journey to Europe (paying much money and risking their lives) and people in receiving countries demonstrating against accepting refugees. On the other hand, they bear witness to open and hospitable societies and to the heroic voluntary engagement in helping refugees. What are the causes of this “crisis”? What kind of ethically relevant questions does it raise? Exhaustive answers to these questions would be far beyond the scope of this essay. Therefore, necessarily, I will focus only on certain aspects of them.

One of the causes is an ineffective and inconsistent European asylum policy. Since the early 1990s, the European Union has sought to establish a unified European asylum policy. In fact, asylum policy is still shaped notably by individual nation-states. One of the principles of EU-asylum policy enshrined in the Dublin Agreement is that of responsible country. It formulates that an asylum seeker does not have the right to choose the country in which he/she applies for asylum. He/She must submit the application in the country through which he/she entered the EU. This system should shift the burden to the country which “committed” entry of the refugees into the territory of the EU. However, due to the increase in the number of people fleeing, this policy proved inadequate and unsustainable. The countries at the external EU borders (Greece, Italy, Hungary) which were overloaded let people migrate further into Europe. The Dublin system is unworkable for other reasons too. It is based on the assumption that there are the same standards of refugee protection in all EU countries: that across member states asylum applications have approximately the same chance of success and are accompanied by the same social and legal standards during the asylum process and after it. This assumption is not true as evidenced by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which in 2011 both ruled that the human rights of asylum seekers would be undermined by returning them from their EU destination country back to Greece, where they entered the EU, because Greece did not have an effective asylum system in operation. The inconsistency manifests also, for example, in the absence of a common list of so called “safe countries”, in the numbers of treaties between member states concerning return of failed asylum seekers, and in the uneven distribution of asylum applications among the countries of the European Union.

The challenge from a political and ethical perspective is how to make European asylum policy ethically responsible and efficient. One path is deeper integration including the unification of standards in the asylum process or the introduction of mandatory quotas for the redistribution of asylum applications within the EU. This requirement – a relatively recent part of the current political agenda – faces resistance from some Eastern European states. On 22 September 2015, in the absence of unanimous consensus, the European Commission had to force through by majority vote a proposal to alleviate the burden on Hungary, Greece and Italy by resettling 120,000 refugees in these countries to other parts of the EU. The proposal was bitterly opposed by Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, which voted against the redistribution plan, regarding quotas as an assault on national sovereignty. Furthermore, ethically responsible asylum policy should be accompanied by a transparent immigration policy, efforts to combat the people smugglers, and long term solutions to the causes of migration (including the search for international peace, and improved environmental and development policy).

The challenges are not only political, but social too, involving society’s willingness to help refugees, which in some regions of Germany surpassed expectations in recent weeks. The Church cannot remain on the sidelines of this social movement. It must be on the side of the people without rights, as Pope Francis emphatically underlines. This can happen, for example, through social assistance in providing information, free legal advice, accommodation, integration into the host society, or by material assistance. Another challenge – confronting society in the Czech Republic, for example – is the cultivation and sensitization of civilized public and media debate, which currently tends to emphasize unilaterally the problems and risks concerning refugees. Guarantee of fundamental human rights as well as respect for the human person regardless of their nationality or religious affiliation have to be put into the center of the debate.

“Do not forget hospitality”: this call from the Epistle to the Hebrews (13:2) is an urgent one, in light of the current political situation. It implies that we should help refugees in their concrete situation and seek a European asylum policy that is consistent, transparent, internally coherent and based on global solidarity and human rights. “The refugee crisis” may help Europeans recognize their important role in the efforts for global justice and accountability for development in the world beyond their own continent.