Refugees: Europe closes its borders, and its heart

Helping refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared this week, is "no more or less than a moral imperative". She received a nine-minute standing ovation. But FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert sees the mood souring against migrants.


It’s been just 14 weeks since the photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach triggered a global outpouring of compassion for the plight of migrants.

The image, shared around the globe, prompted a surge in donations to refugee charities. Here in France, President François Hollande phoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Canada’s then-prime minister, Stephen Harper, was suddenly put on the defensive over his conservative government’s refugee policy in a federal election campaign that he would ultimately lose to Liberal Justin Trudeau.

(Canadian immigration authorities had reportedly turned down a pervious asylum application by Aylan’s uncle; Trudeau, meanwhile, repeated an earlier, pre-campaign promise to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees.)

What a difference 14 weeks makes.

Since that late-summer bout of sympathy, the mood towards migrants – when we think of them at all – has turned markedly more abrasive, and acerbic.

Facing down a revolt

The November 13 attacks here in Paris have injected an added note of fear and suspicion about strangers from strange lands.

Angela Merkel, fresh from being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, has faced down a threatened revolt from hardliners within her own Christian Democratic Union party over her open-door migrant policy.

But given the enormous pressure she’s under – her finance minister likened his leader to a “careless skier” who might trigger “an avalanche” – even the most powerful leader in Europe had to dilute her call to keep Europe’s borders open. The influx of migrants into Germany (where 1 million are expected this year) had to be “markedly reduced”, she added.

Any politician with a message of empathy for refugees must calibrate it these days with an equally forceful statement of intent about beefing up Europe’s external border controls.

Europe’s own border force

Hence we see Berlin and Paris teaming up to call for a wholesale overhaul of the way Europe’s external frontier is patrolled. Under a newly touted plan, a new standing European border force and coast guard would be created with the power – unlike the largely toothless agency it's replacing – to hire its own guards and buy its own equipment.

In theory, the European Commission would be able to authorise guards to deploy on the frontier of EU non-members to enforce border security.

The idea is to save Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone by reinforcing the porous outer frontier in cases where the countries’ own national guards are deemed not up to the task.

The plan is likely to raise objections, however, from countries who see an EU force on their territory as a breach of national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, refugee “triage”, according to one media report, continues along the Balkan route.

Thousands of migrants have been stranded in recent weeks on Greece’s border with Macedonia, thwarted in their northward journey by states who have begun blocking access to all but Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans – that is, people considered to be from legitimate “war zones”.

Packed onto buses

The upshot is that citizens from a host of conflict-ravaged nations – whether Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Congo or Bangladesh – are left in a migratory no-man’s land.

Greek police in recent days have rounded many up, and packed them aboard buses bound for Athens – a sort of holding station while their fates are sorted out.

In a similar vein, a recent operation by French authorities to relocate refugees from a camp in Calais to other holding centers in France was condemned by a government human rights ombudsman as a violation of their fundamental rights.

Despite the approach of winter and the ever more formidable obstacles thrown in their paths, the migrants continue to demonstrate that any hazards they may face are far outweighed by the perils awaiting them in their countries of origin.

In some countries on the front line of the migrant influx, authorities concede that the refugees are more resilient than almost any effort to thwart them.

Ranko Ostojić, the Croatian interior minister, put it succinctly in comments to The Guardian newspaper.

“There’s no possibility of making a full stop. There’s no wall that will stop them totally,” he said.

This article was originally published on December 16, 2015.

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