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How has the European refugee and migration crisis impacted Central Europe and how have countries from the region sought to influence refugee and asylum policy at the EU level?
Based on the data from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights the number of displaced people around the world is steadily growing from the period of the Arab Spring in 2011. Millions are escaping their home countries as a result of warfare, instability, poverty and the lack of political coherence to resolve the crisis. A significant number of those people have resettled in European countries. However, the situation was not critical until the period of 2015, when, according to Eurostat, EU member states received over 1.2 million asylum applications, which was twice as many than the amount of the previous year. The current European refugee and migration crisis is defined as a specific situation faced by the European Union receiving a growing number of migrants and refugees fleeing the war in Syria. (Toygür; 2016) This process is usually described as the largest movement of people since the end of World War Two. People who applied for asylum status in Europe are those who escape from war and persecution in their home countries in Africa, the Western Balkans, and the Middle East. Some of those who move to Europe are trying to improve their economic position or quality of life while avoiding legal migration channels which makes the process of defining the crisis and formulating a common solution even more complicated. In 2014, the top three countries were Syria (29%), Afghanistan (14%) and Iraq (10%). In addition, there are economic migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. In 2014 the main refugee routes were largely from Libya to Italy and from Turkey to Greece. (Joris, d’Haenens, Van Gorp and Mertens; 2016)
The migration and refugee crisis is happening during an uneasy time for Europe. The EU was already dealing with the number of domestic challenges, such as the consequences of the Greek crisis, the rise of right-wing populism, and the uncertainties regarding the UK’s place in the Union. Some argue that the growing number of asylum seekers have become a fuel for these challenges as well as brought new security choices regarding the Middle East conflict. (Heisbourge; 2015)
On the international level the European policy regarding the status of refugee originates in the Geneva Convention of 1951 together with the New York Protocol of 1967. These documents defined the ‘basic rules and principles of refugee protection’ whith the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ‘acting as a guardian of the treaty.’ (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016) However from the early 1980s the regional system of cooperation regarding the refugee issues begun to emerge. The core element of it was a creation of the Schengen area, the borderless zone between five out of ten countries of the European Community. As a part of the Schengen Agreement, the EU adopted Dublin convention – ‘the basis of the common asylum policy.’ (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016) The Dublin protocol provides the important regulatory framework and states that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the first country of entering the EU; the country should take care of them, if they move to a different country they should be returned, and so forth. Thus, during the current refugee crisis, the Dublin regulation put an additional pressure for the border states, such as Italy, Greece, or Bulgaria, which not necessarily have a capacity to handle the increasing flow people crossing the border of the EU.
Moreover, some states are failing to adopt and apply standards of the Common European Asylum System that ‘comprises common refugee law in number of interlocking legislative instruments.’ (Guild, Costello, and others; 2015)
In order to strengthen the common asylum policy of the EU, revise and improve the Dublin system, the European Asylum Support Office was established in 2010. This organization together with the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund provide financial support and helps in implementing the EU regulation on a member state level and make sure that ‘the EU states which are most affected by migration and asylum flows can count on solidarity from other EU states.’ (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016)
Despite the effort to promote and improve the common asylum and refugee policy, there is a certain level of resistance from some member states to implement regulation and coordinate their policies within the EU. This is especially relevant towards Central and Eastern European states. Their strong anti-migration rhetoric is a clear evidence of unwillingness to cooperate and lack of solidarity within European states.
Central European response on refugee and migration crisis
In recent times the level of Euroscepticism, if not euro-phobia, has risen. Central European states have made a clear point that they are not ready to accept a large number of refugees in their countries. They are turning towards a pro-national oriented policy and idea of closed and secure borders, which in a way brings xenophobia back to Europe. Quite often the countries of Central Europe — Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia — and the Baltics refer to the lack of financial capacities to accommodate migrants as well as unpreparedness of the society to welcome outsiders. ‘In Slovakia, we don’t have mosques, we only want to choose the Christians.’ Jaroslaw Kaczynsky, the leader of the Law and Justice Party in Poland, once said that migrants carry ‘various types of parasites, which could be dangerous here’. (Heisbourge; 2015)
Countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, frequently adopt restrictive regulation and reject asylum applications which make it harder for asylum seekers to enter and settle in the country. ‘According to Eurostat some countries such as Estonia, Lithuania and Portugal declined all of the asylum applications in 2015, while Latvia, Hungary and Poland recorded first instance rejection rate above 80 %.’ (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016) In Hungary, the governor Viktor Orban has stated that ‘Hungary would like to remain a homogenous culture and illegal immigrants from outside Europe would endanger such a situation.’ (CITE) He also announced a plan to build a fence across Hungarian southern border with Serbia in order to stop further refugee flow. (Matthee; 2015)
A political debate is supported by the public opinion towards refugees in Eastern European countries which is predominantly negative. In Slovakia, migration became a more prominent issue in the media, reflecting public concerns regarding security, economic cost, and cultural integration of refugees from Muslim countries. (Slovakia Questions) Anti-Muslim arguments are also supported by representatives from the religious community. For instance, Hungarian catholic bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo stated that ‘They’re not refugees. This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. They want to take over.’(CITE) The catholic cardinal Dominik Duka from Czech Republic spoke in a similar way, saying ‘the right to life and security of Czech families and citizens are superior to all other rights.’ (Culik; 2015)
In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party voted to keep immigration policy in the hands of Polish state, opposing the creation of the common EU mechanism of refugee relocation. Some politicians claimed that refugees from the Middle East create social tension and represent a security threat for some European countries, therefore Poland should keep the asylum and refugee policy in its own hands. National politicians made several anti-migration statements, claiming that some of the migrants are affiliated with international terrorist organizations. Poland is in favor of accepting Christians and grants asylum status to so called ‘religious minority’ representatives which refers mainly to Arab Christians from the Middle East. (CITE) The country is stated to accept at least 6,500 refugees from Greece and Italy over the next two years. (Rettman; 2016)
Most of the arguments against accepting refugees from Eastern European states rise concerns regarding ‘cultural incompatibility, racial and religious difference, security threats, inability to distinguish genuine refugees from economic migrants, negative experience with integration in other European Union member states and localities, lasting socialist legacies of population resettlement that continued to undermine post-socialist polities, poor economies, impoverished populations and imposed solidarity by Europe that invoked memories of directives from Moscow.’ (Dzenovska; 2016) It resulted in the rise of conservative, nationalistic and, quite often, xenophobic rhetoric and leaded to the lack of coherence and solidarity among European Union member states.
Role of central European states in refugee and migration crisis
Even though countries such as Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia or Baltic states have not been greatly affected by the refugee crisis, they have a capacity to shape agenda within the EU and influence asylum seeker policy of the Union.
In 2015, the European Commission drafted the ‘EU agenda on Migration’ —setting ‘political priorities’ and elaborating on a common response on the refugee and migration crisis. The most sensitive issues of the agenda were the proposal of ‘Relocation system’ and ‘Resettlement System’. The Council agreed to redistribute around 160,000 Syrian refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary to other member states over a span of two years. This proposal sparkled an open conflict during the Justice and Home Affairs Council. (Toygür; 2016) In response Slovakia filed a lawsuit to the European Court of justice against proposed ‘quota policy’. The authorities of the country disagree with the idea to settle hundreds southern of refugees within 28 member states. But, even more they disagree with the way the decision was reached – by QMV. The representatives of the country insisted that such important decision should be adopted by a consensus. Slovakia is considered to be a transit country for refugees – on their way to more desirable destinations in Germany, France, and Sweden. Therefore, the country has no capacity to make them stay. Currently the country is accepting preferably Christian refugee families keeping the number low – the asylum status was granted to approximately 150 people in total in 2015. (Slovakia Questions)
Poland was initially supportive of the ‘quota policy’, however after the Paris terrorist attack the country changed its position. The President of Latvia, similarly stated that ‘Latvia will not accept any more refugees until Europe’s border security can be assured.’ (Dzenovska; 2016)
Several EU states, including Germany, Sweden and some other ‘target countries’ stopped implementing the Dublin regulations, meaning that they stopped sending refugees back to the border countries. However, Central European countries insist on sending their refugees back to the countries where they entered the EU border and refuse to ratify the quota policy that was introduced by the EU. Austria, for instance, was trying to limit the number of people reaching the country by blocking their border. These measures are supported by the rise of anti-refugee sentiments. In 2010 the Czech Republic received less than 1000 refugee applications however the common attitude between citizens older 15 was against accepting refugees from Syria and African countries. (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016)
Some scholars argue that the current refugee crisis draws a clear line between ‘old’ and ‘new’ member states. ‘Old EU member states tend to be far more open towards the refugees and receive a larger number of refugees compared to the former Communist countries which are now members of the EU.’ (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016) On the European level the Central European countries form a coalition that oppose the welcoming approach of ‘old’ member states. The most illustrative example of it — a dispute between Visegrad 4 countries and Germany. V4 countries are ‘finally finding a common voice’ based on the similar approach on the EU refugee policy and frequently criticizing a system of re-distribution of refugees (pre-allocated quotas). During the 25th Visegrad Ministerial meeting the representatives were focused on the European response on migration. ‘In the joint declaration the prime ministers claimed their support for EU decisions, yet called for stronger and stricter control of EU’s outer border and also asked for a Plan B to be ready in case of failure of the agreement with Turkey to keep the migrants there.’ (Havlova and Tamchynova; 2016)
After the long period of integration, Europe is turning towards ‘instinctive national sentiments.’ The most vocal opponent to German’s policy is Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban refused any coopetition and strengthen the border which ‘triggered the collapse of the Balkan’s border.’ Hungarian and Austrian leaders are also promised to protect their borders from refugees. (Postelnicescu; 2016)
The current refugee and migration crisis turned into a lack of solidarity and a political crisis. Leaders of the EU member states have failed to formulate a common position and elaborate on a common response to this issue. The voices from Central and Eastern European states demonstrate the rise of nationalism rhetoric is drawing a dividing line between this region and Western Europe. The migration and refugee crisis has demonstrated once again that ‘in pushing for enlargement as a symbolic act to re-unify the continent, Western decision-makers underestimated the strength of cultural and political differences between the CEE region and the old EU.’ (Gyori; 2016) Never the less, consolidated Central European states have a capacity to influence the EU-level policy-making, which implies a greater risk for further integration.
List of references
- Culik, J. (2015, September). Fencing off the east: how the refugee crisis is dividing the European Union. In Conversation (p. 16). The Conversation Trust.
- Dzenovska, D. (2016). Eastern Europe, the Moral Subject of the Migration/Refugee Crisis, and Political Futures1. Near Futures Online, (1).
- Guild, E., Costello, C., Garlick, M., & Moreno-Lax, V. (2015). The 2015 refugee crisis in the European Union. CEPS Policy Brief, 332.
- Gyori G. (2016) The Political Communication of the refugee crisis in Central and Eastern Europe / Foundation for European Progressive Studies, URL: http://www.feps-europe.eu/en/publications/details/399
- Heisbourg, F. (2015). The Strategic Implications of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Survival, 57(6), 7-20.
- Havlová, R., & Tamchynová, K. (2016). The Uncertain Role of the EU Countries in the Syrian Refugee Crisis 1. Insight Turkey, 18(2), 85.
- Joris, W., d’Haenens, L., Van Gorp, B., & Mertens, S. (2016). The Refugee Crisis in Europe: A Frame Analysis of European Newspapers.
- Matthee, H. (2015). Europe’s migration policies in crisis. Al Jazeera Center for Studies.
- Postelnicescu, C. (2016). Europe’s New Identity: The Refugee Crisis and the Rise of Nationalism. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 12(2), 203.
- Rettman A. (2016) Poland: Middle East migrants cause EU ‘tensions’ / EU Observer, URL: https://euobserver.com/migration/132881
- Slovakia Questions the EU’s Approach to the Migrant Crisis / World Politics Review, UPR: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/17654/slovakia-questions-the-eu-s-approach-to-the-migrant-crisis
- Toygür I (2016). The European Persponse to the Refugee Crisis: Angela Merkel on the Move / Istanbul Policy Center, URL: http://ipc.sabanciuniv.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/IlkeToygur_BiancaBenvenuti_FINAL.pdf
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