Amid increasingly chaotic scenes of Syrian refugees fleeing violence at home and Balkan nations hastily throwing up fences to keep out the never-ending influx, the Washington-based ambassadors of four European countries — along with two regional experts — recently debated what the 28-member European Union as well as the United States should do about the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Réka Szemerkényi, Hungary’s envoy to the United States, defended her country’s hardline position against accepting more migrants, while ambassadors from three of the six republics that once formed Yugoslavia — Croatia’s Josip Paro, Macedonia’s Vasko Naumovski and Montenegro’s Srdjan Darmanovic — lamented the tough choices Europe faces to manage the unprecedented influx.
“Macedonia is not the final destination for these people. It is only a transit country, and there is nothing easier for us than to let them pass through our country to their final destination,” said Naumovski. He noted that in the preceding two weeks, more than 10,000 desperate refugees have tried to penetrate his country’s southern border with Greece, an EU member state where nearly 50,000 migrants have been stranded ever since Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Macedonia erected fences along sections of their borders.
“They are using force trying to enter, and we have the right to defend our territory using appropriate means,” Naumovski said. “I can’t imagine what would happen if someone tried to force his way into U.S. territory.”
The four ambassadors and two Balkan experts — Indiana University professor Frances Trix and Ivan Vejvoda of the German Marshall Fund — spoke at an April 13 conference titled “The Refugee Crisis: Its Impact on the U.S., Europe and our Collective Security.” The event was co-sponsored by two nonprofit groups, United Macedonian Diaspora and the Southeast Europe Coalition, and organized by the Washington office of Clements Worldwide, which provides political risk insurance.
It followed on the heels of a March 18 agreement between Turkey and the EU aimed at halting the uncontrolled flow of migrants. Under that deal, people smuggled from the Turkish coast onto Greek islands will be returned, while Turkey will be allowed to send some of the millions of Syrian refugees on its territory to the EU through legal channels. In addition, Turkey will receive billions of dollars in EU assistance and accelerated talks on visa-free travel and EU membership.
According to EU officials, some 1.26 million migrants streamed through southeastern Europe in 2015, double the number in 2014. But Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war made up only 29 percent of the total; the rest were Iraqis and Afghanis also fleeing violence in their countries, as well as a mix of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Africans and others seeking safe haven and economic opportunity in Europe.
As of December 2015, only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis were getting through the Greek-Macedonian border. All others — including Iranians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Algerians, Moroccans, Libyans, Eritreans and Yemenis — were excluded. Since March, Afghan refugees have also been barred from crossing.
Naumovski noted that of the 800,000 people who have passed through Macedonia in the past 12 months, only 80 have applied for actual asylum; most migrants instead choose to apply for asylum in wealthier countries such as Austria, Germany or Sweden.
By far, Germany and Sweden have been the most generous in welcoming refugees and both have had more success absorbing Muslim immigrants than countries such as France. But leaders in Berlin and Stockholm have felt the political blowback from voters concerned that migrants are taking scarce jobs and failing to assimilate into society. Another top concern: Islamic-inspired extremists infiltrating refugee inflows to launch terrorist attacks on European soil.
“Not all these refugees are terrorists, but there’s a lack of control and intelligence exchange in Europe, in addition to the free movement of hundreds of thousands of people,” the Macedonian ambassador said. “Several thousands of them have been trained in the Middle East. It took two attacks — in Paris and Brussels — to see that even people born in Europe do not always fully accept European values. Unfortunately, Europe has not learned from the intelligence failures in the U.S. before 9/11. Some European nations are still living in the past of their own glorious histories.”
Paradoxically, Trix, an ethnic anthropologist who specializes in Balkan history, said Europe and the United States should step up the admission of Syrian war refugees not only on humanitarian grounds — but also because the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) hates them.
“The Syrians coming to Europe are cosmopolitan, middle-class, educated people. They are very different from the Moroccans in Brussels who come from villages in North Africa,” said Trix. “This does not come out in the newspapers.”
The Islamic State hates the refugees, she said, because the exodus takes away men from the armed forces, removes inhabitants from the tax base and discredits the self-declared Islamic caliphate, amounting to what she called a “public relations disaster” for the terrorists.
“ISIS does everything it can to discredit the refugees,” she noted. “Every Muslim family that comes to the West is a defeat for ISIS.”
Naumovski agreed that the image of poverty-stricken refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs isn’t entirely accurate. These migrants’ travels, he said, are highly organized, with many using smartphones to locate routes and checkpoints, and possessing the financial resources to afford bus tickets and hotel rooms to aid their passage through his country.
Nevertheless, integrating these foreign-born populations is a huge problem across the continent, he said. “The EU is also paying the price for failing to integrate existing immigrant communities, unlike the U.S. The European concept of multiculturalism has failed, and even the German chancellor [Angela Merkel] has admitted this. So how can we expect Europe to integrate additional immigrants into society?”
Vejvoda couldn’t disagree more. The Serbian scholar noted that in the 1990s, following the collapse of Albania’s Marxist regime, predominantly Christian Orthodox Greece took in roughly 1 million Muslim Albanians, without major problems — so absorbing Syrian migrants (in a bloc of over 500 million people) is not impossible.
Vejvoda calls Turkey’s deal with the EU “an example of realpolitik” and says the Hungarian approach of building fences and walls is wrongheaded. But with Germany straining under the refugee burden, he said that Balkan countries — which were largely praised for their hospitality toward refugees last year — had no choice but to start shutting their doors one by one, creating a bottleneck in Greece.
“Even though the EU’s values are all about freedom and human rights, this simply had to be put aside because Germany — acting alone — needed to stem the flow of refugees. Everything we’re seeing now is to stem those numbers in whichever way possible, and some of it is not nice to watch.” Images of police firing tear gas at migrants protesting behind razor-wire fences in Macedonia and Hungary, for example, have made international headlines.
“When there was talk about the Balkans closing off routes, it wasn’t Serbia or Macedonia deciding anything; at best, it is in concert with Germany,” Vejvoda added. “Nobody in our part of the world decides anything on such big issues by themselves. Our countries have stepped up to the plate and gone the extra mile, as opposed to Hungary. We in Serbia have done exactly the opposite: no building of walls and help manage the flow. And the Greeks are doing what they can.”
Hungary’s Szemerkényi defended her government’s uncompromising crackdown on migrants. She said the problem in her country is particularly acute: Some 397,000 migrants have entered Hungary without passports or documentation in the last year alone. That, she said, is equivalent to 12 million illegal immigrants pouring into the United States across its borders with Mexico and Canada over a 12-month period.
But the problem, she argues, has been complicated by “misconceptions” about Hungary that do not reflect reality.
“We all agree that the majority of people arriving in Europe are the victims of fundamentally failed international policies toward their regions. They’re also victims of a failed policy of us Europeans which created expectations that are impossible to fulfill,” she said. “But they are also victims of human trafficking as well. It is our moral responsibility to help these people rebuild lives in their own countries. We owe these people. We have to start focusing on the reality, rather than simplistically saying this is a humanitarian crisis. It’s a lot more than this.”
For that reason, the Hungarian ambassador is advocating a 1 percent increase in EU contributions to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — the three countries hosting the highest numbers of Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war.
But she denied suggestions from at least one member of the audience that the hardline rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is giving rise to far-right radicalism — in the form of the anti-immigrant, extremist Jobbik party, which is backed by 11 percent of voters according to a Jan. 30 .
On Feb. 24, Orbán announced that Hungary would hold a vote later this year on whether to accept the mandatory quotas for refugees passed by the EU last year. He has argued that instituting relocation quotas ordered by Brussels without consulting his country’s 10 million citizens amounts to an “abuse of power.”
Last year, Orbán described the refugees entering Hungary as “looking like an army” and ordered the construction of a steel fence along its Serbian and Croatian borders.
Even so, claims Szemerkényi, “the rise of the radical right” has nothing to do with Orbán pronouncements.
“Take a look at the political map in Hungary. The right has not gained any political space in the past year, despite the massive immigration wave crossing through Hungary,” she said. “Our point in using harsh language is that the need for security is equally important, and if you do not address this need, that’s when the radical right will gain support.”
Croatia’s Paro, whose country in March announced it would no longer allow refugees to transit Croatian soil on their way to other EU states to the north and west, said that Balkan nations had little choice but to seal their borders, even though that is only a temporary fix to a much larger problem.
“You may conclude that by closing the Balkan route — which is consistent with a coordinated effort by all countries along the route — that this is a lasting solution. Of course it is not,” Paro said. “Turkey is playing an important role, and there’s no doubt that if we want the EU to survive, we have to show more solidarity. But we also have to impose clear rules for refugees so they know what is awaiting them.”
Last year, some 816,000 refugees passed through the Balkan corridor on their way to Western Europe — up from only 50,834 the year before. And some 123,000 trudged this route in the first two months of 2016 alone.
This still pales in comparison to the number of refugees who have inundated Syria’s neighbors. A total of 4.8 million Syrians languish in other Middle Eastern countries, including 2.7 million in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan, 250,000 in Iraq and 130,000 in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the United States has resettled a paltry 3,127 Syrian refugees since 2011, compared to Canada, which — under newly inaugurated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — has admitted 25,000 Syrians in 2016 alone.
President Obama’s proposal to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees for the fiscal 2016 year was met with fierce resistance from conservatives who said terrorists could slip into the country, even though the refugees would have gone through an intense years-long vetting process.
Despite the opposition, Obama has pressed ahead with his plan, although the House recently introduced the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act (H.R. 4731) to cap refugee admissions and prioritize those fleeing religious persecution.
“The current political rhetoric and H.R. 4731 — with its fear of Muslims — is based on ignorance and is unworthy of us,” said Trix, noting that the legislation favors Christians and other minorities, and effectively blocks most Muslim asylum applicants. For this reason, the bill is opposed by 234 organizations ranging from Amnesty International to Jewish Refugee Services to the World Council of Churches. “This will hurt us in the long run. Hospitality toward Syrian refugees of different religious backgrounds is wise. We should be a model for the world.”
In the end, said Vejvoda, it’s all about preventing a repeat of the hatred that led to the Holocaust.
“People need to find a scapegoat for their problems, either the Jews or the Muslims. It brings back the worst of European history,” he said. “As kids in the former Yugoslavia, all of us were taken to see the sites of the Holocaust. We read the books and heard the stories told by survivors. And yet my country went to war in the 1990s and disappeared. Our leaders in the former Yugoslavia took us to the extremes of suffering, even though they could have avoided war. It’s easy to whip up emotions and rallying around the flag in the worst possible way — and that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Added Naumovski, the Macedonian ambassador: “If you don’t like the reality, there are two solutions: accept it or change the reality. We must find a solution in Syria, because this crisis will not end on its own. You cannot just create a mess and let other people deal with the consequences.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the news editor for The Washington Diplomat.