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With the continuation of the conflict in the Middle-East, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have joined the already enormous ranks of refugees seeking asylum in Europe – though the old continent is far from being the first choice of destination. To reach the continent, they risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in vessels that are mostly unfit for such a journey. In 2015 alone, 3770 migrants died according to the UN Migration Agency. One of the worst fatalities occurred in April that year when a boat carrying 800 people capsized. The countries most affected by the on-going conflicts in the Middle East are the ones closest to them. Countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are sheltering over 4 million Syrian refugees and are feeling the pressure socially and economically too. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, Iran as well as the rich Gulf countries have contributed almost nothing to the humanitarian crisis the world is witnessing, questioning the integrity of Arabism and Arab cooperation.

Europe is regarded as a continent offering financial opportunity and, most importantly, safety. Therefore, the number of people seeking asylum within its borders has risen significantly and become an enormous strain. While this has led to many problems, the fundamental principles of human dignity upon which the EU is based have held true and its members have (for the most part) opened their borders in an attempt to provide shelter. The primary cause behind this situation being labelled a crisis however has been the EU’s inability to develop a central policy on how to deal with the influx of immigrants. The existing “Dublin Regulation” calls for EU member states to process each asylum seeker in the country in which they first arrive. This policy has been scrapped however since it is the countries along the Mediterranean as well as in Eastern Europe that have been struck the hardest by the world’s largest migration flow since WW2. As a result, the UN has called on EU member states to guarantee a distribution of refugees amongst themselves, thus alleviating the strain on countries hit the hardest such as Greece, Italy and Hungary. This distribution has taken place but not at all equally. The result has been an increase in tension amongst EU members.

refugees europe

It is almost impossible to know exactly how many refugees have entered Europe as not all channels are monitored but an indicator of which countries have taken on the most can be reflected in the number of asylum claims placed. Germany leads the way, with approximately 476,000 applications in 2015. According to German officials however, reporting on 30 December 2015, the actual number is north of a million. This is a remarkable increase in comparison to 2014, in which between 150,000 and 200,000 refugees were taken in and underlines the effort Germany is making in comparison to other countries, though it should be taken into account that a country’s economic strength will determine the number of refugees it can accommodate. With this in mind, let’s consider the other countries leading the charts in terms of refugee intake.

In 2015, Germany is followed by Hungary with approximately 175,000 registered applicants, Sweden with 155,000, Austria with 90,000, Italy with 85,000 and France with 70,000. Strong economic players such as the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK follow with ever decreasing numbers. When considering the GDP of the aforementioned countries, one sees that the distribution of refugees amongst member states does not actually correlate entirely with their economic strength. In terms of GDP, Germany leads the way and is followed by the UK, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Ironically, the UK and France take in a lot fewer refugees, irrespective of the strength of their economies. In fact, the UK opted out of taking part in any refugee quota schemes.

This unfair distribution is mostly down to the fact that, as mentioned, EU member states have extremely differing policies on how to deal with refugees. The economic burden of taking in so many refugees is often cited as a reason not to do so, but it is also largely due to anti-Muslim sentiments that pervade almost all EU member states and are voiced most often in Eastern European ones. Countries such as Slovakia and Hungary only show a willingness to accept Christian asylum seekers. Others are either turned away or passed on to more liberal countries, such as Germany or Sweden. The lack of cohesion amongst members of the EU is serious cause for concern and is having a significant impact on individual countries’ political scenes. Spurred on by an increase in the number of terror attacks linked to radical Islamic groups, far right political movements have been gaining momentum throughout EU countries. Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National has made significant gains in France’s recent elections and currently leads the polls for the upcoming presidential election and similarly in Germany, the right-wing populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) has risen to prominence, gaining seats in 7 of the country’s 16 federal parliaments. They are expected to win seats in the Bundestag in 2017, which would be the first time since 1945 that a far right party is represented in Germany’s parliament.

1. The Long Path Towards Integration

A second major problem is exposed, as EU member states, confronted by issues surrounding integration, find themselves facing an identity crisis. Hungary registers 1799 refugees per 100 000 of its own population, followed by Sweden with 1667, then Austria with 1027 and Norway with 602. Germany registers 587, France 114 and the EU average lies at 260/100,000. Immigration is not an unfamiliar topic for many EU states. Germany, whilst experiencing the massive resurgence of its economy post-WW2, invited thousands of Turkish and Italian nationals to relocate and work within its borders. The social tension was evident and can still be felt today. However, for the most part, the three cultures have merged and contributed to a new-look Germany that thrives off of its many cultural facets. A less successful example can be found in France where, during the uprising in Algeria, French nationals were evacuated and temporarily placed in suburbs before integrating and relocating. These suburbs soon turned into slums as, over the years, they were used to house refugees and immigrants from ex-French colonies and elsewhere. Integration became harder the more divergent the immigrants’ culture was from France’s and with time these refugees became marginalized and the suburbs developed into areas associated with poverty and crime. These effects are felt today and expose a serious danger in the face of the massive influx of refugees currently taking place. Hailing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran, to name but a few of the countries of origin for many refugees, it becomes apparent that cultural differences are going to be a major barrier with regards to integration. If unsuccessful, the resulting development of subcultures will only lead to further societal strains and racial tension. This in turn will add to the already charged political landscape — the fire fuels itself.

In our attempt to elaborate on the crisis the EU is facing, our research followed refugees from the Middle-East all the way to Europe. The establishment of cohesion amongst member states and the development of comprehensive integration methods will significantly relieve the pressure on Europe’s shoulders. However, it is our personal opinions that this is not a sustainable long term solution to the crisis, as it will not serve to stem the flow of refugees pouring into Europe. The source of the crisis confronting the EU lies far outside its own borders and thus we find our attention diverted back to the Middle-East where conflict continues, unaffected by European cohesion or integration policies. We suggest it is time to look to the geopolitical realm for a solution to what has become a world humanitarian crisis.

It is also crucial to question why refugees from Syria need to cross the Mediterranean Sea and often face deadly consequences when they can just take refuge in neighboring Arab countries. It is quite infuriating to report that only Turkey and Lebanon, itself a shaky and unsteady country, are taking in refugees and accepting them into their countries. The rest of the Arab world, Gulf countries in particular, have turned their backs on their “fellow Arabs” questioning the identity of Arabism and the lack of support between Arab countries. Even Iraq which has part of its land occupied by IS has taken in refugees while Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have turned a blind eye.

2. A Return to History: The Hama Massacre of 1982 

In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father as well as his predecessor, besieged the city of Hama for 27 days where he intended to silence an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Around 40,000 lives were lost in Hama. But why did it not attract as much dialogue and debate as the massacre taking place nowadays? We feel it is because at that time Iran had just had its revolution 3 years prior and were too preoccupied to compete over dominance in the Middle-East. Saudi Arabia was the sole dominant state in the region back then. Also, the USSR’s economy had stagnated, with military expenditure replacing domestic development and the result being a shift towards a more unipolar geopolitical landscape. American primacy, as a result, was at its peak. This meant that Syria at that time was only in the interest of one front. However, this is no longer the case as a resurgent Russia has re-established, to some degree, a bipolar playing field again.

Syria prides itself as a secular republic and a promoter of Arab nationalism, with close ties to Russia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a reactionary monarchy and sees itself as a caretaker of Islam while having an extensive bond with the US and Western Europe. Many of both their foreign policy aims have been at odds, each representing diametrically opposing ideologies that have led to clashes within their borders or through proxies in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere.  With the struggle for regional dominance, these two Arab countries, which claim to be the defenders of Sunni and Shia populations all over the world, are not alone. They are each supported by two different world powers. The US and its western allies have supported the Saudis, while Russia stands firmly with Iran and Syria in assuring that there will be no transitions unless Bashar stays in power. The US, Saudi Arabia and their allies have continuously supported the rebels with weapons, training and supplies, whilst the Iranians, Moscow and Hezbollah have vowed to defend Assad from armed militais who have jumped at the opportunity to depose the president in an attempt to enlarge Sunni influence in the Arab world.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters carry assault rifles as they move towards their positions during an offensive to take Ariha, Syria, in May 2015. Photograph: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters carry assault rifles as they move towards their positions during an offensive to take Ariha, Syria, in May 2015. Photograph: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

The EU and the US hold strong relations, especially with their membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has permitted them to intervene politically and militarily in foreign policy. However, upon observation of the countries that have experienced intervention by the US and NATO, we can conclude that recent American foreign policy has had devastating consequences since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. Afghanistan is now in a dreadful economic and political situation with its people being continuously terrorized by the Taliban. Iraq is mostly ruled by the self-proclaimed caliphate (the Islamic State) and Libya is a failed state. American and EU involvement in the conflict in Syria is undeniable and its effects are now washing up on European shores in the form of masses of refugees displaced from their homes with the aid of American and European weaponry. An analysis of European weapons trade shows the extent to which the EU benefits from the ongoing conflict.

The EU Security and Defense Policy states clearly that member states must pursue “the strengthening of a European defense technological and industrial base”. The EU’s biggest military industry exporters — Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the Netherlands — achieve this through the development of high-tech weapons systems. In fact, six EU members, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, are amongst the world’s top ten arms exporters. 2010-2013 saw the revenue generated through the export of European arms increase from 32 billion euros and peak at 40 billion euros. Exports to the Middle-East have continued to increase and, as of 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were amongst Europe’s top three customers. Between 2004 and 2014, 11% of France’s exports and 31% of the UK’s have gone to the Middle-East. Just to illustrate the point, 2011 saw the Arab Spring at full strength. It also saw the value of Europe’s arms exports to the region reach 9 billion euros, double 2007’s value.

As individuals, each and every one of us draws strength from the integrity we show by adhering to the values we hold true. Without integrity we collapse into self-doubt, crumble and fade into distant memory. The EU, a collective representation of so many individuals, has its own set of values. As set out in Article I-2 of its constitutional treaty, they are human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Human rights & the dignity associated therewith are clearly not being upheld in the Middle-East. The EU, from a geopolitical standpoint, has chosen to stand by its major ally, the US, in its battle for world hegemony against Russia. Both fronts have repeatedly bombed Syria and been the cause for countless civilian casualties, including women and children. The EU has also chosen to assert its influence in the region and profit financially from the arms trade. With its integrity in tatters, we strongly suggest the EU re-evaluate its standpoint in the Middle East. The refugee crisis is a symptom, not the problem.

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