Europe’s refugee disaster is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our century, yet it is still not widely understood as such. Within the European Union it has become primarily a political problem rather than a desperate human tragedy. Points of arrival are multiplying and the people keep coming, met not with the welcome they received just months ago from some European states but with hostility, closed borders and razor-wire fencing.
Even politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, not so long ago admired for opening a door of welcome to as many as one million refugees, are now backtracking before increasing political opposition. French police supervised the demolition of the infamous Jungle refugee camp near the channel port of Calais. But as winter turns to spring, more people will come. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are not yet empty.
European leaders, crippled by bickering indecision, uncertainty and electoral peril in the face of this tragedy, have reached a strange deal with Turkey that they are trying to present as a breakthrough. If the plan proceeds, the European Union agrees to pay to return all refugees who have irregularly reached Greece, particularly its islands, to Turkish territory from which they embarked. For each person returned, one will be allowed to enter the European Union by official means. Part of the stated aim of this plan is to destroy the people-smuggling business that has become a scourge. Some estimates suggest that as many as 2.7 million refugees, mostly Syrians, remain in Turkey.
Turkey has, of course, for years coveted E.U. membership—to the consternation of some on Europe’s right wing, who fear giving the Islamic world such an opening into Europe. The decade-old government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, which seeks to reinterpret the former Ottoman Empire’s secularism, revive those concerns. Mr. Erdogan clearly wants to boost the place of religion in Turkish society, but asymmetrically, favoring Sunni Islam over other faiths. He denies having an Islamist program but has claimed that only states can be secular, not individuals.
The evolving refugee tragedy has seen in 2015 officially over one million people arrive in Europe while the point of arrival has shifted eastward. People still land in Italy and the small Mediterranean island state of Malta. But now more and more people are trying their luck on the Balkans route—or more likely the human traffickers have shifted operations. Many have begun to traverse Turkey to get to the Greek islands, which are E.U. territory, hoping to make it from there through the Balkan states into Western Europe.
At the Idomeni border crossing from Greece to the small state of Macedonia, closed for several weeks, a build-up of people, including children, has brought about desperate conditions as food and water supplies run out. There has been violence. Younger refugees trying to storm the fence have been pushed back by Macedonian border guards and police using stun grenades and tear gas. It has become hard to imagine how further violence and bloodshed might be avoided, such are the levels of desperation among the people. As one man told the British media, “We are fleeing bombs and violence and being greeted by more violence.”
The European office of the Jesuit Refugee Service notes that “the building of fences along borders is an inappropriate and ineffective attempt to control the movement of people.” Instead, J.R.S. argues, efforts “should be concerted towards safe and legal channels for protection in Europe, harmonization of reception conditions in all E.U. member states and solid integration policies to assist people upon arrival.”
A J.R.S. staffer in Croatia put her finger on what surely matters more than anything else—real people, real families, the massive human suffering. She described seeing “people aged 80 years and more, people in wheelchairs…yesterday there was a man who had two heart attacks. No one takes such a risky way just to leave home. They want to see if they are lucky enough to get away from a situation of certain death to one where some will survive.”
It looks more and more as if European states are concerned more with protecting states and borders than protecting real lives, and it takes people like staff at J.R.S. to remind us of what really is at stake.