Hard Choices on the Border of Life: A Brief Account of the Refugee Crisis in Europe


AP Photo/ Lefteris Pitarakis

Lily Liu, Web Editor

For Loomis Chaffee cross-country runners, passing the finish line of a race means a long-awaited victory. For seniors, passing the high stakes of college admission means a promised future. For more than 442,440 refugees who are betting their lives on a passage to Europe, crossing a razor-wired border or landing safely on the Mediterranean seashore means an escape from death.

Recently, an unprecedented surge of migrants, mainly refugees fleeing from the civil war in Syria, swarmed the borders of various European nations seeking new opportunities and peace. Although the civil war has been driving thousands of migrants to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan since 2011, the addition of Afghan asylum seekers exacerbated the traffic and resulted in a much more severe humanitarian crisis, as many describe “the worst migration crisis since World War II.” According to the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), 442,440 refugees have arrived in the European Union via Mediterranean sea this year, with some 124,000 refugees and migrants arriving in Greece by sea at the end of July, a staggering 750 per cent increase on the same period in 2014. The tragic losses — the drowned 3-year old child, Aylan Kurdi, on the shore of Turkey and the truck of 71 suffocated refugees on the Austrian highway — are only some of the 2,921 deaths in 2015 so far.

Coping with the overwhelming flow of desperate migrants, member states of the European Union struggle to manage the pressure of refugees’ marching into the borders of their countries. Germany, leading as the wealthiest, most benevolent welcomer, temporarily loosened her asylum rule and promised to accept 800,000 refugees in 2015, regardless of the way they first entered the EU. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry of Germany explained, “The first reason for having Syrians exempted from [the Dublin Regulation] is humanitarian. The second is bureaucratic: it takes too much paperwork to send back migrants to the first EU country where they set foot.” However, according to the BBC, as waves of refugees pushed into German borders from all directions, Germany retracted her open arms and shut down rail services from Austria to Berlin for 12 hours on September 11th in order to “limit the current flow.” German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called upon all EU states to “accept their fair share as refugees flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.”

To lighten the burden from Germany’s shoulders, the European Union passed a controversial quota plan on September 22nd — a plan that would evenly distribute 120,000 refugees among all EU member states — through a majority vote, despite the acrimonious protest of four Eastern European countries with lesser economic capabilities. The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, for example, condemned the Pan-European solution as “an invitation for those who want to come,” further asserting that “the moral human thing is to make clear, please don’t come.” As the one of the bitterest opposing countries of the quota plan, Hungary armed its border adjacent to Serbia with a 170-kilometer razor wire fence, published advertisements of threats on Middle Eastern newspapers, and even allowed Hungarian police to use extremely harsh deterrents — rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas and net guns — to discourage thousands of migrants from entering the European Union.

Andrew MacLean ‘17, an international student from Budapest, Hungary, shared his perception of the Hungarian public’s attitude towards the refugees. “There are propaganda against the refugees on the streets and signs such as, ‘If you’re in our country, follow our laws’ or ‘Don’t take the Hungarians’ jobs.’” Apart from economic pressure, Prime Minister Orbán also justified the harsh treatment of the migrants by expressing his concerns of the religious impact of Muslims as he asserted, “Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.”

Despite various criticisms of Hungarians’ callousness, their complaints are not unreasonable — the settlement of thousands of refugees does cause various problems. With more than 200,000 people entering the country this year, Hungary has become one of the major transition centers for thousands of refugees who yearn to pursue economic opportunities in Germany. “My friends and I used to hang out around the train station, but we don’t do that anymore because there are so many people there,” recalled Andrew of his experience in Budapest. “Just imagine a place that is a little bigger than the SNUG where everyone is laying down on a piece of paper. It’s really sad to see it.” The Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also argued that Hungary is not reluctant to help the refugees, but to “accept economic migrants because [the Hungarian government] cannot bear the burden of that.” Commenting on the quota plan, Andrew expressed his conflicted feelings. “You can’t expect a country like Hungary, which is a small country, not so poor, but not rich either, to take care of the same number of refugees as the United Kingdom can,” he said. “I personally don’t think that [the quota plan] is a very good solution, but it is still the best I have heard so far. People need to understand that someone would have to bite the bullet one way or another.”

While the Europeans struggled to share the burden with one another, John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, only offered to take in 85,000 refugees around the world next year, one tenth of which Germany promised to accept in 2015. One of the major reasons behind U.S.’s limited involvement is the national security concern of ISIS’s penetration through the refugee population. In a letter to Kerry, Senator Charles Grassley, echoing the Secretary of Homeland Security, cautioned the danger of unguarded acceptance of refugees as he wrote, “Before agreeing to accept thousands of Syrian refugees, the Obama administration must prove to the American people that it will take the necessary precautions to ensure that national security is a top priority, especially at a time when ruthless terrorist groups like ISIS are committed to finding ways to enter the United States and harm Americans.” On the other hand, many social critics and political figures expressed their disappointment in the U.S.’s inadequate participation, as Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy highlighted U.S.’s indispensable responsibility in migration crisis. “We certainly contributed to the ongoing mess in that region and inside Syria because of our occupation, our invasion, which after a set of circumstances, led to the development of ISIS…I think we have a responsibility,” stressed the Senator.

Despite the newly passed quota plan and generous offers from various non-European countries, the future of the migration crisis remains obscure. While the even distribution of refugees might ease the traffic in the short term, the aggression of local citizens towards migrants, the rehabilitation of refugees, and the tension between the Hungary and its neighboring countries remain an unsolved dilemma. How can the international community form a coherent response while economic concerns, religious conflicts and national interests of its member states impede the effort to help with the migration crisis in Europe? As Andrew noted, “There isn’t a 100% right solution to the problem.” Although the quota plan is not a perfect resolution, it marks, at least, the first step towards collective action.