Reclining in my seat on a train bound from Prague to Budapest, I gazed through the Plexiglas window at the picturesque landscape passing before me. Fields of evergreen trees sprinkled with shimmering pockets of daisy flowers sprawled on for what seemed like an endless distance. The cobalt sky above me was unblemished and pure. My cabin was surprisingly quiet, the silence periodically interrupted by the humming of the train’s engine and the gentle dozing of my companions sitting next to me.
It was my first time in Europe, and in that moment I knew that it wouldn’t be my last. Suddenly, the voice of the conductor erupted over a loudspeaker at the head of the cabin. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, so I leaned towards a Czech friend I had made on the train and asked him to translate. “He said welcome to Hungary.” And just like that, I transcended the boundaries of one sovereign nation and entered another. Nobody asked to see my passport. Nobody knew who I was, where I was coming from, or my purpose of travel. The train didn’t slow down.
Europe tried to create a dream, and now that dream is unraveling at the hands of a nightmare. Mass emigration levels of refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Asia to Europe have surged tremendously, triggering the greatest immigrant crisis since the end of the Second World War. The constant tide of people attempting to reach mainland Europe through the most desperate ways possible has divided the continent over how the crisis should be handled, and the crashing waves of humanity have punctured and cracked the thin glass of the European Union. Mass emigration and the corresponding security concerns have destabilized the EU and will eventually signal the end of the Schengen system which is the primary staple of the Union, characterized by the free movement of people and goods between member states as well as the near abolition of internal border checks.
Barring a tremendous quota operation aimed at complete refugee integration funded by the cooperation and goodwill of every single state in the European Union, the migration crisis holds the potential to change the nature of the EU forever. Countries have denounced refugees in the name of state sovereignty, and nations such as the Czech Republic, which retains a rigorous asylum-seeking process that permits entry to a considerably smaller number of immigrants when compared to the likes of Germany, still struggle in the successful integration of foreigners.
The overall effectiveness of the asylum processes of Germany, which implements a controversial open-door policy for refugees that lies in stark contrast to the Czech Republic, must be examined. Nativist sentiments are leading to legislative action against migrants by European governments. But before the current state of the crisis can be discussed, it’s important to understand why these people are fleeing in such staggering numbers.
The bloody conflict in Syria, coupled with the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, are by far the most the propulsive elements triggering mass emigration to mainland Europe. Ongoing violence in Afghanistan has also been attributed as a cause. Following the Arab Spring in 2011, protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria ballooned into a civil war between loyalist forces and a rebel group called the Free Syrian Army. It did not take long for extremist organizations to take advantage of the chaos and move into Syria to establish bases of operation, the Islamic State being the most notable. In both Iraq and Syria, thousands of migrants have fled their homes to escape war, persecution, and imprisonment.
Human rights violations in Syria are rampant. Both the Assad regime and the loose collection of rebels fighting against it have committed atrocities. Entire cities and historical landmarks have been wiped off the map. As of October 2015, 100,000 civilians had died in the conflict, with over half of the nation’s population forced out of the country, according to a 2015 report conducted by the UN Human Rights Agency. By the end of 2015, roughly 350,000 Syrians had applied for asylum in the EU, with Afghanistan ranking second at 165,000 (BBC/Eurostat, 2016). These numbers are expected to continue well into 2017 and beyond unless a political solution is reached in Syria. In light of the latest recent ceasefire failure, the proposition of a diplomatic solution to the violence grows dimmer. Iraq does not fare better. The Islamic State swiftly and ruthlessly took over huge swaths of the country throughout 2014, including Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. Baghdad, though still in the “green zone” created by US occupational forces, is plagued by suicide bombings and other episodes of violence frequently. The Islamic State declared itself the true Islamic caliphate, attacking its enemies with merciless brutality.
Public executions, suicide bombings, and human rights atrocities on the scale of genocide are realities of life under Islamic State rule. Christians, the Yazidi minority, and Muslims are persecuted and killed for their religious beliefs. The violence has incited thousands to flee to Europe and elsewhere, mainly via trafficking routes in the Mediterranean Sea. A report conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concluded that of the over 1 million arrivals-by-sea in 2015, refugees fleeing Iraq constituted roughly 10 percent. The thousands of migrants traveling to Europe come from many different places, and leave for many different reasons. Syria and Iraq are not the only nations from which these people are fleeing. Afghanistan, Albania, Kosovo, Somalia, Mali, and Nigeria also contribute by the thousands (BBC/Eurostat, 2016). It is in Syria and Iraq, however, that bloodshed stands as the main motivator for the exodus of thousands to the European Union.
Once refugees reach Europe, their journey is far from over. For many, they travel to the EU as asylum-seekers. A Eurostat report released last year determined there were 1,321,560 claims for asylum in European Union states in 2015 alone. The asylum granting process differs greatly between each country; different states are only willing to take in a limited number of refugees, or none at all. They vary from intensely rigorous to open door. The Czech Republic in particular possesses one of the most intense asylum-granting processes of the European Union. The Czech Republic passed the Asylum Act in January of 2002, outlining the specific process and regulation of asylum seekers in the country.
An immigrant seeking asylum in the Czech Republic must first meet a litany of requirements before their application can even be considered for review. Race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and political background are all taken into account. For the first 12 months of the process, asylum seekers are not allowed to hold jobs. Imagine you were a refugee trying to get into Europe as quickly as possible. Where would you go? You’d probably gun for the countries in the EU that have a short asylum application process with low rejection rates and a pre-existing community of other refugees that you identify with and can integrate into. “Because the Czech Republic has neither more lenient asylum laws nor a large refugee community, refugees tend to avoid it,” (Novak). One must also consider the socio-political climate of an EU state with regards to public sentiments toward refugees and the crisis as a whole. The Czechs do not embrace the concept of allowing foreigners to stay within their borders for an extended period of time. Reporter Jakub Novak writes, “according to an opinion poll conducted by the CVVM agency in March 2012, 50 percent of the Czech population believes there are too many foreigners in the country.
An even higher proportion of people believe that foreigners who live in the Czech Republic contribute to the unemployment rate (64 percent) and criminality (62 percent) or spread diseases (54 percent).” Dissatisfaction with the process, paired with a population that tends to meet them with less than embracing arms, has inspired many refugees to avoid the Czech Republic all together. As a result of all this, the Czech Republic has experienced some of the lowest numbers of asylum-seeking applicants.
The state that has taken in the most refugees, and has felt the most immediate impacts, is Germany. Beginning in 2015 Germany instituted a unilateral “open-door” policy, along with a quota system to spread out the influx of displaced persons throughout German states. Refugees have arrived in droves, viewing Germany as their beacon. In 2015, Germany received more than 476,000 asylum applicants, and by the end of the year it was reported that more than a million had been counted in Germany’s “EASY” system for counting and distributing people before they make asylum claims.
The open door policy is an issue of contentious debate. Nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments have grown more vocal as the flow of refugees into the country picks up speed. Many protests have occurred throughout the country since the policy’s inception, especially after a string of terror attacks that occurred during the summer of 2016. A would-be suicide bomber in the southern town of Ansbach was identified by German authorities as a Syrian asylum seeker, causing De Linke Party leader to Sahra Wagenknecht to defy Angela Merkel’s open door policy. In a recent article, she claimed “The events of the past few days show that the acceptance and integration of a large number of refugees and migrants is tied up with significant problems and is more difficult than Merkel tried to persuade us last autumn with her reckless comments.
The swelling number of asylum seekers, the lack of success in refugee integration, and downright hostility towards immigrants all point towards one central theme: the European Union has struggled immensely in tackling the crisis with any sense of cohesiveness or practicality, and rising security concerns hold the potential to end Europe’s age of free movement of people and goods within the continent. The issue of state sovereignty is the largest obstacle towards refugee integration. The core problem of sovereignty is the idea that EU member states do not feel obligated to allow the leading states of the Union to dictate their domestic affairs. They do not want to be at the mercy of accepting mandatory quotas for accepting refugees, providing them with humanitarian aid, and provisions for economic assistance. Take, for example, Hungary.
It is considered to be a “transit country,” which is defined by the European Agenda for Migration as “a country or member state in which heavy numbers (of migrants) pass through during journey to mainland Europe.” Frustrated by how the mass migration has sometimes overwhelmed national emergency response capacities, Hungary has taken to literally building fences to stem the flow of migrants. Dr. Chiara Cancellario writes, “Hungary has been revealed to be the strongest opposition to the European Union’s refugees’ policy and the leading voice of the Eastern European Union side. The ‘Hungary fences,’ built to close the borders of Croatia and Serbia, are the most well-known and explicative element of the country’s attitude.”
Another expression of the frustration with the EU’s apparent lack of understanding of the crisis comes directly from the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó. He writes, “In Europe, many people refer to this challenge as a “refugee crisis,” but that is simply untrue. What we face today is not a refugee crisis. It is a case of mass migration […] The EU has been talking about a European solution. Unfortunately, there isn’t any such thing. Had there been a solution, this figure would not have been increasing.”
Hungary stands as an acute example of what is truly different about the crisis. The leaders of the European Union and the leaders of the states that constitute it must come to agreement on how to handle this mass migration. The failure to do so will hold grave consequences for the future of the EU. States must understand that though the security concerns of allowing thousands of refugees within their borders is a serious one that requires tedious preparations for, they must not lose sight of the face that they joined the Union and have a responsibility to protect it. Barring a massive effort of cooperation, the Schengen system of the European Union will dissolve if concrete steps are not taken to unify the EU and its handling of the crisis.