Europe teeters on the edge: The refugee crisis shows the ravages of the war on terror

Already grappling with torpid economies, Europe now faces a humanitarian crisis largely of the West's own making

Published September 15, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)
(AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

The massive movement of war weary refugees from Africa and the Middle East has fractured badly a European Community that finds itself overwhelmed and badly divided by the unprecedented crisis.

Over the weekend, Germany announced that for the first time in twenty years it was instituting border controls on the boundary it shares with Austria, while Hungarian officials threatened to arrest and detain refugees who showed up on their border without legal travel documents.

As hundreds of thousands of war weary refugees flood Europe we are so far past General Colin Powell's "You break it, you own it" admonishment to President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq invasion. The awful truth is just too hard to process. Our failed counter terrorism policies, which have helped unwind nation-states in Africa and the Mideast, now threaten the stability of Europe.

With the world getting ready to convene here in New York City for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, it is becoming more evident by the day that the balkanization of Europe is more collateral damage from our ever-expanding war on terror.

As it turns out, when faced with the external pressure of the first mass migration in the era of social media, Europe needs more than a common currency to survive as a cohesive whole. The response of the 28 European Union nations to the flood of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere ranges from beating the refugees and detaining them to welcoming them with flowers and candy.

So far this year, 2,900 refugees were were confirmed  dead or presumed missing at sea trying to escape the misery of their war fractured native countries according to the United Nation's Refugee Agency.

The numbers are like nothing the world has seen since World War II, with Germany alone expecting 800,000 by the end of this year according to the Guardian.  Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, told french TV and radio that  4,000 are arriving in Europe per day. He blamed the rising wave of refugee families on the proliferation of  armed conflicts. Guterres says that in 2010 11,000 people a day were displaced by violence but the number spiked to 45,000 in 2014.

Signs of this European crisis were evident for years, with a rising tide of nativist sentiment that led to the targeting of immigrants and resulting in brutal attacks and even murder. Under existing European law, the processing of refugees is supposed to be governed by the Dublin Convention, which was originally drafted in 1990 and put in effect in 1997. It has had subsequent revisions but at its core it is supposed to guarantee that the first EU member country where a refugee arrives is responsible for providing a fair and humane review of the refugee’s asylum application.

To be designated a refugee and entitled to asylum, per the 1951 UN Geneva Convention on Refugees, applicants must be seeking asylum outside their own country because they can document they would be targeted for persecution in their native country merely on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political beliefs.

According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, as part of this asylum process, refugees are guaranteed “a right to information, personal interview, and access to remedies as well as a mechanism for early warning, preparedness and crisis management.” Back in 2014, the ECRE and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that conditions for asylum seekers in Bulgaria, which borders Turkey, had become “deplorable and at variance with the right to human dignity and respect for privacy”.

“Many refugees have difficulties securing stable employment due to the adverse economic situation generally in Bulgaria,” reported the ECRE.

Resistance to complying with the Dublin Convention was emanated not just from Bulgaria, but throughout the European Union. “The task a head is huge and further complicated by the fact that support for fair and human asylum policies in Europe is decreasing,” wrote the authors of “Not There Yet-An NGO Perspective on Challenges to A Fair and Effective European Asylum System.”

But before judging the response to the refugee crisis by some EU countries, consider the existing social conditions in the Europe, where this wave of displaced people seek sanctuary. Across much of Europe, youth unemployment is already at an all-time high, with one in five young people ages 15 to 24 being idle. In countries like Greece, Spain and Italy youth unemployment ranges from 40 percent to over 50 percent.

“In Greece youth unemployment is 50 percent, but in Germany youth unemployment is only 7 percent, with overall unemployment well below 5 percent and jobs going begging,” says Farok J. Contractor, professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School.

“What you will see is that each country will follow different immigration procedures based on their own history,” says Jocelyne Cesari, visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School and an expert on the challenges of integrating refugees into the civil society’s of their new home. “There could be a great variation between these countries because the political climate varies greatly based on the local economy.”

Europe’s recovery remains fragile despite some recent upbeat numbers.“Growth is still not strong enough to create a sufficient number of jobs,” Benoit Coeure, a European Central Bank Executive Board member, told reporters recently.

In places like Greece, a depressed economy has meant a double digit decline in real wages. In Germany, wages have remained stagnant. The Global Wages Report 2012-2013, put out by the International Labour Organization, documented that across the Eurozone, real wages had twice dropped in 2008 and 2011. And in a trend documented in all the world’s developed nations, including Europe, “between 1999 and 2011 average labour productivity…….increased more than twice as much as average wages.” As a consequence, just as we have seen here in the United States post-Great Recession, in Europe wealth inequality continues to grow as the middle class loses ground. Is this the ideal situation in which to invite a couple of million people with only the clothes on their back? Can we afford to let Europe bare this burden alone?

Last week, President Obama pledged the US would take just 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year -- half the 20,000 British Prime Minister David Cameron committed to help.

Odds are that the paltry US response could be a talking point for Pope Francis when he speaks to Congress later this month. “I appeal to the parishes, the religious communities, and sanctuaries of all Europe to take in one family of refugees,” the Pope recently told a crowd assembled at St. Peter’s Square. The Vatican has committed itself to take in two refugee families.

Ah, for those halcyon days of the bipolar, Cold War world, where two superpowers played a chess game in which every pawn mattered. Now we have 60 million refugees, half of the them children, who have had to flee their homes to escape conflicts that just drone on as one nation after another becomes a borderless hell.

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