If the leaders of the European states thought that all they had to do to was to find a way of dealing with the refugees themselves, they had another thing coming.
The shocking horror of the humanitarian tragedy currently unfolding on Europe’s borders was brought home to everyone on Wednesday, distilled in the single picture of the pale, lifeless body of a three-year-old boy washed up on a beach close to a popular Turkish holiday resort.
The heart-rending pictures of Aylan Kurdi and his five-year-old brother Galip were not just splashed across the front pages of many of the world’s newspapers, but shared even wider on social media, prompting a backlash of public condemnation against a political class which has seemingly become ever more impotent in the face of the tide of human misery pouring out of Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Libya.
Press reports and social media quickly filled in the gaps in the story, underpinning the tragedy of the boy’s short life; one of five children among at least 12 people who drowned after the boat they were on capsized after setting off on the hazardous crossing from Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula to the Greek island of Kos.
Thousands of people have already made that journey, most of them from Syria, fleeing the long-running civil war and the subsequent occupation by the brutal fundamentalists who call themselves the Islamic State, or ISIL.
Aylan and Galip Kurdi were just two of 2,500 people who the UNHCR believe have perished this year while trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Their family is reported to be from Kobani, the town on the Syria-Turkish border which was seized by ISIL last year and besieged by Kurdish fighters before being re-taken by them after months of intense fighting.
The reaction on social media has consistently seemed to be a world away from the ponderous reaction of the politicians; the overwhelming feelings of horror expressed worldwide were a stark contrast to the backbiting and bickering amongst Europe’s political leaders, and the stonewall of silence from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose intransigence in the face of public protest is blamed by many for lighting the fires of the Syrian conflict and creating a breeding ground for ISIL in the first place.
Over the past few weeks, as more than 240,000 people have landed on the shores of Italy and Greece, Europe’s southern limits, the EU’s leaders have been fighting like cats in a sack over who should take the most refugees; the “United States of Europe” appeared singularly dis-united.
After her battering over the Greek economic crisis, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, appeared to be the only European leader to read the mood of the people correctly, announcing that Germany expected to welcome around 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
This put her at odds with partners like Hungary, where refugees gathered outside Budapest’s railway station, creating a standoff with the authorities who had initially waved them through, but then decided to strictly enforce European Union rules on processing refugees as they enter the EU.
This created a human bottleneck which dominated television screens, newspapers and social media news feeds across Europe for many days.
While the EU itself resorted to lofty rhetoric about working together to deal with the crisis and developing equitable ways of distributing refugees among the member states, some of Merkel’s European partners began to retreat into petty nationalism.
The worst display was from Hungary which built a 180km fence, while their pugnacious prime minister, Viktor Orban, said it was Germany’s problem and that the refugees threatened to undermine Europe’s Christian roots.
Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, also initially stood firm against appeals to take more refugees, the scars of the immigration debate during the recent general election still fresh in his mind. Many of the right-wing press supported him, at least before Wednesday’s tragic pictures winged their way around the world.
Even The Sun, the red-top tabloid which had previously run a column which branded refugees in Calais as “cockroaches”, did a U-turn faster than Jeremy Clarkson in a train station.
“Our nation has a proud record of taking in desperate people and should not flinch from it now” pic.twitter.com/vRKNLH2OaK
— Stig Abell (@StigAbell) September 2, 2015
By the end of the day, Cameron had done the same, indicating that the UK would “take thousands more refugees” fleeing from the war in Syria, although the details of how many were still subject to confirmation.
The UK’s local councils, suffering under years of Cameron’s spending cuts, insisted that support for the refugees should come from central government.
Even then, some ministers were harking back to Cameron’s earlier stance, telling the BBC that they they “should not do the wrong thing for the right reasons”, intimating that an open invitation to refugees will only encourage more people to make the journey, playing into the hands of the people smugglers who continue to make millions from their exploitation of the desperate – a stark contrast to the 75,000 refugees the UK accepted from the Balkans War 20 years ago, many of whom went home once the conflict was over.
A damaged, faltering union?
But while some individual states are waking up to the humanitarian tragedy right on the EU’s doorstep, it may have already significantly damaged some of the basic tenets of the union, including the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement, and the Dublin regulation on screening refugees at the point they enter the EU, something which has focused pressure on those countries in the front line, such as Italy and Greece.
The statements from Orban have also highlighted a potential East-West split with Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the so-called Vizegrad Four, already co-ordinating their response to French and German calls for a mandatory quota system to distribute more than 100,000 refugees across the continent.
Meanwhile, the public are well ahead of their leaders: Austrian and German people are already welcoming refugees from Hungary, providing supplies in Vienna and Munich.
In Germany the Refugees Welcome website has been launched, described as an “AirBnB for refugees”, and was inundated with offers of help while the hashtag #refugeeswelcome began trending on Twitter.
People in Iceland offered help to 11,000 Syrian refugees after the Government declared it would only take 50, while in Britain refugee charities have reported significant increases in donations and an online petition demanding action from the government has already had more than 350,000 signatures – only 10,000 are needed to trigger a government response.
The difficult questions
As Europe wakes up to the realities of the refugee crisis and its shambolic response, discussions are also beginning about its longer-term implications, the complex interplay of circumstances and historical actions which have created this situation.
Questions are now being asked about what can be done to really end the war in Syria, the crime of people trafficking and the threat of ISIL.
But many of the solutions to these problems do not lie in Europe, or even within Europe’s power, and again, the public, via social media is already asking the questions that many of their politicians have been avoiding for years. Fingers are pointing at the wider international community, especially the Gulf States and America, as well as highlighting the impotence of the United Nations.
The ripples of the refugee crisis will spread and be felt globally and the BRICS countries will not be immune from those effects, especially as some, such as China, have already faced accusations of passivity in the face of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar earlier in 2015, while India’s response was described as a “grudging tolerance” of the refugees, after being held up as a model by the UNHCR just two years earlier despite not being a signatury to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
Meanwhile, the movement of people from sub-Saharan Africa north to Europe along with more state controls are thought to have led to a reduction in migration within the rest of Africa, which may potentially impact South Africa’s economy; Germany has welcomed young refugees to supplement its aging workforce, and their gain may be Southern Africa’s loss.
Similarly Latin America, previously a haven for refugees from Lebanon and China, is now only seeing internal movement, again potentially affecting economic development. Russia, meanwhile, continues to just plough its own, unique furrow, with Vladimir Putin effectively doing little more than saying: “We told you so”.
As Alan Beattie stated in the Financial Times: “The attempts of fleeing Syrians to enter the EU have recently been the focus of the debate on migration and refugees. But the roles of emerging economies themselves both as recipients and senders of migrants are as, if not more, important, and the debate about what to do there is progressing in more subtle and less hysterical terms than in the rich world.”
Whatever the process and the route of the debate, Europe’s leaders now know that after their stumbling, divided response over the last few weeks, they have to move much more quickly and much more decisively, or face being called out and embarrassed publicly by their own citizens.