A couple of weeks ago, the European Union (EU) Commissioner for Refugees Dimitris Avramopoulos commented on the future of Schengen, a policy which allows citizens of 26 European countries to travel through mutual borders without any passport checks, “Schengen is one of the biggest achievements of European integration. We have to do everything we can to save it.” Since hundreds of thousands of refugees started marching to Europe as a consequence of the deadly civil war in Syria, many EU countries have adopted border control policies to reduce the number of refugees crossing into countries within the Schengen region. Before the crisis, many EU citizens and tourists were enjoying the liberty of fast and easy traveling without any security checks within the region. Now, one the most prominent features of the EU is at risk with this temporary reintroduction of border control at borders of Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The inability of the EU countries to find a common ground for fair and effective policies regarding the relocation and return of refugees in four years makes Avramopoulos’s remarks barely convincing, even though he further assures that “they paved a way for maximum security and control of the external borders.”
While it may seem like the refugee crisis is far behind us, a huge number of asylum seekers are stuck in Greece and Italy, hoping to find a way to get to countries where they are given more civil rights and opportunities. Because Greece and Italy grant asylum seekers neither a work permit nor social benefits––except for a small number––people have to live in camps under dire conditions for months and even years. Both countries are going through economic problems with high youth unemployment rates and they simply are not capable of establishing a long term integration system.
On the other side of the continent, Germany has let roughly a million asylum seekers into the country. It is important to note that Germany, as well as countries like Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, makes sure that asylum seekers go through very thorough medical, background and security checks and as many interviews with immigration officials until it is proven that they are eligible for refugee status. The good quality of conditions and treatment in these countries attracted more and more refugees to these countries to the point where it became a huge economic burden to accommodate them.
In December of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview a number of Syrian refugees in Germany about their integration into the society and how they were received by public. Unlike older refugees struggling to fit in, younger people seemed to have little trouble with creating a social circle and adapting to their new life. They instead note the amount of paperwork and racism they face. “After I first arrived in Germany, I had been sent to a rural refugee camp, where some locals did not welcome us,” Ahmed, who is now a medical student in Berlin, told me. When he went to a electronics shop to buy himself a mobile phone, he was subject verbal abuse by employees because he did not speak German. “I had just arrived in Germany,” said Ahmad. “I had started learning the language, but I was not good enough yet.” Others shared similar stories, but they were very quick to add that they also experienced very positive exchanges with many locals.
With increasing numbers of refugees and economic problems, far-right parties became remarkably popular in some parts of Europe. Some researchers associate this surge with the fear of losing the European identity as a possible result of failure to integrate refugees into the society. This concern finds its root in the failed integration of “guest workers” in Europe, who emigrated to the continent in 1960s and did not return to their home countries. The lack of government programs to support the integration of “Gastarbeiter” led to the rise of marginalized minorities consisting predominantly of Turks. Many far-right parties argue that it is hopeless for these groups to integrate due to differences in culture and religion. Even German national soccer player Mesut Ozil, who has Turkish heritage, has become the target of critics regarding his integration after he posed for a photo with Turkish President Erdogan. The photo was highly controversial given the political tension between two countries. The player could not put up with the strong criticism after his team was eliminated from the World Cup and ended his national soccer career saying, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
While the EU is trying to implement new policies to ensure a fair distribution of refugees within the EU, some far-right parties opposing taking refugees blame the EU for interfering too much in politics of member countries. With the UK having already left citing the influx of immigrants as one of the reasons, the trust people have in the EU is weakening. This trend has affected countries like Germany with solid immigration systems as well. Chancellor Angela Merkel has now made a “migrant return deal” with Spain and Greece, which grants Germany the right to return any refugees who applied to asylum in Greece first, but ultimately moved to Germany passing through the German-Austrian border. The EU had formerly signed a controversial deal with Turkey to reduce the huge flow of refugees into the EU by returning them to Turkey. The deal was very costly for the EU, it entailed another €3 billion on top of €3 billion of financial aid Turkey has already been receiving. Many criticized the morality and legality of the deal harshly, claiming that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and calling the Turkish President a dictator for his history of autocratic actions.
The EU is relentlessly looking for answers to solve this crisis. There is no doubt that Europe will have to make compromises even if that means giving up some core values and principals. I find it very hard to believe in Avramopoulos’s optimistic remarks about open internal borders when there are still so many refugees living in temporary camps in Greece and Italy, but it is very tempting to believe in his next comments: “the EU is not–– and never will be––a fortress . . . The EU is proud to stand by its values and provide protection to those that need it, in line with our commitments under the Geneva conventions.”