Europe struggles to tend to flood of refugees

When pictures were flashed by the world’s media of a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying drowned on a beach in Turkey, after falling from a makeshift dinghy, they brought home the desperate plight of refugees fleeing the region’s conflicts.

But they also highlighted dilemmas facing the governments of Europe as they seek a coherent policy to cope with the huge numbers of migrants arriving on their borders.

“The situation is getting worse — with 4 million Syrians already driven out, tens of thousands are now looking for routes into Europe via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans,” said Patrick Nicholson, director of communications for the Vatican-based Caritas Internationalis. 

“The European Union has to accept some responsibility for what’s happening in the Middle East rather than leaving it to neighboring countries,” Nicholson said. “If access is blocked, conditions will become ever harsher for people stuck without food, water and shelter.”

Escalating problem 

Throughout 2015, refugees have been arriving aboard battered boats on southern Europe’s Mediterranean shorelines or being rescued by naval ships from unscrupulous people-smugglers. 

But thousands also have drowned during perilous sea crossings from Libya and elsewhere despite an anguished appeal by Pope Francis to the European Parliament last November that the Mediterranean not be allowed to become a “vast graveyard.” 

In late summer, attention switched to Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary and Croatia as large crowds made their way overland.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 549,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in 2015 (see sidebar). With thousands more arriving daily, unease and confusion are rife.

While most governments have been ready to help, some have closed their borders, pleading a lack of infrastructure and resources. 

And though European opinion has proved broadly sympathetic, there have also been hostile reactions, including more than 430 separate attacks on refugee centers this year alone in Germany — more than double the violence that occurred in the country in all of 2014 — which has offered to accept 800,000 people into its country this year.

As chaos mounts, some observers say the EU no longer faces a challenge to its currency and economy but to its very founding values of humanity and solidarity. 

“Many are arriving with no plans, needing both immediate assistance and help in understanding their options,” Kim Pozniak, communications officer for U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, told Our Sunday Visitor.

“These people aren’t just migrating in search of a better life; they’re fleeing to protect their children and save their lives, and this is something everyone can relate to. But while they’ve been shown compassion in some countries, this hasn’t been the case everywhere.”

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Migrants, who came across Turkey, make land from an overloaded rubber dinghy as they arrive at the coast near Mithimna, Lesbos island, Greece, October 5, 2015. Newscom photo

Church’s response

Europe’s Catholic bishops have been responding with calls for help, especially in Germany and Austria, where 71 refugees were found suffocated in late August inside a truck near Vienna. 

Meanwhile, church groups across Europe have been providing humanitarian support, particularly after a Sept. 6 appeal by Pope Francis for dioceses, parishes and religious orders to “express the Gospel in concrete terms” by each taking in one family. 

Even then, not everyone has been supportive. 

Catholics in Slovakia have endorsed their government’s decision not to accept Muslims on the grounds they “would not feel at home” in a predominantly Catholic country with no mosques.

In the Czech Republic, where human rights groups criticized police for stamping numbers on refugees’ hands, the bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Jan Graubner, has also demanded his country take only “Christian refugees.”

In Poland, a former president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Mission Societies, Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Praga, told his church’s Catholic information agency, KAI, on Sept. 2 that Muslims would merely “open ghettoes which give birth to violence and terrorism.”

On Sept. 14, another Polish bishop, Edward Frankowski, warned his congregation the refugees included “masked jihadists waiting to strike” against Europe’s Christians.  

In Hungary, where premier Viktor Orban warned in late August that a Muslim “invasion of Europe” would endanger the continent’s Christian heritage, Church leaders were criticized for saying and doing little, even when police began beating and arresting refugees seeking entry to the country. 

One Hungarian bishop, Laszlo Kiss of Szeged-Csanad, has accused the pope of failing to understand. Many refugees are arriving with cries of “Allahu Akbar” and getting ready to “take over Europe,” Bishop Kiss told the Washington Post in mid-September. 

Nicholson, the Caritas Internationalis spokesman, thinks the pope’s appeal was nevertheless crucial in recalling the Christian duty to “welcome strangers” in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.     

With a combined population of 500 million, the European Union’s acceptance of 400,000 is a minuscule contribution compared to that of Lebanon, which is sheltering 1.5 million in a population of just 4 million. 

“We need to cut through the political subterfuges and opt for a simple message about alleviating suffering,” Nicholson told OSV. 

“Although the practicalities of getting parishes and orders to help still have to be worked out, appeals like the pope’s will make a practical difference, enabling shelter to be offered in an organized way which benefits both refugees and host communities.” 

Governmental action

For now, though, EU governments appear to lack a coping strategy.

Although free movement without border checks is permitted between 26 European countries under a 1990 Schengen Convention, a separate Dublin Regulation, in force since 1997, requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach. By saddling southern countries with the overwhelming burden, this regulation is widely believed to have failed. Yet no clear rules have been devised to replace it.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has backed European Commission calls for a quota system that would allow refugees to be shared according to each country’s size and economic strength. Yet this too has been bitterly resisted.  

In a September statement, the Brussels-based Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) urged EU governments to back the “warm welcome” extended by Europe’s civil society with clear measures before the onset of winter. The organization also compared the refugee crisis to that of World War II, a statement that was echoed by Pope Francis in his Sept. 24 address to a joint session of Congress.

EU member-states should fulfil their obligations under the EU Charter, the U.N. Refugee Convention and European Convention on Human Rights, the JRS added, allowing families to reunite quickly and fairly under “comprehensive resettlement programs.” 

The commission representing Europe’s Catholic bishops, COMECE, also demanded a “common European solution” and warned of the “Christian duty” to help. It was wrong that some countries now sought to “disengage entirely from their responsibility,” COMECE warned, and expressed disappointment that some refugees were encountering “harassment and hostility.” 

“Everything must now be done to ensure no one dies of thirst at our borders, drowns in the Mediterranean or gets starved and suffocated aboard a truck,” COMECE’s German president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, told Germany’s ARD broadcast consortium. “Money shouldn’t play a role when lives are being saved,” Cardinal Marx added. “Nor will any solution be provided by political disputes over a distinction between fugitives from war and poverty, all of whom have legitimate aspirations.”

Call to help

The pictures of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on the beach at Bodrum, Turkey, forced several European governments, including Britain’s, to soften their hardline policies and was a reminder of the power of images to influence opinion. Just a week later, however, 15 more children and 19 adults drowned when their boat capsized off the nearby Greek island of Farmakonisi, prompting fresh pleas from Catholic aid agencies.

Patrick Nicholson of Caritas Internationalis hopes the EU will agree on decisive action.

It should set up “efficient, safe and legal ways into Europe,” he said, so refugees won’t have to suffer and die on its borders, as well as introduce humanitarian visas so they can be integrated into Europe’s labor, health care and education systems. 

But governments should also work more actively for peace in the Middle East, stopping the flow of arms and filling gaps in humanitarian aid, which have fuelled the desperation.

“At some stage, we’ll have to help rebuild countries like Syria, so their uprooted minorities can return home,” Nicholson said. “Although there are some practical differences in the Church, Catholic social teaching is very clear: We’ve an unconditional duty to help strangers, whatever their faiths and outlooks.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.