Refugees rest on the side. Picture: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Refugees rest on the side. Picture: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

It almost doesn’t matter who started the fires this week in the squalid refugee camp on Lesbos called Moria, leaving thousands to sleep on the streets.

It could have been the desperate migrants, dwelling in cramped tents without clean toilets and forced by Covid-19 to “quarantine,” whatever that may mean in such conditions. It could have been local Greeks, who resent what they see as a slum that sullies their beautiful island. Or the fires could have flared all by themselves, because in such a wretched place, bad things are just bound to happen.  

Either way, Europe — from Brussels to Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw and Athens — is responsible for this tragedy. This is blowback for one of the EU’s worst failures on an admittedly long list: its inability to fix a broken refugee system.

It’s been clear for many years that migration from poor and war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa to this comparatively orderly continent would be one of the EU’s biggest challenges. But most member states that can’t be reached by dinghy, raft or boat across the Mediterranean — and only Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain can be — refused to acknowledge migration as their problem.

Apply for asylum

The result was the notorious and cynical “Dublin system”. It requires migrants, at least in theory, to apply for asylum only in the first EU member state they physically enter. Unless they jet in by plane — and Syrians who’ve been bombed out of their homes tend to flee without boarding passes — this means the Mediterranean states.

The resulting dysfunction came to a head exactly half a decade ago, during the refugee crisis. In the summer of 2015, Syrians, Afghans and others fled to Greece, which was itself suffering from the euro crisis. From there the migrants walked across the Balkans towards Germany and the north — until many of them were stranded at a train station in Budapest.

Instead of helping, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban blocked them. On their nightly news that summer, Europeans watched families sleeping on platforms and train tracks and walking along highways towards the German border.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, decided that turning back these refugees was not an option. Neither Germany nor the world, 70 years after the Holocaust, wanted to see Germans in uniform fencing in downtrodden and helpless people. So she let them in. Journalists such as me reported that she “opened the border.” In fact, the Austro-German border was already open; she just didn’t close it.

But the million or so mainly Muslim migrants who came in the following months split Europeans. Some welcomed the refugees. Others were frightened or repulsed by them, fearing that they threatened their way of life. Germans started marching in protest in such cities as Dresden. A right-wing and xenophobic party called the Alternative for Germany, which in the early summer of 2005 had been close to dissolving, suddenly soared in the polls. The backlash dominated politics in Germany and all of Europe.

Merkel, in particular, was blamed for this crisis, as if she, rather than the likes of Syria President Bashar al-Assad, had prodded the refugees onto their journey. Selfies of smiling migrants posing with the friendly chancellor zipped around the world. Merkel had created a “pull effect,” it was said.

Deportations increase

The chancellor and her centre-right party soon changed course. The “welcome culture” was ended, as laws were tightened, asylum processes tweaked and deportations accelerated. A tenuous deal with Turkey was struck, meant to dissuade refugees from crossing to the Greek islands.

In effect if not on paper, the EU’s Dublin system had been abolished. What would replace it?

In principle, there was an obvious answer. The EU needed a new system, in which European agencies, such as Frontex, policed the bloc’s external borders, accepted migrants in a humane way and speedily processed their asylum claims. Successful applicants would be resettled across the whole EU according to a set formula. Unsuccessful ones would be swiftly deported to their home countries.

But such a European solution never came about. That’s because the EU still makes most decisions by unanimity, and the usual suspects — always led by Orban and his copycats in the such as  Austria — block every step. In effect, they’re sabotaging the EU.

So in reality, an unofficial migration regime evolved instead. Without admitting to it, member states have tried to turn the pull factor into a push factor by making the existence of refugees such as those in Moria as unpleasant as possible and just short of legally inhumane.

Thus Greece, emulating Australia, tries to block refugees from reaching its mainland by herding them into island camps, of which Moria is the largest. Designed for 3,000 people, it accommodated 20,000 at some points, and 12,000 when the fires broke out this week. At sea, Greek ships have been observed pushing back refugee boats with force, though Athens denies these reports.

But singling out Greece would be unfair. If Europe’s refugee camps are hell, it’s because Europe implicitly wants them to be. That’s why fires such as Moria’s are inevitable, as are disease outbreaks, violence and every other form of human misery.

Unless Europe strong-arms its saboteurs, starting with Orban, to fix its migration system, it will stumble from one humanitarian disaster to another. Gradually, this will discredit any claim the EU might have to being a community of “values.” And in that case, what’s the point of having the EU at all?

Bloomberg

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