According to the UNHCR, as of the beginning of 2014 more than 51 million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of persecution, violent conflict or human rights violations. About one third were refugees, two thirds were internally displaced in their own country. Only a small fraction, just over a million, had managed to flee to an industrialized country and lodge an asylum application.
The majority of these applications, 714,000 in total, have been lodged in Europe, of which 570,800 in EU-28. This represents an increase of 47 per cent as compared to 2013 (Source: UNHCR Asylum Trends 2014). The numbers for 2015 will be similar. The situation is described as dramatic – and the news and photographs of refugees stranded or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, greeted with tear gas in Macedonia, rounded up like criminals when attempting to cross the Channel at Calais, or living unsheltered at the refugee camp in Traiskirchen in Austria support this view.
Governments – European, national, regional and municipal – claim to be ill-equipped and poorly prepared. But how true is that? The war in Syria is now in its fourth year, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are frozen and the IS upsurge has been making headlines for several months. What’s more: can a continent of 28 industrialized nations, a population of 503 million inhabitants, a GDP of 14.303 trillion Euros and an elaborate public infrastructure and administration (including emergency plans for all types of interventions) really claim to be ill-equipped for dealing with a humanitarian crisis involving half a million people?
One other explanation for this unhurried reaction to the crisis is that the generosity of Europeans has declined. Supposedly, back in the 1990s, at the time of the Balkan wars, EU states and their citizens were more willing to help than they are now as a result of the financial crisis. A more careful examination of the historical record will show this to be false. Refugees are at best tolerated, mostly not wanted. This was the case in the past, it is the case today, and will remain the case in the future. Otherwise we would have had no necessity for laws and international treaties, the sole purpose of which is that of enforcing protection in accordance with the principles of democracy and human rights.
The weakness of Europe is political. Member States are unable to agree on a formula on how to share the financial and administrative burden of the refugee crisis but only because they fear that the increase of asylum applications will impact negatively on election results. In other words, the extreme right-wing is once again setting the agenda.
Against this background we should be grateful to the media for daring to look (and look again) at the refugee crisis thus keeping the issue in the headlines – and reminding us, as Susan Sontag wrote (in her 2003 essay ‘Regarding the pain of others’), to think and take action.