EU leaders will hold an emergency summit on September 23 to try to hammer out a common response to the EU’s refugee crisis amid deep internal divisions on how to handle the worsening situation. While Europe struggles to agree on the relocation of 120,000 refugees, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have already taken in more than 4 million Syrians.
Carnegie Europe hosted a media call with Stefan Lehne from Vienna, Marc Pierini from Brussels, and Maha Yahya from Beirut to discuss the causes of recent refugee flows, how Europe should handle the crisis, and the need for a coordinated international response.
The following transcript is not checked against delivery.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: My name’s Christine Lynch. I’m the Communications Director at Carnegie Europe, and thanks everybody for joining this 30-minute media call on Europe’s refugee crisis.
I’m pleased to have on the line Maha Yahya, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre based in Beirut, Marc Pierini, a Visiting Scholar here at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, and Stefan Lehne, another Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe who’s joining us on the line from Vienna.
Just to let everybody know, this call is on the record, and if you could please identify yourself when you ask a question. I’d be also grateful if you can mute your line when you’re not speaking to reduce background noise. Star one will mute and unmute your line.
So, let’s get started with Maha. Maha, we’d like to ask you what’s driving the recent surge of refugees to Europe, and how you would evaluate the policy responses of major regional refugee hosts so far.
MAHA YAHYA: Hi everybody. This is Maha from Beirut. I think what’s driving the recent surge are a number of factors. The first and one of the most significant is the sense of hopelessness that prevails, given mounting evidence that this is going to be a protracted conflict and there is no kind of political or diplomatic solution, or even military victory in sight.
So, this is… You know, Syrians now understand that there is no future for them neither in their country nor in host… in countries that are now currently hosting them, and there’s no future for their children. I think this is one of the probably most powerful push factors that is driving primarily what we’re seeing now, the more, kind of, professional middle class fleeing the country, or what was still left of it in Syria.
The other push factor I would say is also the sense of despair in host countries, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan where being a refugee here means your life is suspended, you’re in limbo, you’re living off aid, and they have no way of establishing any kind of future life for yourself or your family. They’re not allowed to work, they’re increasing restrictions of movement, etc.
So, again, some people from Lebanon are refugees who are able to have also… I mean, many of them have been saving for this for a while. Some are selling everything they own in order to make the trip to Europe. Of course, the attraction to Europe is that at least there is security, there’s safety, and there’s the possibility of a future, that after four, five years they would acquire probably citizenship. They can build a life there. They can actually build a life for themselves and for their children.
The third and probably more practical issue is that it has become cheaper, and alternate routes have opened up. Before the route between Turkey and Libya was extremely difficult, but also quite expensive. Apparently now the prices have gone down with the route between Turkey and Greece, and then going on forward by foot. It went down from $5,000, $6,000 to $2,000 I think per person. These are the numbers we’re hearing. So, I think that has made the trip more affordable to a larger number of people as well.
I’ll stop here and take questions. I’ll repeat at a later stage. For host countries, just to say they’re not unhappy. I mean, the fact that there is a massive shortage in funding to the UN and to the international agencies has made it incredibly difficult for host countries to deal with the mounting needs of refugees. I’ll take Lebanon for example. We had a massive influx of refugees into the country, one quarter of the population some figures are saying, and they span four years with not sufficient support from the international community.
So, for host countries, they’re not unhappy to see some of those refugees now make the trip outside the country. It relieves the burden on them, but it also reduces the demographic pressure, but also anxieties related to issues of identity and [unclear]. Thank you.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Thanks, Maha. Marc, what needs to happen at the EU level to manage the crisis, and what can we expect from this week’s emergency summit?
MARC PIERINI: Well, the summit will be a very difficult discussion, because member states are divided into three different leagues. One is Germany in a league of its own. Germany has a budget surplus. It has growth. It has citizens’ confidence, and more importantly, it has a need for additional manpower. So, basically, a strategic decision was made to increase the workforce through accepting refugees.
That of course takes a lot of money. Two weeks ago, Germany allocated an extra € 6 billion for this for training, language training, requalification, and building 130,000 new apartments. No other member state can do that, and so the second league is basically Western European member states following German lead, but from quite a distance. UK, 20,000 over five years; France, 20,000 over two years. So, this is quite a distance.
And then you have a third league which is basically Central Europe and Denmark which are adamantly opposed to accepting refugees for their own reasons, and this is really the huge difficulty in the European Council, because as much as Germany wants and kind of fought to be in the lead, they cannot politically accept that other countries are doing nothing.
So, it would be very hard to reconcile these views. There may be no agreement on compulsory quotas but on voluntary quotas instead. Maybe it would be impossible to avoid that some countries like Hungary or Denmark will opt out. Maybe even it will be necessary to organise bypassing Hungary, because that has become the real shame for Europe as a whole, so something will have to be done.
In addition to this, there is a very intense discussion with Turkey. Turkey yesterday through the government spokesman said that they spent € 7 billion plus, they’ve hosted more than 2 million people, but in fact what we have to remember is that less than 300,000 are hosted in government camps in Turkey. These are the poorer people, the less qualified people, and the people less likely to undertake the journey. All the others, which is 1.7 million plus, are on their own, they’re spending their lifetime savings, and these are the ones who basically want to leave.
So, they are now leaving in a very disorderly way, especially because the Turkish authorities are turning a blind eye to traffickers on the coast, and this is varied, although the distance is minimal, it’s between 8 km and 25 km from the coast to the main islands, Lesbos, Ios, and Kos, but it is very dangerous, so something has to be done about a safe sea bridge, or even better by processing asylum requests in Turkey. This is going to be a large part of the discussion on Wednesday. I’ll stop here and take questions later.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Stefan, Marc spoke a little bit about how the refugee crisis is deepening divisions between Eastern and Western Europe. How significant is this rift between member states?
STEFAN LEHNE: Well, I think it’s variable. I think there are several factors at play here. The one thing is in a way it’s very understandable that Central European countries and Eastern European countries are more reluctant to accept foreigners on their territory. They are relatively homogeneous societies, because somehow the Second World War acted, sort of, an ethnic cleanser. They are, sort of, artificially homogeneous, but more than they were historically, and they were of course isolated for a very long time.
So, it’s quite clear that for the Czech Republic or Poland, taking in a large number of Muslim people is much more of a shock than for Belgium or France, who have lived with this situation for decades, basically. The second factor is that of course they are new member states, so they expected to be on the receiving end of solidarity, not on the giving end of solidarity. Somebody said that we expected tourists, not refugees.
So, there’s this notion that they would now have to shoulder the costs and the burdens of this has come a bit as a shock for these countries. That was not the deal when they joined the European Union, they’re only learning this gradually.
The third point, which is quite important, that you cannot assume a great of solidarity among this group of countries. If you look, for instance, what happens between Croatia and Hungary at the moment, Hungary’s pushing the refugees back into Serbia, then they move through Croatia, and now Croatia is pushing them back into Hungary. This creates a huge amount of hostility, mistrust, and ill feeling among these countries, so I don’t think they will operate very much as a cohesive block in the negotiations in [unclear].
I do think that this renationalisation basically, everybody for himself, is really the most dangerous thing. This is not just a phenomena in Central Europe, but it also affects Western European countries, and I think what is clearly at stake is the Schengen System, and I do believe because also the Central European countries enjoy very much the freedom of movement, and that means a lot of them, I guess that ultimately they will be prepared to show a certain degree of solidarity in order to safeguard the Schengen System, but one cannot absolutely count on it.
The problem is a bit that this quota on relocation has become a little bit, sort of, the litmus test of European solidarity, but if you look at it in terms of actual solutions to the problem at hand, it is rather marginal, it is rather a distraction. What Marc has spoken about, cooperation with Turkey, finding a way to secure the external border, harmonising the treatment of asylum seekers throughout Europe. There are many other things that are at least as important, but somehow now the test on whether we get this quota system is now becoming somehow the criteria for success and failure.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Thanks, Stefan. We’ll open it up to questions now. Anybody have something to ask one of our experts? You can just introduce yourself quickly before posing your question, please.
RYAN HEATH: Okay, it’s Ryan Heath, I’ll go first, from POLITICO. It’s a question or maybe two questions about the quota plan, and it’s to get a sense of how much you think a successful agreement on this quota plan would actually do to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that we’re seeing, because it strikes me that the numbers are much smaller than the true flows of people, and also there’re severe question marks about whether any agreement would actually be implemented.
MARC PIERINI: Well, I would say that the quota issue is more a political issue between heads of state and government than a real issue on the ground. On the ground, we are just overwhelmed by the numbers and the state of unpreparedness of most member states. So, you have to shelter people, to give them food, and then allocate them to countries. That’s one issue.
The quota issue in itself, which is going to be the dominant issue in the European Council, is essentially about the principle of solidarity, and as I said in my introduction, it may be impossible to avoid some countries opting out, but at the same time, it’s extremely difficult for Germany, or France, or Sweden, whoever else is going to welcome refugees, to hear Hungary say, this is not our problem, and on top of that to see the shameful things such as the police throwing bread over a fence to refugees, which is something you’re not even allowed to do in a zoo. So, there you have a problem of decency that a number of member states are going to put forward.
RYAN HEATH: And just one follow-up. Does that mean then, if it’s about the principle, does that indicate that actually it’s about getting a system in place for the next wave of people, essentially like, yes, you just do whatever you can on the ground now with this wave to avoid disaster, but you make an agreement so that when the next wave comes in, there’s a proper system in place. Is that effectively what they’re talking about?
MARC PIERINI: Yes, but, I mean, a properly functioning system would revolve about holding camps where you can process the asylum seekers, because that’s what we’re talking about, and that is a very technical thing, it’s called a refugee status determination process, where you have to assure the origin of the person, either or family condition in a given country.
And of course in that process, everybody very quickly understands again, even if you’re coming from a, sort of, mildly affected country, not Syria, not Afghanistan, you’re going to pretend that where you come from is extremely harsh, your rights are not protected, etc., or as we see now in Turkey, you will have bought a fake Syrian passport. So, all these things have to be determined.
Also, in Africa we’ve seen that… I have seen that myself ten years ago, you have people trying to fake their ethnic background. If you come from a part of a country which is affected by war, you’re going to try and… but you’re not from that part, you’re going to try to make it look like you’re coming from there.
So, in other words, this is a complex process. You need a lot of specialists, you need an orderly way to do that, and of course you cannot do that when you have waves of people walking along highways and railways, and secondly, most governments, Hungary of course, but also Turkey outside the EU or Serbia, are unwilling to lend a hand to this process because they say, well, now you’re going to create a focal point in my country.
So, that is the current problem, and of course you have to remember that this is €1 billion for the traffickers this year. So, it’s a huge amount of money. Each trafficker offering services to take a boat from Turkey to the Greek islands, has a Facebook page. You know, you have other people who have applications explaining where, in real time, the Hungarian border is being closed and what are the alternative routes. So, we’re up against a very organised bunch. Don’t forget that.
HEIDI PLOUGSGAARD JENSEN: Can I ask a follow-up question?
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Absolutely. Please go ahead.
HEIDI PLOUGSGAARD JENSEN: My name is Heidi Jensen from Jyllands-Posten in Denmark. Talking about the holding camps, but for them to actually work, wouldn’t there have to be some kind of force implemented? I mean, today we see a lot of refugees who don’t want to give their fingerprint or who don’t want to stay if they’re being asked to.
So, for them to work, it seems that they would have… some authority would have to force them to give fingerprints and force them to stay until they are sent to another country according to some distribution or relocation agreement.
MARC PIERINI: Yes, you’re touching upon a very difficult issue here, because these people coming from Syria or Afghanistan, of course they hate to see the police, and they hate to be fingerprinted, and they think that they’re going to be stuck there forever.
So, we have a, sort of, public policy issue here, which is… but of course, we don’t have a system in place at this point, so it’s very difficult to make refugees understand that they may, for example, stay for a while in Greece or in Serbia, but their application to go to Germany, or Sweden, or what is being processed, and of course as all migrants in general, to use the generic term now, they all have an idea of where they want to go, or they have a connection, a family connection for example.
So, that has to be taken into account, but it’s extremely difficult. Using force is not in the tradition of these camps. Neither UNHCR, nor IOM, nor of course NGOs involved are using force, and that’s the thing that is most striking right now in what we see on television.
PAUL TAYLOR: Paul Taylor from Reuters. I have a question about Turkey, if I may, for Marc Pierini. Marc, what does Turkey want in order to cooperate… from the EU in order to cooperate more in dealing with Syrian refugees in particular and making more of an effort to keep them in the country. What can the EU give, and what would Turkey be willing to do in exchange, in your view?
MARC PIERINI: Well, we know that Commissioner Hahn and others in the commission are looking at a financial package, essentially adding new money and relocating money allocated already to Turkey. You have a difficult issue here. In 2011, when I was the EU ambassador back then, we had a minute number of course at the end of the year. We had 7,000 to 8,000 refugees, and the nightmare scenario was 100,000, and you had two issues at play.
One is that Turkey wanted to show that they could handle this by themselves, out of, you know, solidarity, etc., that they were well organised, which they are, and they didn’t like the idea that the EU works through NGOs, and I remember a minister saying, well, if I accept ten NGOs today, I will have 1,000 tomorrow, that we cannot do it disorderly. All fine, except that this reasoning was valid for a few thousand refugees or a few tens of thousands, and then very quickly they became overwhelmed and they have probably close to 2 million, officially 1.7-something according to UNHCR.
Now, you have a mismatch here, because if we want to help Turkey through what they do in government-run camps, AFAD camps, these are basically the people least willing to go to Europe. They are less qualified, they know they will have a harder time than others to find a job, whereas the people who are more willing to go who are IT specialists, accountants, doctors, what else, they are on their own.
So, they are registered with UNHCR, but they are all over the country, basically in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Izmir, and so on and so forth. So, we will have to convince Turkey, or the EU will have to convince Turkey to establish some sort of a process against the money and assistance of course to reach out to these people.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Any other questions out there for Marc, Stefan, or Maha? We’ve still got about five minutes left on the call.
MICHAEL PETROU: It’s Michael Petrou from Maclean’s. I’d like to just push that issue a little bit and ask to what extent would or could that ease some of the pressure of people travelling illegally and seeking asylum in Europe itself if we were to streamline the process of working through the UNHCR in host countries, and I suppose concurrently if countries in the West were willing to accept more refugees through that system. What difference would that make in terms of the decisions people are making to cross in boats and otherwise travel illegally and dangerously from Syria into Europe?
MARC PIERINI: Well, I have two comments here. One is that what we can do, at least on the Turkish-Greek sea border, is what we’ve done off the coast of Libya, which is to lessen the number of people drowning. So, you know, reducing the humanitarian catastrophe, that’s one thing. I don’t think it will deter people from leaving. We’ve seen in the past, I mean this is historical evidence about refugees, there’s nothing that deters them.
If we have a clean or relatively clean agreement with Turkey and within the EU and also with Serbia and Macedonia, we would eventually be able within a few weeks to declare official corridors to go to Europe with stations holding points along this route, so that we will reduce the risks that people take, we will cut off the business of traffickers, but of course that doesn’t come to life in a matter of a few days.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Maha, do you have anything to add there?
MAHA YAHYA: No, I agree with what Marc was saying, and I don’t… I mean, processing it through UNHCR is actually… could probably create… because it could create a backlog, whereas I don’t think they have the capacity at this point to process such large numbers of people. So, I don’t think it would deter the flow [inaudible]. Maybe for some, but others would be just eager to even be in. So, yes, I think what Marc was describing was a more rational process to my mind.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Thanks. Any other questions out there? We’ve got a few minutes left if there are any takers. Stefan, well, we have a couple of minutes. With you based in Vienna, there was over 20,000 migrants that walked into Austria from Hungary over the weekend. What’s the reaction to that situation?
STEFAN LEHNE: Well, at the moment, most of these people want to go to Germany, and that the government of Germany is still taking in more people, it’s become slightly more difficult, because many trains have been cancelled between Salzburg and Germany, and Germans are very eager to slow down the process because they need time to process the new arrivals, but at the moment still German readiness to take more people is there, and therefore this huge influx of people every day is still not a huge problem because a sufficient number of people are leaving.
But the question is of course how long Germany will be able to keep taking people in, and if you listened yesterday to the German Minister of the Interior, he really said very strongly that he believes this is limited, there is no possibility to take on more hundreds of thousands of people after hundreds of thousands of people. So, we cannot count on the German readiness to take more people in, and if they stop, then of course Austria will have a huge problem, and not just Austria but of course Croatia, Slovenia, and all the others, sort of a cascading problem then towards the Greek-Turkish border.
I think what I want to add is I think what is quite crucial to differentiate between dealing with the immediate crisis at the moment, and there I think the emphasis right now is also expectation management. I think the notion is that people in Syria and in Turkey realise that it’s not going to be wonderful and easy to move to Germany and start a new existence, and in this week, today for instance, Austrian Minister of the Interior says she will introduce a law limiting the time for asylum seekers. According to EU law, you can limit this.
Only if people have been there over five years they’re allowed to stay permanently in the country, and that again is meant as a signal to these people. They simply cannot create a new existence in Austria for that matter. So, they should think again before coming, but that’s dealing with the immediate crisis, but I beyond that I think what’s really necessary is to prepare a sustainable system, and a sustainable system obviously means re-establishing the control over the external borders, and as Marc has emphasised, finding a system where you can process orderly the incoming refugees at the border, and then you need of course a burden sharing system in the EU to make sure that not everybody comes just to one, or two, or three countries.
MAHA YAHYA: Can I just add one point to that, which is the need for a refugee settling in a camp somewhere, life in Germany no matter what or anywhere in Europe is much better than they’re experiencing here. I think also there needs to be, I mean has to be increased support to host countries, particularly through international organisations. One of the push factors is the fact that there isn’t sufficient food, and people are having to cut down on food and on other essential necessities in order to make do with whatever it is that they’re giving.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: We’re just about at time here, but if there’s one more question, we’ll be happy to take that if anybody has anything.
HEIDI PLOUGSGAARD JENSEN: I have one question more, Heidi Jensen, Jyllands-Posten. I’m just wondering what would it take to re-establish border control, or what are we talking about really?
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Stefan, did you want to answer that?
STEFAN LEHNE: Well, I think as Marc has explained, that clearly the people, you know, in Kos and Lesbos where all these people are landing, obviously this would be a launching point to start to actually process the people there and make sure that, you know, their identities, check their identities, and begin the process there. If you cannot, ideally I think you can also do it in centres in the neighbouring countries of Syria. You can eventually use the EU Delegation as focal points in terms of processing asylum applications, but clearly the key thing is to make sure that basically in the bordering countries, Italy, Greece, you really know who comes in, and you start the process like that.
HEIDI PLOUGSGAARD JENSEN: Okay.
CHRISTINE LYNCH: Many thanks to everybody for dialling in. Monica is going to circulate a podcast before the end of the day as well as a transcript of today’s call tomorrow. Please also feel free to be in touch with her any time to arrange follow-up interviews with our Carnegie scholars. Thanks so much.
Stefan Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
Maha Yahya is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.