Questions and answers about the 2015 migration crisis: 894 000 refugees and a divided EU
When did the refugee crisis start this year?
The refugee crisis became the center of attention of the global public in April of this year, when Italy asked the EU to convene and extraordinary summit on the issue. The Italian request was in response to the deaths of approximately 1 200 people who perished near the Libyan coast while attempting to reach Europe. The EU summit decided to triple funding for the operations of its border control agency, Frontex, in the Mediterranean Sea.
What are the migration routes being used?
- The most-used route is the so-called Balkan route, which leads through Turkey to the Greek islands, which the refugees sail to on small boats, then through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. The destination country is mainly Germany. This route originally led through Hungary, but that country has erected fences on its borders, first the border with Serbia and then the border with Croatia. After the closing of the "green border" with Croatia, the refugees moved to the Slovenian border and are attempting to cross into Germany through Austria.
- The so-called Mediterranean route leads from countries such as Libya, Morocco or Tunisia across the Mediterranean Sea and mainly to Italy. Other transit countries are Malta or Spain. Refugees frequently set sail in substandard vessels and several thousand of them have perished during their journey in search of a better life.
Where are the refugees coming from?
Of those traveling the Balkan route, most of the refugees are Syrians, followed by refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Those travelling across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe are refugees mainly from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.
During the first half of the year there was also a large group of inhabitants of Balkan countries, mainly from Kosovo, among the refugees as well. Those people have stopped attempting to travel due to the imposition of stricter asylum laws in Germany, which expanded the number of so-called "safe countries" whose citizens are not entitled to asylum to include Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.
What are the numbers?
According to the most recent statistics of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of 4 December, 893 970 refugees had arrived in Europe this year, most of them in Greece (approximately 744 652) and Italy (145 098). During the attempt to reach Europe, according to the IOM, 3 601 people have gone missing or perished. The most numerous group of refugees are Syrians (almost 400 000), followed by Afghans (142 000) and Iraqis (approximately 45 000).
What have been the positions and reactions of the authorities to this?
The June summit of the EU in Brussels decided that the EU would not redistribute 40 000 of the refugees then in Greece and Italy among the Member States on the basis of mandatory quotas, but on the basis of voluntarism. However, the Member States did not manage to redistribute the refugees on a volunteer basis, and in September the interior ministers of the EU-28 approved, by a clear majority of votes, a one-time crisis redistribution of 120 000 of the asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy among the other EU Member States. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia voted against mandatory quotas; Finland abstained. Last week Hungary and Slovakia filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice against mandatory EU quotas for refugee redistribution.
The EU has also responded to the crisis by negotiating with Turkey, on whose territory there are now 2.2 million Syrian refugees and other people from different countries in the region, primarily from Iraq. At a joint summit at the end of November, both sides agreed the EU will provide Ankara three billion euro to improve the situation of the Syrian refugees there.
Hungary was the first country to resolve to prevent the influx of refugees by building a fence, and did so first on its border with Serbia and then on its border with Croatia. Austria has also begun to build a short fence at its border with Slovenia, while Macedonia has built a fence over part of its border with Greece and Slovenia has taken a similar step at its border with Croatia.
Many countries, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have begun to renew control regimes at their borders because of the refugee crisis.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is Europe's most vocal advocate for aiding the refugees, for which she is reaping criticism in Germany, where several lawsuits accusing her of treason have been filed. A key event there, besides Merkel's friendly statements toward refugees, was her announcement at the end of August that the German authorities would stop applying the Common European Asylum Policy to refugees from Syria and would not return such people to the first EU country they entered. Instead, such persons would begin directly having their asylum cases decided in Germany.
At the beginning of November, however, Germany announced it would begin once more returning Syrian asylum-seekers to the country where they first entered EU territory. According to Government estimates, as many as 1.5 million refugees will head to Germany this year, which is receiving the most refugees by far out of all the European countries.
The Czech Republic:
The Czech Republic, together with Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, voted against mandatory refugee redistribution quotas within the EU, but is not planning to sue the EU, unlike Hungary and Slovakia. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has said he believes to do so would risk the country losing its position in the EU. The Czech Government has approved the reception of 1 500 migrants by the end of 2017. The country is not part of either of the main migration routes, but the Czech Interior Ministry still detained 8 149 illegal migrants between January and the end of November, 1 985 of whom were Syrians, 973 of whom were Ukrainians and 560 of whom were Afghans. Just 122 Syrians have sought asylum in the Czech Republic and roughly 130 people still remain in detention facilities here. The Czech Republic has also aided Hungary and Slovenia by sending them police officers and soldiers. Czech President Miloš Zeman has expressed his reservations about the influx of migrants in very harsh terms.
On 2 December Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared the existence of a "semi-secret agreement" on the relocation of approximately 400 000 - 500 000 more Syrian refugees from Turkey to the European Union. Orbán said he anticipated that the plan would be publicized soon in Berlin and said Hungary could not accept it.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told journalists at the recent EU-Turkey summit in Brussels that the Commission will indeed propose a way to facilitate implementation of the legal relocation of Syrian refugees from Turkey to the EU. The Member States will volunteer to take in their share of these refugees and allegedly eight countries have expressed interest in the scheme so far.
The idea was proposed by Germany. Merkel has negotiated the arrangement with the leaders of several significant EU countries and told journalists that she will present her proposals to the Commission by 17 December.
In the German press the number of 400 000 people to be relocated who are currently in refugee camps in Turkey has been reported. The EU has also promised Ankara three billion euro for improving the situation of refugees in return for Turkey's promise to restrict the migration wave, and has also promised to open the next chapter in the country's EU accession talks next year.
Turkish citizens might see visa-free travel to Europe as a result. Turkey estimates that its expenditures connected with the migration crisis to date total roughly USD 8 billion.
President of the Council of the EU: German refugee policy is dangerous
Donald Tusk, the President of the Council of the EU, said in an interview with six European newspapers last week that refugee redistribution quotas do not have majority support among the EU countries. He believes migrants should be detained for up to 18 months and undergo vetting for possible terrorist threats, which is in accordance with EU law.
Tusk also distanced himself from the open-door policy that Merkel has taken toward refugee reception. "As far as relocation or another phase of redistribution [of refugees] goes, you will not win majority support for that in Europe, and not just because of the central and eastern parts of Europe, but because of many other countries," the former Polish PM said in an interview with The Guardian.
Tusk called Merkel's policy "dangerous". "I think we can now expect from our leaders that they will change that mindset, that opinion, in my view it is one of the most dangerous opinions to hold at this moment," Tusk said, adding that more than one head of state shares his view of the matter.
The liberal Polish politician, who was a great ally of Merkel's when he was PM and who, according to diplomats, was significantly aided by the Chancellor in attaining his current position, has distinctly taken a stand against Berlin's policy, which is encountering resistance especially from countries in the eastern part of the EU, the Czech Republic included.
Tusk emphasized that the refugee question must be answered much more forcefully than before because of security, which Europe is concerned about after the recent Paris attacks. "Please do not underestimate the role of security. If you want to check the migrants and refugees you need more time than just a minute to take their fingerprints. Under European and international law we have established a time frame of 18 months as the time during which it is possible to detain such persons for the necessary controls. You can and you should detain migrants until the results of their reviews are ready," he said.
The Council of the EU President has evidently used such forceful words for the first time ever; until now, like other leading representatives of the EU, he has expressed himself more cautiously and tended to urge the Member States to show one another mutual solidarity and to receive greater numbers of refugees. He also cast doubt on the data of the IOM, according to which most people flowing into Europe are Syrians.
The IOM recently said that during the first 10 months of 2015, 388 000 of the total number of 608 000 asylum-seekers and refugees heading through Greece are Syrians. "Syrians comprise just 28 - 30 % of that number, 70 % of them are migrants [without a right to asylum]. That is why we need more effective controls," Tusk declared, adding that two-thirds of the people arriving to Europe should be returned and that control stations where migrants can be screened and detained for the necessary amount of time should exist not just in the countries that comprise the external border of the Schengen area, but also in the interior.
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