Paris attack intensifies Europe refugee debate

Paris attacks

A week after the Paris terrorist attacks, Europe is learning to cope with a “new normal”, a phrase that has been used and overused a dozen times since 9/11, on each occasion in a different geography, society and context. In both Paris and Berlin, analysts and Government officials spoken to felt the Syrian refugee crisis and heightened terror concerns could put the European Union and the continent’s integration project under greater strain than even the Greek debt crisis.

Issues were building up anyway, but the killings on the streets of Paris on November 13 have accelerated matters. Multiple cleavages are becoming evident, within and between countries and between West and East Europe. Western Europe, reeling under the impact of a refugee crisis and now threatened with an unending war by the Islamic State, is willing to make peace with the Russians and see the old rival as an ally of sorts in Syria.

For Eastern Europe, it is not the “southern question” — the movement of a chain of refugees from the southern borders of Europe right up to the north — that is the primary challenge. Eastern Europe wants nothing to do with the refugees. Countries such as Hungary have rejected those fleeing from Syria. Neither has IS targeted the former East Bloc countries of Europe as yet. These nations are focused on the “eastern question” and the apparent threat to their autonomy from a Russia that has already grabbed parts of Ukraine.

As such, whether Russia is a friend or a foe and whether the fight against IS is compelling enough to de-prioritise the Ukraine business has split the 28-member European Union down the middle.

In the West, particularly Paris, terrorism has begun to overshadow everyday life. Perhaps this urgency will die down if there are no follow-up strikes. Yet, for the moment, the traffic and nightlife in Paris is certainly affected. On the weekend following the terror attacks, police ordered restaurants and cultural centres to restrict business or shut down. A businessman who owns six restaurants in Paris reported a total of 2,500 cancellations on Saturday and Sunday, November 14 and November 15.

On November 13, the French football team had been playing the Germans at Paris’ iconic Stade de France, the country’s flagship sports venue. President François Hollande was in the stadium when bombings took place right outside. Five days later, a soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands in Hannover was showcased as an exposition of solidarity. Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would attend and asked her Cabinet colleagues to be present. With hours to go, the match was called off due to an enhanced threat perception.

In France, the Schengen system has been suspended. Ironically, this suspension kicked in on November 13 itself for a planned one-month period leading up to the climate change conference (November 30 to December 11). It is now likely to be extended, and other countries could also request a suspension. In an extreme situation, some could ask to opt out of the Schengen arrangement altogether, though there is no indication of that yet.

What does a suspension of the Schengen system mean? A Schengen visa issued by any one of the participating countries remains valid for entry into other EU countries that are part of the common visa programme. Yet, as this writer found out this past week, national passports and identity documents are being demanded for entry into France, even for those coming from another EU country that is part of the Schengen framework.

For an air passenger, this is a minor, 30-second inconvenience. The real impact of a prolonged suspension, a French Government official said, would be felt on the France-Germany or France-Spain or France-Belgium border, where literally thousands of trucks would have to wait for passports and identities to be checked. The fact that most of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were French citizens living in the same neighbourhood in Brussels, and were driving in and out of France and Belgium with ease, has not helped.

Foreign Ministry officials in Paris said at least 1,500 French citizens had travelled to Syria in recent months, probably to acquaint themselves with IS. About “500-600 had come back”. How many of them constitute sleeper cells?

Even before the 13/11 strikes, the sheer volume of refugees was beginning to gnaw away at Europe. Since April, an estimated 1.3 million refugees have entered Europe. About a million are in Germany. In terms of refugee acceptance per capita (that is, in proportion to domestic population), Austria and Sweden have outdone Germany, though the absolute numbers remain low. In contrast, France has committed to taking in only 30,000 refugees over the coming two years.

While Chancellor Merkel has won international appreciation for her generosity, the response at home has been mixed. As a German scholar put it, “There is a division between Berlin and Munich.” Munich is the capital of Bavaria, the Province in south-eastern Germany that has become the refuge of many of those making the trek from West Asia to West Europe. Bavaria is governed by a regional party, the Christian Social Union. This is an affiliate of the Christian Democratic Union, Ms Merkel’s party. The local party is unhappy with the Chancellor’s “open door” policy and is protesting as more and more refugees enter Bavaria from Austria.

“Everybody wants to help refugees,” a Berlin-based analyst said, “but the sheer numbers have been overwhelming. If you’re a mayor in a village of 300 residents, and you suddenly have 700 refugees to house and feed, it can strain resources and infrastructure. When gymnasiums and sports facilities for children are suddenly not available because they are housing refugees, there is bound to be a reaction in the local community.”

The refugees are not homogenous. There are Syrians and Iraqis, even some Afghans and Pakistanis; many sects of Islam are represented. Quarrels have been known to break out, understandable for people who have suffered from conflict and are in a desperate state, with nerves on edge. Provincial German authorities and police officers, with little knowledge of the cultures and languages of those they are hosting, are finding it hard to cope.

The final question is: When will it stop? One million this year — some contend it may go up to 1.5 million by December 31, 2015 — is tough enough but should another million come in 2016, and another million in 2017, Europe will be overwhelmed. In Germany, 40 per cent of the refugees are young men. They have very likely been sent by their families to get a job and set up a base before making a case for family reunions.

Earlier this month, Germany placed a moratorium on family reunions but the problem has been postponed, not resolved. Not since the medieval Crusades has a conflict in Syria and West Asia so traumatised Europe.

(The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: ORF– Paris attack intensifies Europe refugee debate

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