Migration

Green Observatory: Refugee Crisis

The Green Observatory provides a round-up of perspectives on a current political issue from the Green European Journal’s partners around Europe. This edition focuses its lens on the so-called ‘refugee crisis’: how is this crisis perceived and does the perception at all correlate to facts? Are the new EU proposals responding to the situation and are EU member states willing to shoulder each other?

  1. Austria
  2. Czech Republic
  3. Greece
  4. Hungary
  5. Italy
  6. Serbia
  7. Spain
  8. Turkey
  9. United Kingdom

Austria – Georg Maisser

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

As Austria is a transit country for most refugees coming to Europe through the Balkans, which has led to interrupted train services and the reinstatement of border controls, many people in Austria had a hands-on experience of the ‘crisis’. Some 90,000 people claimed asylum in Austria in 2015, which is above the German ratio of asylum requests to population.

Initially reluctant authorities were “forced” by a general positive attitude in the population to better manage housing and transportation for the refugees. But the mood changed after the 2016 New Year Eve incidents in Cologne, Germany, when the media felt obliged to bring to their front page every asylum seeker or foreigners’ crime in fear of being accused of complicity in “hiding the truth”. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’, which refers to the sheer number of asylum seekers coming to Austria or passing through Austria, was very real and accompanied by housing problems in the different regions of the country. The ‘crisis’ was then also well “nourished” by an increasingly hysterical press, under pressure from right-wing party FPÖ, and especially by social media, where every comparatively little incident was shared and allegedly “proved” the bias of mainstream media.

As Austria will have to re-run the second round of the Presidential election in the autumn of 2016, it is hard to see how things will go on. It is to be expected that a very hard right-wing rhetoric and the lobbying at the European level to stop a further influx of refugees will take place. From other parties, it is to be expected that there will be a real effort to welcome those refugees who are already here and give them a real perspective of integration.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

As Austrian officials and a large part of the population have the impression that Austria was, together with Sweden and Germany, left alone by its European allies and that they have already shouldered the main burden, the general understanding in Austria is that under a European relocation programme the country would not receive more refugees. The attitude towards such a programme is therefore positive. But the closing of the route over the Balkans, initiated without consultation with Germany and Greece, showed that Austria has stopped coordinating its actions with European partners. A European solution is clearly less important for the government than the pursuit of national interests.

Regarding the EU-Turkey deal, the Austrian government claims optimism but it does not really seem to put too much hope in it and continues to press for a European border control system, mainly executed by Greece, Italy and Spain.

The Greens in Austria try to frame the “refugee crisis” as a crisis of solidarity. Together with NEOS, a small liberal party, the Greens try to ensure the respect of human rights and of the Austrian Constitution in the interest of the refugees. They are critical towards the limitation of the number of refugees, namely the governmental agreement of 37,500 refugees, which was decided upon a few months ago and which will presumably be reached by the summer 2016.

Czech Republic – Michael Berg

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

There are almost no refugees at all in the Czech Republic. The authorities receive on average 120 asylum claims per month, most of them from citizens of Ukraine, Iraq and China. But this does not stop almost all mainstream media spreading the fear. Most recently the executives of the private television channel Prima ordered reporters to provide only negative news about refugees and migrants, as revealed by a secret tape from September 2015. Public Czech television, which provides decent and fair coverage, is under constant pressure from some opposition politicians and the President who want to change its funding structure in order for the channel to come under direct influence of the Parliament.

The wave of moral panic is currently declining, but the majority of the political parties are still playing the card of “defending the nation” even in the campaigns of the upcoming regional elections, including the ruling Social Democrats. Their Member of European Parliament, Jan Keller, once prominent leftist sociologist, is constantly publishing anti-migration columns. But more generally the discussion about the fear of migration is driven by President Milos Zeman, who is touring the country and spreading hoaxes about rich immigrants with smartphones. Finally, smaller nationalist parties have not been able to form any real AfD-like (Alternative für Deutschland) political formation so far, mostly because of internal quarrels. But both mainstream right-wing and left-wing parties are playing the immigration card heavily.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

Relocation of the refugees has been renamed ‘EU quotas’ and every discussion about migration includes a sentence “I am opposing any quotas; they won’t work”. We can hear it from virtually any politician. I can’t see any steps or incentives for Czech Republic to actively take part in the EU relocation system under current circumstances.

There has been a private initiative of a Christian charity Generace21 to relocate 150 Iraqi Christians, but this initiative failed, mostly because they had no experience with such matters. Only about 25 of these refugees remained in the country as asylum seekers, the others left for Germany or returned to Iraq. This case is now used as a primary showcase of the fact that “relocation won’t work” – without stating the fact that it is the Government, not small NGOs, which should be responsible for integration measures.

I see a slight chance of diplomatic negotiations with the Czech government, which would possibly allow to shift the allocation of some EU funds from their original purpose to refugee and integration aid. The percentage of EU structural funds that will not be allocated by the Czech Republic could be shifted and used to support refugee aid and integration.

Green politicians, represented mainly in local councils of large cities, are providing support to NGOs and volunteers that are helping refugees, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. The Green voice in national debate is nevertheless not strong enough to influence the Czech stance on relocation.

Greece – Michael Bakas

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

Speaking of Greece, and as a resident of Lesbos, I must say that the refugee crisis that we have lived through in the past year is indeed real: the number of refugees who have passed through our islands and the country as a whole surpassed anything we have previously experienced. Regarding the media response to the refugee crisis, there have been ups and downs. Sometimes the media have played a positive role, and sometimes not. Because of photos and reporting, the world was informed of what was happening, with the result that many volunteers from Greece and the world came to help. On the other hand, in a period of economic crisis, some parts of the Greek media have flamed the fires of populism and fear of the refugees, inciting some of the populace to take action against them. At the same time, there has been a problem with reporting, especially, but not only, on the internet. False information has been posted and repeated without checking the facts. Only later inaccurate facts were corrected but the damage was done. This can have the result of inflaming public opinion. As the Green Party, we struggle daily to keep the people informed of the facts, which we hope will lead them to stand in solidarity with the refugees. However, when the media reporting is inconsistent and inaccurate, people adjust their views according to what they hear, and opinions change from one day to another.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

Greece as a country of “first arrival” for refugees is in a different position from most other European countries and cannot be lumped together with the other countries regarding the issue of relocation. Greece can and must undertake the responsibility for caring for a portion of the refugees who arrive in Greece. However, as we all understand, because of the economic crisis with the resulting 26% unemployment, very few refugees wish to remain in Greece. Therefore, measures and programmes must be developed to assure that refugees residing here will be able to survive with dignity.

In Europe, which has 500 million inhabitants, the integration of two or three million refugees should not be a problem. On the contrary we should view the refugee crisis as an opportunity for the aging population of Europe to be strengthened by younger people. The refugees will have a positive role to play in economic development and in supporting the social insurance systems. For example, the recent experience of Greece with regards to more than 600,000 Albanians migrating here in the decade of the 1990s, about 6% of our country’s population. Their children have attended Greek schools, often winning awards for outstanding academic performance. Most of them identify as Greek and seek full citizenship. Greens should be speaking to the public about the positive contributions that can be made by refugees—in contrast to the parties which are inflaming hatred and predicting disaster. We must stand against xenophobia in solidarity with the refugees and affirm their human rights. If we do the right thing now we will be able to tell our grandchildren that, in difficult times, we did the right thing for others.

Hungary – Krisztian Simon

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

In general I would say no. In Hungary the whole refugee issue is thematised by the “moderate” right-wing government of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz political party, in order to regain votes from the extreme right-wing Jobbik party. For them, asylum seekers provide an opportunity to define a threat from the outside, a threat that diverts attention from corruption or social problems. The governing party, as well as the Fidesz-financed right-wing media – together with public broadcasters – use all known clichés about the “bestial” or “rapist” nature of “immigrants” to convince voters that it is better for the country if refugees are kept out – so that the government can portray itself as the saviour of the people, a government who builds fences, and is not afraid to confront the EU (biting the hand that feeds) in order to keep Europe Christian.

The Left, and especially most of the independent media, on the other hand, is trying to refute the right-wing arguments by pointing out that the “facts” presented by Fidesz have no basis. But there is no effort on the Left to define the issue, out of fear that the inherent mistrust of the voters (and even their fear of the ‘Other’) would affect their future electoral outcomes.

In 2015, the wave of asylum seekers, the aggressive reaction of Fidesz, and the often inhumane conditions in the Hungarian refugee camps have led to an unprecedentedly high level of solidarity among volunteers who helped provide food and medical help to the asylums seekers who were denied assistance by the Hungarian authorities. It seemed like an opportunity for civil society to open a united front against the corrupt and inhumane political establishment. But now, with Orban’s fences keeping refugees out of the country, this feeling of solidarity has waned. Refugees, as there are almost no asylum seekers in the country anymore, are reduced to a rhetorical figure frequently used by Orbán’s party.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

The “solidarity contribution” of €250,000 to refugees from the EU seems to work quite well. At least if the goal is to strengthen Orbán’s position in power. Hungary’s Prime Minister has successfully spun the issue of the solidarity contribution by telling to his voters that for the irrational Eurocrats, the value of an immigrant is much higher than the value of a European, that’s what we can see when the EU demands €250,000 for refusing one single refugee, which equals the 40-year earnings of a hard-working Hungarian. Most recently Orbán has also mentioned that the Brexit has been the product of Europe’s irresponsible policies that allowed immigrants to come to Europe without almost any form of control.

There is zero political will in Hungary to support the relocation of refugees, and in this context it is also very hard to find proposals or sanctions that would work. Proposals would be rejected by the Hungarian government, while sanctions would be presented to the voters in a way that would make them believe that the EU is punishing the country for not participating in some kind of dangerous social experiment. Maybe the situation would be different if the European governments were not so divided on the issue; but without a united front it is hard to convince Hungary that xenophobia is not the right way forward. It is hard to imagine that Greens could change this situation, as they are currently too small to have an influence, not to mention that even András Schiffer of the Hungarian Green party LMP – “Politics Can Be Different” – has last February shown some sympathy towards Orbán’s stance on refugees, by saying that the Geneva Convention cannot give guidance when people come to Europe in such huge crowds.

Italy – Roberto della Seta

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

Italy with its 8,000 kilometres of coastline overlooking the Mediterranean, a number of whom – the coasts of Puglia, Calabria, Sicily and its minor islands such as Lampedusa located a few miles from North Africa – have always been a way of call or almost an obligatory passage for migratory flows towards Europe. This has led the Italian public opinion to hypersensitivity in relation to the intensification of migratory flows due to the growing instability of the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East (the chaos in Libya, wars in Iraq and Syria). The majority of Italians are concerned by the arrival on the country’s shores of some tens of thousands of refugees – these are the numbers of the phenomenon today.

his perception is further amplified by two factors: the presence of political forces, particularly the ‘Lega Nord’, who wittingly and obsessively feed the alarmism for that they depict as an “invasion”, and the inefficiency of the reception facilities which exaggerates the general picture. To this we must add an almost schizophrenic element of the Italian public eye on the ‘refugee crisis’: every time a tragedy happens at sea with the wreckage of boats and barges and the ensuing death of hundreds of people, reactions of humanitarian solidarity prevail for a few days, as the plaudit for the extraordinarily effective work carried out by the Italian Navy and the applause to the many NGOs that almost every day save the lives of hundreds of migrants. But as soon the latest tragedy is forgotten, attitudes of fear and rejection spreads again.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

So far, the Italian government was one of the very few to commit to a general assumption of responsibility of Europe towards the ‘refugee crisis’. It was in fact the government of Matteo Renzi that asked first, and gained but only in theory, the affirmation of the principle that each EU country would host a ‘share’ of refugees. So far this political and diplomatic effort, illustrated by the Italian proposal of a ‘migration compact’ that would give way to a common European policy more organic in terms of control of the EU external borders and of investment projects to accelerate the development of African countries and reception of refugees, gained very little traction.

While Europe effectively curbed the access to Greece through the “expensive” EU-Turkey deal, in particular because this route was seen as a threat to Eastern countries and Germany, it essentially discarded the Italian proposals and requests. The latter are all the more pressing today in view of the fact that the agreement with Turkey has engendered the stretch of sea between Libya and Italy to become the route most used by criminal organisations who run the business of “boats of death.”

This situation will not find a remedy, and will even worsen, if Europe does not find the courage and dignity to achieve a genuine common asylum policy and does not provide incentives for countries most exposed (such as an exception to the Stability Pact for expenses incurred in organising the reception or fines for countries refusing to accept a “quota” of refugees). Finally, the Greens in Italy have in fact been absent for many years from the political scene and have had little to say about the ‘refugee crisis’.

Serbia – Žarka Rodoja 

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

No, the perception does not match the facts. First of all, this is not a refugee crisis, it is crisis of the EU institutions and as such there is nothing to compare it with. It is also a humanitarian crisis caused, at one point, by some deeply ill-designed European policies.

The fact is that European countries closed their borders on people fleeing war and poverty, and now with the Balkan route officially closed but in reality still working, lives are at more risk because they are left at the mercy of smugglers. Refugees on the road are more traumatised but they still have hope for a better life. They have not stopped their journey to Europe. On a daily basis Serbia sees a few hundred people on their way to the EU. Numbers are rising again with the improvement of climate conditions in summer. And the route through Hungary that had been closed by barbed wire is operational again. Instead of stopping people, as was its intention, the EU only radicalised and polarised the European society and shamed the idea of the European Union and its values. From the standpoint of a candidate country, I can tell that Euroscepticism at this moment is rising, especially when we see the deal the EU made with Turkey.

Judging from the media, refugees have vanished i.e. they are off the radar screen. With new actions of the EU and Balkans authorities to close down the Balkan route, they became invisible, and therefore unprotected and left to smugglers. Even during the peak of migratory flows in 2015, most Serbian media coverage sounded like a weather report – numbers going up and down – nothing less, nothing more.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

With regard to Serbia, I am not sure we can assert that there is any cooperation that officially exists with the EU concerning refugees. Countries around Serbia have different practices concerning the refugee issue and Croatia stood as a kind of example for Serbia. From Bulgaria, which is one of the worst countries dealing with human rights of migrants and refugees, through Macedonia, which had big issues but soon realised it could make money and changed their narrative around refugees, to Hungary, which implemented laws against refugees and installed barbed wire around the country, Serbian authorities officially took the role of the “good guys” in this story. But in reality Serbia just let refugees pass. It does not integrate them.

The real answer to the refugee crisis situation would be that of the year 2015 when the EU opened its borders and Balkan countries created corridors for refugees in order to ensure their journey was safe. This has of course to go hand in hand with the possibility for refugees to settle where they desire in Europe, but that option is not applicable at the moment.

Spain – Florent Marcellesi

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

The Spanish Government committed to welcoming and relocating 16,000 refugees (out of a 160,000 total, bound individually to all Member States). In spite of this, by the end of June 2016, only 305 refugees had arrived. The Spanish authorities claim that “things are not that easy” in order to bring refugees to Spain, while Spanish NGOs and ‘cities of changes’ (ruled by progressive mayors) say that the Conservative Spanish Government does not do enough in order to fulfill its commitments.

There is a clear Left-Right divide in the mainstream media. The Right-wing media supports the People’s Party (Partido Popular – PP) policies, implemented for a long time in the Canarias Islands, and at the Melilla and Ceuta borders. The Left-wing media denounce the “agreement of the shame” between the EU and Turkey, and support the “refugees welcome” stance as a moral and humanist duty to stick to European values.

In civil society, the refugee issue does not seem to be the top priority – since unemployment and corruption are well ahead – and there has been no significant citizens’ demonstration or mobilisation. At the same time, the “refugees welcome” slogan and spirit is adopted by the cities of change. It is important to note, though, that there is no extreme or far-right party or movement as such in Spain and that the “anti-refugee” movement is quite weak.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

In Spain, since the beginning of the so called “refugee crisis’ we are facing a very strong debate between the central Spanish Government (led by the PP) and the ‘cities of the change’ such as Madrid and Barcelona (led by progressive female mayors). The latter created a network of cities where residents can register to welcome into their homes some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Europe. Thanks to this pressure, Spain finally accepted more refugees than it did at the beginning of the crisis. As Spanish Greens, we are part of the ‘cities of change’ and support their policies.

Let’s recall also that the People’s Party (Partido Popular – PP) has been one the first in Europe to implement the summary indecent and illegal pushbacks at the borders of Melilla and Ceuta that are used as a reference for the EU-Turkey agreement. In the last campaign for general elections, one of the Greens’ proposals (within the ‘Unidos Podemos’ coalition) was that to reform the EU migration policy, we need to have a new Spanish Government.

Turkey – Özgecan Kara

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

Turkey hosts today 2.7 million registered refugees from Syria, more than any other country in the world. However, there never really was a refugee crisis in Turkey, at least with the negative connotation that the word ‘crisis’ has. Four years ago, the Turkish government opened the country’s borders to temporarily host Syrian brothers and sisters during these extraordinary times. Syrians were guests and most of the funding went to humanitarian aid as these ‘guests’ were expected to return to Syria once the war over.

Today, Syrian refugees are not flocking into the country to steal jobs. So there is not refugee crisis in that sense, but here again, there is in reality a refugee crisis. Syrian refugees are not granted work permit, nor can they get proper health service nor education due to language barriers. They are working under the counter and earning very low wages. There is child labour and Syrians are forced to build their own social safety nets with makeshift illegal clinics and schools.

So far, whenever a discussion arose about granting refugees some privileges or rights, the public opinion strongly opposed any such action. In the light of this public atmosphere and other developments on the political scene in Turkey, Syrian refugees are very unlikely to be granted any rights in the foreseeable future. And as long as things stay this way, there won’t be a so-called “refugee crisis”.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

Cooperation with Europe to relocate Syrian refugees defines Turkey’s foreign policy. The EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 is the textbook case of this reality. According to this deal, Turkey will take back all migrants and refugees landed in Greece via Turkey. For every refugee that Turkey takes back, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey. Incentives given to Turkey by the EU were access to the EU visa-free, accelerated EU accession talks and up to €6bn of funding to cope with the crisis. There was nevertheless another invisible ‘incentive’ for Turkey: the deal was instrumentalised by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to extend his authoritarian behaviour.

The EU-Turkey deal is obviously not working. Even though the number of arrivals in Greece has decreased, refugees are now taking a more dangerous route to Italy. In the first six months of 2016, the death toll in the Mediterranean is almost as high as for the year 2015. Also, the deal declares Turkey a safe country for refugees to return to, whereas it is blatantly not. In addition, Turkey seized this deal as an opportunity to close down its borders. Since the beginning of the implementation of the deal, it is claimed that there were numerous cases of refugees arbitrarily sent back to their country and that the number of shooting incidents at borders has increased.

We as Greens should be the watchdog of this deal. Cooperation between Turkey and the EU is unavoidable and in fact can be a source of relief, but not under these conditions. The effort should be directed to make Turkey a better place for all its residents, and to enable a safe passage for refugees to Europe.

United Kingdom – Derek Wall

Do you think the perception of the so-called “refugee crisis” in your country matches the reality or not? How is the issue treated by the media and those in power?

There is a perception of crisis here. The bitter referendum on UK membership of the EU has focused upon migration. Concerns over migration have been fuelled by images of asylum seekers try to reach the UK from Syria. There is virtually no understanding that the number of refugees entering the UK is tiny compared with those entering Turkey or Lebanon. The benefits of migration are ignored, both UK media and most politicians take an unethical approach and bolster prejudice.

How do you assess the political will in your country to cooperate with other European countries to relocate refugees? Might incentives help? Are current EU policy proposals likely to be viable? What is the role of the Greens?

Concrete policies are less important than perceptions. Incentives are immaterial, the situation in the UK is set by the right-wing press and the progressive forces need to find ways of challenging their discourse. The Green Party of England and Wales has been campaigning to challenge the hostility towards refugees. Challenging the often xenophobic media and reminding people of the benefits and humanitarian argument is more vital than specific policy measures.

 

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Green Observatory: Refugee Crisis

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