Griff Witte and Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, February 16, 2016
After an unparalleled tide of asylum seekers washed onto European shores last summer and fall, the continent’s leaders vowed to use the relative calm of winter to bring order to a process marked by chaos.
But with only weeks to go before more favorable spring currents are expected to trigger a fresh surge of arrivals, the continent is no better prepared. And in critical respects, the situation is even worse.
Ideas that were touted as answers to the crisis last year have failed or remain stuck in limbo. Continental unity lies in tatters, with countries striking out to forge their own solutions–often involving a razor-wire fence. And even the nations that have been the most welcoming toward refugees say they are desperately close to their breaking point or already well past it.
The result, analysts say, is a continent fundamentally unequipped to handle the predictable resurgence of a crisis that is greater than any Europe has faced in its post-Cold War history.
On Thursday, European leaders will have one last opportunity to reckon with the crisis before the pace of new arrivals inevitably begins to climb again in the spring. But few have any expectations that this week’s summit will succeed where countless others before it have failed.
The numbers themselves are already of an entirely new magnitude: Although arrivals are down from the height of the crisis last fall, the number of people who crossed the sea to reach Europe in the first six weeks of the year–around 75,000–is 25 times what it was during the same period last year. More than 400 have drowned along the way.
On the Greek islands, the most common European landing spot for people fleeing war and oppression in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, thousands have arrived even on days when the rough winter seas have been churned by gale-force winds.
But once the asylum seekers have landed in Europe, the continent still has no coherent system for managing the flows. Just three out of an intended 11 “hot spots”–locations in Italy and Greece where those deemed likely to receive asylum will be separated from those expected to be denied–were up and running at the start of the week. A quota system that was intended to evenly distribute 160,000 refugees across the continent has similarly foundered: Fewer than 500 people have taken part. Countries in eastern and central Europe, meanwhile, have boycotted the program.
With countries improvising their own responses to the mass migration, the most basic tenet of Europe’s post-Cold War identity–that national leaders should act collaboratively to reach continent-wide solutions to common problems–is being called into question as never before.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who on Monday called Europe “defenseless and weak” in stopping what he regards as an Islamic invasion, has called for the construction of razor-wire fences along Greece’s northern borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Such a barrier is already going up on the Greek-Macedonian border, a major transit point for those heading farther north. Even governments regarded as reasonably pro-refugee say that border will soon need to be sealed.