Being scared is pointless, we must help

Author: Erika Fábos Original title:  “Félni felesleges, segíteni kell”
Publication: vg.hu , Photo:MTI-Balázs MOHAI Date: 12/09/2015

Being scared is pointless, we must help

Europe is adopting a two faced refugee policy. So far, it was trying to ignore the problem which it helped create – says Attila Melegh. As the migration expert explains to Sunday Morning (Vasárnap Reggel), the solution is not politics, not advertisements, not a fence, but exploring all the possible options provided by migration law, including a collective ‘temporary protection’. Cooperation with refugees, providing a decent amount of information and constant communication would ease the process, while the lack of these creates much graver problems both for the refugees and locals.

Two years ago, after the first major crisis in Lampedusa, you said that migration would be one of the major issues of the EU in the next few years. Recently the refugee crisis has sparked arguments about some basic principles, there is chaos everywhere. Are the leaders of the EU really this unprepared for the current situation?

The EU is not prepared; it missed the opportunity for important steps. The best we can say is that it was waiting to see what would happen. It was unwilling even to take the simplest and easiest action, support the border countries which are buckling under the enormous costs of the crisis. At the end of 2014, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia were caring for several times more refugees than all the EU members put together – this is thought provoking. Politics is unfortunately frequently the art of concealment. The EU simply wished to get away with inaction and left the issue to its individual members, each keenly protecting their own sovereignty, and it still fails to react efficiently or fast enough.

Do current events surprise a migration expert to the extent they do politicians?

With other forms of migration, it is easier to foresee the process, the motivations are clearer. Those, by the way, are processes, while this phenomenon is a wave. In most cases a refugee crisis is hard to predict upfront. It is a fact that wars and border changes tend to uproot many people at once, but it’s hard to foresee when exactly this would happen, for how long people are willing to tolerate the situation.

The length of the current wave has taken even me by surprise, but the numbers aren’t unexpected for experts. There are some similar, smaller scale conflicts to serve as examples: about a million people fled Easter Ukraine, most of them heading to Russia; during the Yugoslavian wars Serbia in itself absorbed more than a million refugees; a similar number of people left Kosovo at the peak of the crisis. Syria has a population of over 20 million. According to data from last June 4 million have already left the country and 10 million have been displaced within its borders. Before the war broke out, the country’s GDP was around the world average, much like Hungary, so it had a fairly wide and stable middle class.

Some people say there’ve never been so many migrants at once. Is this true?

It is misleading to present this situation as if this was the first time the world faced a wave of refugees of this magnitude. It is a fact that there’ve never been this many migrants on the go and it is also a fact that the number of refugees in the world has never increased by as much during a year as it did till the end of 2014. At that point the total number of refugees has reached 59,5 million, with 13,9 million – almost 1.5 times the population of Hungary – becoming newly displaced, having to leave their homes due to war or persecution. It is doubly tragic that half of the refugees are children.

The recent numbers of refugees worldwide is higher than it was in the early 1990s. At the same time, as a proportion of the total population, more people have become refugees or were forced to migrate at the end of the 1980s – beginning of 1990s (because of the Yugoslavian wars and the genocide in Ruanda), or going back a little further, after WW2, let’s just think about the resettlement of 10 million Germans. Those crises were huge too.

Do we perceive this situation as unique because the pressure is strongest in Europe?

Not even that, this is just rhetoric. The greatest burden is not carried by the EU. Pakistan itself is looking after 1.6 million refugees, Turkey 2 million. And the EU which controls a fourth of the world GDP and promises free movement cannot cope with the same number? Come on! When looking at the proportion of refugees to the total population, none of the top 10 countries are European.

The largest wave has just reached us, but this problem hasn’t started yesterday. Why has it peaked now?

People are funny; they don’t like war and tend to leave places where it is impossible to live. It is important to note that the basic migration issue in Europe is not caused by people’s mass desire to leave Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, but by the failing of those states. Those states have been destroyed both from within and from the outside, and the European superpowers had a fair share in this destruction, so did the NATO, and thus so did we. The question of ‘why now’ is a complex one.

Several circumstances have changed at once in the region. There was heavy fighting along the frontlines, but the hinterlands were fairly peaceful on both sides. This has completely changed last summer with the rise of IS. The destabilization has escalated and there is no hope of improvement today. In the meanwhile the UN resources are diminishing, the care of the refugees is declining and the burden is becoming unbearable in the actual border countries. The rest of the member states keep passing refugees along without offering a realistic alternative for settlement.

Some of the basic concepts are unclear. What is the difference between a refugee, a migrant and an illegal immigrant?

‘Migrant’ is a sociological concept; migrants are people who leave their country of birth or usual place of residence for at least a year with the intention of settling in a different country – for any number of reasons. According to the 1951 Geneva treaty refugees are people who leave their country of origin because they have reasonable grounds to fear persecution due to their race, religion, ethnicity, political inclination or social status and cannot expect protection from their own state.

Frequently refugees can only enter other countries illegally; no humanitarian process of entry is employed in this case either. According to EU laws it is allowed to claim asylum in Europe. The main source of tension is a contradiction between the Schengen and Dublin treaties in as much as refugees are only entitled to stay on the territory of the country that registered them.

We keep hearing in the news that Syrian refugees are treated differently by Europe than other migrants. Do we know where do large crowds come from these days and why?

It is not only Syria and Libya; the whole region has fallen apart, we’re experiencing the escalation of a wave of political violence. More than 650 thousand civilians have been killed in Iraq as a result of the mind bogglingly misguided war. Afghanistan has been at war since the 1980s, a whole generation has grown up without ever having witnessed a day of peace. Or let’s look at a more stable country, Egypt, where 524 people have been condemned to death for the killing of a single policeman. These societies are brutalized. And there is Africa too, people are fleeing to Europe from there to avoid an open warfare for resources that does not care about loss of human life. I agree with the Indian writer Arundhati Roy who said that these countries could only choose between the terror of peace and the horror of war. 

We’re told the neighbours are passively looking at the events and the rich oil countries fail to take in their brothers.

These are silly ideas. The war has been started by Saudi Arabia which is still involved, acting according to its own interest of becoming the regional superpower. This country is operating brutal, inhuman migration systems. If you’ll excuse for the exaggeration, this is like wondering after the 1956 revolution why Hungarians didn’t choose to flee to the Soviet Union.

Do you think the quota system is a good long term solution?

I’m sure we need a unified, common and harmonized approach which cannot be left to the individual nations. The member states are trying to increase profit (accept employees they prefer) while rejecting the problems. This controversy paralyzes the authorities operating on a dual EU and national level, so they will agree on the smallest common negative.

How would migration expert solve the issue?

There are useful, good solutions, we don’t even have to invent them – there is a versatile existing system. Some of its elements are in use at the moment, but perhaps not enough of them and not in the right proportions. The most important thing is for the EU members and the refugees to find some form of modus vivendi. There is a so called collective temporary protection in refugee law and it could be used to more advantage besides current legal practices.

Cooperation with the refugees, a fair distribution of information, a smart presentation of ‘offers’ and continuous communication would make everyone’s life easier and save precious time for both the states and the refugees. It would be important to support the border countries with EU funds and create opportunities for settlement along the migration route. Europe should strive to provide a safe environment for those we take in, while those who are not refugees should be transported home. This would take a lot of work and money, but not investing these will create much larger issues. There is no room for mock argument.

Is it because of the huge crowds, or do we habitually mistreat refugees?

There are some very positive examples of similar situations. In 1994-95, during the Yugoslavian wars Hungary gave asylum to 50 thousand refugees, many of them Muslims, and it was all handled professionally. The Eastern Germans also stayed here illegally, I wouldn’t even say that there were no economic reasons in the background when they started coming, nevertheless 35 thousand people have been cared for within days. It is a fact that between January and May 2015 from all outside borders of the EU the largest number of illegal border crossings occurred on the territory of Hungary and this creates a huge task, but solving it is mainly a matter of goodwill.

Some people say Islamization and multiculturalism will destroy Europe, while others think Europe will become poor without migrants.

Integration is absolutely key and we must realize that the problems of integration are not related to certain ethnic, religious or cultural groups, but to social status. According to professional experience the earlier a migrant receives organized support, the bigger the chance of successful integration. It is also our experience that a dysfunctional labour market tends to push migrant communities towards forming introverted Diasporas and begets crime. We should be certainly prepared in the future for a shift in proportions that will influence society. It is a grave mistake though to suppose that multiculturalism can be prevented or that it is a specific Western problem. The world was much more colourful in this regard a hundred years ago, and so was Hungary. If we cannot accept this with the caveat that the current social order must be adjusted and cannot improve the lot of the locals and the newly settled refugees at the same time, we’ll be the losers for it on the long run.

Do you consider it a danger that migration has become a political issue in Hungary and local politicians are mainly trying to influence emotions?

There are previous examples – for example during the campaign about dual citizenship – of the topic of migration being presented in a discriminative, contemptuous manner to the public. Besides missing the point and manipulating people using falsehood, such things are very corrosive for the society. The main danger is limiting professional judgement and the freedom to act. It is more difficult to solve problems efficiently when there are no councils in the country brave enough to allow a camp to be built in their city.

In Germany some refugee homes have been set to fire. In Hungary cities and villages are unwilling to allow the building of refugee camps. Why do you think rejection is getting stronger in Europe?

There are several factors contributing to the partially xenophobic attitudes of most European countries. The migration policies of rich countries are based on this duality, trying to find the right people in the right professions while keeping public opinion calm. The strongest resistance always comes from people worried about their livelihoods. On the other hand we tend to think about the world from a position of superiority. This is a huge mistake, because it makes us see people from other parts of the world as some mind of monsters. We are not taught in the school to think about Syria or Libya or Afghanistan to the same depths we think about European countries. Syria could be Hungary and Hungary could be Syria.

You must see the crisis in a different manner than the average citizen. How does it feel to experience in real life, as an active participant what you’ve been studying for so long?

I had previous, intense personal experience of migration. I’ve had some life changing experiences during the migration of the Eastern Germans and I took part in a research of this topic in Transylvania. These made me realize that migration was a very vulnerable state, a trauma that can strengthen the feeling of helplessness and despair even without having experienced war.

Last weekend I witnessed in person 4000 people boarding buses at sunrise at the Keleti railway station. In that tense situation I experienced a range of human emotions related to migration. At first the refugees were too scared to board the buses – they couldn’t believe they wouldn’t be deceived again and taken back to Bicske. I was asked to help them find out where the buses were going. I approached a driver and warily asked him how long the journey would take. He replied that his journey wasn’t long compared to that of the migrants. Afterwards we had a conversation full of empathy there, in the sunrise. In such situations the helpful, positive attitude of a single person can literally change human lives and one can really feel the human dramas. The only advice I can give is not to be scared of the refugees, but to approach them instead to try and help. This experience will change people’s thinking.

There are many ideas and methods – from advertising in newspapers to fences – for keeping these people from setting out to Europe. Do you think they can be stopped?

These methods don’t work. They don’t even help treat the symptoms; in fact they are counterproductive. We should stabilize the Arab region, and then less people will board the ships. We should try and treat the underlying causes of the crisis, the focal points, that’s the only way to sort it out. Not too many pacifists will emerge from the ruins. At the same time people are not keen to leave their homes in huge crowds, because that’s where their roots are. All they need is peace.

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