Open doors or high fences: How European countries are responding to the refugee crisis

Open Doors or High Fences: How European Countries Are Responding to the Refugee Crisis

Open Doors or High Fences: How European Countries Are Responding to the Refugee Crisis

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Sept. 8 2015 2:40 PM

Open Doors or High Fences

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Syrian men from Damascus try to evade the police by sneaking through a cornfield close to the Serbian border on Sept. 8, 2015 in Morahalom, Hungary.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

For months, European countries have responded with an odd lack of urgency to the growing number of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa attempting to reach the continent. But the grim photo released last week of a dead boy washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach is actually having an impact, with several countries that had previously resisted taking in more refugees announcing that they now will. Under a temporary easing of border restrictions following weeks of building protests, thousands of people streamed into Austria and Germany from Hungary over the weekend. The EU is due to announce a proposal to settle an additional 120,000 people, but member states are divided over just how welcoming to be to the new arrivals. Here’s a look at some of the key national players in the crisis. 

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.

The most open

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Germany

Wealthy and relatively refugee-friendly, Germany is the leading intended destination country for those entering Europe, and more than 20,000 people arrived in the country over this past weekend alone. Germany is expecting an influx of about 800,000 people this year, amounting to about 1 percent of its population, and has, throughout the crisis, been calling on other countries to take more people in. The country has seen an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks on refugee centers, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for Germans to be more accepting and does not seem to be shying away from her leadership role in this crisis. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel says the country can absorb up to 500,000 asylum seekers a year for several years.

Sweden

Sweden has taken in the most refugees relative to its population and is the only country in Europe where a majority supports more non-EU immigration. Sweden has joined Germany this week in calling for other European states to step up.

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Starting to open up, grudgingly

France

French President François Hollande pledged over the weekend that France would accept 24,000 refugees over the next two years, saying Germany should not have to shoulder the burden of responding to the crisis. Though a sign that attitudes are staring to change, the number is minuscule compared with what neighboring Germany is preparing for and what is likely needed to make a major impact in the crisis. 

Britain

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Britain had been heavily criticized for its unwillingness to take in more people, but Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament on Monday that the country has an obligation to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years, with priority given to children and orphans. However, the offer applies only to those in refugee camps in the Middle East, not people who have already reached Europe. Cameron says this distinction is to give refugees a more direct route to their destination. Critics say Britain’s moves are inadequate and leave thousands of refugees already in Europe stranded—including those who have attempted to enter the country via the Channel Tunnel from France.

Austria

Thanks to its location, many of the refugees traveling north from the Balkans have to cross Austria, and the country was the site of one of the tragedies of the crisis—the death of dozens of people hidden in the back of a truck on the side of a highway last month. Austria agreed last week to temporarily lift restrictions on its border with Hungary to allow thousands of people through. More than 16,000 people streamed into the country over the weekend, most on their way to Germany. Austria now says it wants to reduce those numbers and will end its emergency measures, meaning spot checks on those entering the country will return. Austria is also pushing for changes to the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to make their application in the first EU country they reach—which is often Austria.

Closing up

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Hungary

Hungary has seen chaotic scenes at its train stations and border crossings, with thousands of people attempting to make the journey north to countries like Germany and Sweden. It is in the process of building a razor-wire fence along the border with non-EU member state Serbia, intended to keep refugees out. Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has railed against Germany for causing the crisis by encouraging the refugees and has said he is securing his borders in order to “keep Europe Christian.”

Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland:

These formerly communist countries, which along with Hungary were admitted to the EU in 2004, have relatively little experience with large-scale immigration and have been the most resistant to refugee quotas throughout the crisis. Until recently these countries were thought of as a source of migration to Western Europe. Resistance among the governments of the so-called Visegrad is softening somewhat as the crisis has worsened, though public opposition to taking in more asylum seekers remains strong. Poland has pledged to take in 2,000 refugees—far less than it would be required to under the EU’s suggested quota plan. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been strongly resistant to mandatory quotas. Slovakia’s interior ministry recently suggested the country could take in some refugees, but only Christians because Muslims “are not going to like it here.” Czech police have been heavily criticized for removing refugees from trains headed to Germany and writing numbers on their arms—a procedure with some dark historical resonance in Europe.

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Denmark

Denmark has seen a large influx of people crossing the country on their way to Sweden. And Denmark itself is expected to take in about 20,000 refugees this year. But the government—currently controlled by the conservative Liberal party, which was pushed to the right on immigration by the ascendant far-right People’s Party in the last election, says it wants to reduce that number. The Danish government has taken out ads in Lebanese newspapers explaining the country’s tough immigration laws and discouraging potential refugees from attempting to reach the country. There’s also growing support in Denmark for reimposing border controls, a move that would contradict the EU’s principle of free movement within the union.

Overwhelmed

Greece and Italy

As the first-arrival countries for most of those arriving in Europe by sea, Greece and Italy have been pressing for a coordinated EU-wide response to the crisis in order to alleviate their burden. They have received 135,000 and 104,000 arrivals this year, respectively. Up until June, both saw similar numbers of arrivals, but since then, the number of people reaching Greece, most of them from Syria and Afghanistan, has increased dramatically. Nearly 50,000 people, the vast majority from Syria and Afghanistan, reached the country in July alone, more than in all of 2014. The Greek government announced this week that it is bringing in extra staff and opening a new processing center to deal with the more than 25,000 refugees stranded on the island of Lesbos—just off the coast of Turkey. Still, in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis and reeling from steep cuts to social services, Greece has little enthusiasm for taking in a major influx of new people in need.