IF any of us were to ask ourselves how we might cope if something around 15,000 desperate refugees arrived on our shores in less than two days, and answer the question honestly, we would have to reach pretty sobering conclusions.
It’s reasonable to suggest that we would try to behave in a humane way, that some sort of refuge and shelter would be offered to those whose situation is far, far worse than anything endured by any of us even at the most difficult moments following our 2008 economic collapse. But how successful would we be at realising those ambitions? What would week five in any such programme look like?
It is realistic to imagine that such numbers, even though just a tiny fraction of the estimated 50m displaced people in today’s world, would swamp any services we might be able to provide, that our good intentions would be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers in need of shelter. Something approaching chaos would probably ensue.
Yet, that is the situation faced by Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Austria, Slovenia, and the other frontline European states struggling to cope with the exodus from Africa, Pakistan or Afghanistan. It has provoked a hardening of attitudes, and closed crossing points on borders, in some countries, notably Hungary and Croatia. And the only thing that seems certain to change anytime soon is the numbers of refugees, economic or those fleeing war, will climb. This demands a long-term response, one that can offer a chance of a new life to genuine refugees but one with the confidence to protect what are loosely termed European values.
The situation is so close to being all but unmanageable that the UN’s refugee agency has warned that a meeting of EU ministers on Tuesday and a European Council meeting on Wednesday would be “crucially important”.
“These occasions may be the last opportunity for a positive, united and coherent European response. Time is running out,” the UNHCR said.
In the barest terms the response needs to do several things. First, try to offer shelter to refugees. Second, put ever more pressure on the causes of the exodus and the states that support various warring factions. Third, establish effective integration programmes to prevent the creation of ghettoes across Europe where religious zeal spills over into something approaching sedition. Fourth, establish a robust and active security element that can filter out the minority who have obectives other than shelter and the chance to live in peace.
It is important too to focus on the opportunities in this crisis. Europe has a huge long-term requirement for immigrants to sustain falling and aging populations. ECB vice-president Vitor Constâncio said recently that Europe’s relentlessly ageing society was engaging in “demographic suicide” and needed immigrants to sustain its workforce. The OECD has suggested Europe’s workforce will need as many as 50m more people by 2060 to avoid stagnation so it is just possible that two problems might be resolved with one solution. One thing is certain though, a forceful, couragous and ethical response is needed very quickly.
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