Refugee, or migrant? This is the question plaguing the EU as thousands of Middle Eastern and African peoples embark on the treacherous pilgrimage across the Mediterranean and into European borders. While most members of the EU are bustling to accommodate these hordes of displaced emigrants, others are more reluctant to fling open their gates. Hungary, Serbia, the U.K. and Spain have all voiced their reservations in regard to this overwhelming influx of Eritreans, Somalis, Syrians, West Africans and countless people from over twenty other turbulent nations, hesitant to afford asylum so freely to a population that they categorize as economic migrants. In the U.S., politicians straddle the issue, with leftists arguing for a temporary absorption of the emigrants while they await hearings and right-wingers calling for their immediate deportation. Regardless of the various solutions offered to ease the situation, nations remain torn in their classifications of refugees, preventing the EU from composing a unified plan of action and thus exacerbating the crisis.
At the core of this debate lies the largely overlooked problem of xenophobia in the developed world and eastern countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a chief instigator of the pushback against immigration, has stated that “Hungarians don’t want immigrants—they ‘want to preserve a Hungarian Hungary…’” a sentiment that reveals a latent fear of diversification and social heterogeneity. He, along with the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, blame the immigration problem for a host of calamities—namely terrorism–and these nations have even announced that immigrants will be turned away if they are not of a Christian background. Orban and his sympathizers argue that they are acting in accordance with EU law, which mandates that refugees be registered in their first country of entry. Orban also claims that his country is overcrowded and already experiencing problems with immigration. However, considering Orban’s statements concerning the purity of Hungarian culture and the actual statistics on the immigrant population in Hungary (a study by the United Nations Population Division shows that immigrants barely comprise five percent of Hungarian people), it is evident that the country’s attitude is neither the product of law-abiding incentives, nor is the populace truthfully overcome by refugees. The reality of the case is that xenophobic intent has pervaded eastern Europe, and it continues to leak westward as the magnitude of the crisis worsens.
An immigrant is defined as an individual who moves from one country to settle permanently in another. In the United States, immigrants must undergo extensive legal proceedings before winning lawful residency or citizenship, but it’s more common that they move into the country without being documented and hope to remain unnoticed for fear of prompt and unquestioned deportation. Currently, about 11 million undocumented immigrants are residing in the U.S., a number that has sparked the ongoing bipartisan controversy over immigration reform policy for years. A refugee, on the other hand, is a person who has fled from exceptionally abhorrent domestic conditions, such as war and genocide, and can apply for asylum in a different country. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “The applicants have to prove that if they return to their home country, they’ll be injured because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or their political opinion.” The U.S.’ process of accepting refugees is hardly more efficient than its measures for immigration reform–the application for asylum can take years to be approved–but the refugee classification in the context of this humanitarian crisis is still preferable, as it allows President Obama and Congress to pass swifter legislation to aid in the relocation of these hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern and African peoples.
One might wonder why anyone would question the right of these emigrants to seek status as refugees. After all, why would they risk drowning in the Mediterranean if the circumstances in their home countries weren’t tragic? As Iverna McGowan of Amnesty International noted, “We’ve seen the vast majority of people are fleeing war and poverty. If you look at how difficult these journeys are, the number of deaths… tells you about the push factors. This is not exactly an easy ride into Europe…” But regardless, those who advocate restrictive immigration policy have devised a number of justifications for the mistreatment and neglect of refugees, ranging from terrorist accusations to allegations of disease transmissions.
Firstly, it’s fair to say that all refugees are, to some extent, economic migrants. They are looking to better their living conditions and win some degree of stability or comfort. However, this does not mean that these people who are fleeing gangs, war-ravaged states and oppressive regimes are simply capitalizing on an opportunity to–as Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučićand his supporters believe–“pick up [the EU’s] generous benefits.” An exodus this massive and immediate cannot possibly be the result of the EU’s socioeconomic promise. While Europe may be the proverbial beacon of hope to those who have never known political freedom or modern conveniences, it has not prospered so dramatically in recent years to the extent that people would suddenly leave their homelands and flock to EU territory in waves. As director of migration research at Altai Consulting Arezo Malakooti says, “The ‘push factor’ is much greater than the ‘pull’ of Europe… Upheavals and instability across much of Africa and the Middle East… have led to a massive increase in the numbers trying to… make a dash for the Mediterranean.” It’s not that Europe’s appeal, its “pull factor,” is so great–it’s that pervasive sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations, destitution and unlivable conditions, the “push factors,” have finally culminated to produce a shocking yet inevitable diaspora.
Additionally, the claims that refugees carry with them disease and hidden terrorists only reinforce the fact that the responses to the crisis are purely xenophobic. These countries, Hungary, Serbia, the Czech Republic, etc., have predominantly white, Christian histories, and now they are struggling to accept the idea that their homogenous populations will be integrated with a host of diverse races, religions and ethnicities. Even Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz has joined the aforementioned countries in the resistance to open immigration policies, stating, “The immense majority [of the emigrants] are refugees who are fleeing war and terror but we cannot forget ISIL and its barbarians are in Syria and that they have shown they are capable of executing their threats.” The Daily Express, a British news source, made efforts to validate this fear by confirming that over 4,000 jihadists had snuck into the country along with the refugees. But this number has since been checked by groups like Amnesty International, and they found no proof for the statistic; it’s likely that the newspaper published it to alarm the public and inspire opposition to the absorption of refugees. As for the question of disease transmission, the World Health Organization has announced, “In spite of a common perception that there is an association between migration and the importation of infectious diseases, there is no systematic association. Communicable diseases are primarily associated with poverty… common in Europe, [independent] of migration.”
Fortunately, the United States has announced that it will expand upon its aid efforts and is instituting a plan to offer asylum to 10,000 refugees over the course of the year. Considering that the country has only accepted 1,500 Syrians in the past four years, this seems like a profound leap– however, the trend in immigration indicates that nearly a million people will migrate to the EU by the end of the year, so while the U.S.’ contributions are more beneficial than some, it’s clear that these measures will prove feeble in the face of this crisis. Until the EU can band together to set aside its xenophobic intentions and come to a consensus on a relief policy, the state of humanitarian aid will worsen, leaving hopelessly displaced peoples with no one to rely on and nowhere to go