Desperate refugees are becoming the most severe problem in Europe

Unfortunately it almost always takes a terrible tragedy for a problem that has existed for a while and is constantly growing, to be taken seriously. That was the case with many Western countries’ stance towards Russia’s agression in Ukraine, where the real breakthrough came when the Malaysian aircraft was shot down and over a hundred citizens of Western countries were killed. The same is happening with the increasing amount of refugees headed towards Europe. The fact that the number of refugees who came to Europe tripled from 2013 and reached 278,000, was clearly not serious enough to look for proper solutions. Unfortunately it took another big specific catastrophe, the drowning of 700 people in the Mediterranean Sea, which forced the leaders and ministers of the EU countries to discuss the situation. Almost 2,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean during the four months of this year already.

Of course, it is a difficult issue and there are no good solutions which would have quick results. That is also the reason why the EU as a whole and the majority of the EU countries further away from the Mediterranean Sea have tried to ignore the problem. That has increased the frustration, justified criticism and questions about the EU’s selective solidarity of the Southern European countries faced with the rapidly growing wave of refugees. To make the proportions clearer, let it be said that of the 278,000 illegals who crossed the EU border last year, 1,077 crossed the Eastern border and the rest the Southern border.

The main reason for the rapidly growing and consistently increasing number of refugees are the wars, conflicts and violence which have developed or intensified over the past years near Europe. The civil war in Syria, the ISIS killings in Iraq and Syria, violence in Yemen, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and many other countries. Now, once again in Europe, in Ukraine. Millions of people who have left or are leaving those countries, are not looking for a better standard of life. Those people flee to save the lives of their children and themselves.

Of course it is true that in order to put an end to the refugee problem the focus should be on stopping wars and violence, because these are the main reasons for fleeing. The reality is that none of those conflicts have been stopped, however, more conflicts have arisen. The European Union has not been able to stop the violence in its close proximity in the past years. It is easy to say that the answer to the refugee problem is in the solution of the root of the problem, i.e. the conflicts, but unfortunately it has been all talk and not much else so far, because there are no concrete results. However, people are still fleeing right now, next week and next month, as well.

Another proposed idea is to fight the criminals who make money off of desperate people by putting them on rickety boats and sending towards Europe. Crime certainly has to be fought, but how will that help the people who are trying to escape war to save their lives? Should we burn the boats and ships on the North coast of Libya, so people cannot leave? The people who manage to escape one conflict would be in the middle of the Libyan civil war. Are there any other alternatives? None have been expressed.

Imagine if in 1944 Sweden had seriously discussed burning the boats on the coast of Estonia to prevent people from fleeing. It is unthinkable.

How to help these desperate refugees so that they would survive and be able to return to their homeland, when the situation there will become easier or the conflict will end? The first emergency option is the construction of new refugee camps in the nearest safe area. Not just new refugee camps, but ones with actual adequate supplies, schools for children etc. Syrian refugee camps are a poor example, because in the estimation of the UN there is no guarantee of food and other necessities in 85% of them. That is also the reason why people leave those camps and try to find their way to Europe. In order to reduce the flow of refugees towards Europe as quickly as possible, it is necessary to construct refugee camps in the nearest safe area and ensure all the necessities. Yes, it is expensive, but still cheaper than the other options and emotionally easier than getting reports of hundreds more people who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

In order to prevent refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and to value all human life, it is necessary to rapidly multiply the border and rescue patrols on the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. It should not only concern Italy, Greece and other Southern European countries. The EU border agency Frontex must be developed into a functioning structure with a significant and steady financing from the EU budget. Also, other EU countries should contribute significantly more than they have so far.

The next question concerns refugees who arrive to Europe. In the last year their number has tripled and is still growing. The burden on Malta, which is smaller than Estonia, is huge, and it is also significant on Italy and Greece. Understandably those countries want the help of other EU countries to deal with the situation. Indifference and political statements without action only increase their frustration. The reality is that in the near future there will not be a mandatory quota system to divide refugees among EU countries evenly. A number of people who have been granted asylum move on their own from Italy and Malta to France, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere, but a significant amount of them stay where they are. Naturally the countries which are under the most pressure would like to feel real solidarity from the EU instead of political slogans. This is where the other countries’ volunteer help and willingness to accept refugees could be of great assistance. It has been done to some extent, for example, France has helped tiny Malta.

Estonia also needs to discuss, in light of Europe’s refugee problem, what is our understanding of European solidarity. Naturally, all of Europe should share our concerns about Russia’s agression and be there to support us. But to what extent do we share the concerns of other European countries in regards to refugees and are we ready to support them? Are we ready to support them in a way that is perceived as support by the countries whom we are seemingly helping?

Here’s a little mental exercise – the dominant attitude in Estonia has so far been not to help other European countries when it comes to alleviating refugee pressure. Yes, we have given some money and sent experts now and then. But let’s imagine that there will be turbulent times across our border and tens of thousands of people in distress will arrive. I think we would expect other European countries to express practical solidarity in dealing with the refugees, not for them to look up to the furthest corner of the ceiling and mumble that we should deal with it ourselves. It should be mentioned that Malta is smaller than Estonia.

Tens of thousands of our compatriots fled in the 20th century in fear of repressions and violence and found a new home somewhere else, from Sweden and Germany all the way to Australia, the USA and Canada. We are still very grateful to those countries.

Estonia did not grant temporary protection or asylum to any of the 55 people who fled Ukraine. The attitude has changed somewhat this year. The refugee problem still concerns the whole Europe and perhaps we should consider an emphatic gesture towards Southern European countries, for example letting refugee children who have lost everyone, to go on with their lives, and to allow them to do that in Estonia.

The refugee problem will not just disappear. It has dangerous potential to become Europe’s biggest problem. European values, human rights and the sanctity of human life are already on a collision course with European exhaustion with the refugees, the rise of intolerance and arrogance, illustrated by the idea to burn boats. This creates confusion, perplexity and pessimism in European societies.

A growing practical concern is attacks against free movement within Europe, i.e. the Schengen system. Italy has threatened to start sending refugees elsewhere in Europe and France has warned that they might restore border control. But if you add terrorists, illegal migrant workers and other issues, there are already plenty of arguments against the sustainability of Schengen. The end of Schengen would be a serious blow to European freedoms, not to mention the idea and the practical unique value of a unified Europe.

In addition, the refugee topic in its simplified like-dislike treatment only adds fuel to the fire in regards to the different populistic and extreme political powers opposing foreigners and a unified Europe. This phenomenon has now reached Estonia. But we are rather unanimous that a strong and unified EU is vital to us, considering again, among other things, our geographical position. Extreme political powers opposing a unified Europe grow increasingly stronger, leaving countries such as ours more and more isolated. It is obvious which country with its capital in Moscow is happy about that.

In conclusion, what are the actual possibilities of the EU to alleviate refugee pressure without creating a serious conflict with the quintessential and humanistic core values of Europe?

1. It is necessary to contribute diplomatically as much as possible to reach agreements in order to reduce wars and conflicts in the vicinity of Europe and of course in Europe, in Ukraine. The end of the Syrian civil war and forcing ISIS out would already help to decrease the amount of refugees considerably.

2. Adequately equipped refugee camps in safe areas near conflict regions. That requires agreements with countries where those camps could be built, as well as systematic supplies. In addition, existing refugee camps should receive significant improvements, so people would feel less motivated to leave them and head to Europe.

3. Trying to achieve a more stable situation in Libya which would make it possible for people to wait for conflict resolution in sufficiently equipped refugee camps, instead of risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea. However, achieving stability in Libya is a very difficult task.

4. Rapidly and significantly strengthening the EU border agency Frontex and increasing the EU members’ contribution to the patrols and rescue abilities of the Mediterranean Sea.

5. Achieving voluntary (currently the only realistic option) solution for the relocation of refugees from countries which are under the most pressure. Help can be found in a EU-central monetary support mechanism. That could alleviate the pressure on dismantling Schengen.

6. Significantly tighter collaboration and support to Turkey in dealing with refugees. The goal should be to find a solution for refugees in Turkey as a collaboration between the EU and Turkey.

In conclusion, human rights organisations would like for Europe to grant asylum to all refugees, without having to risk their lives trying to cross the EU border illegally and seek asylum. It is very humane, but does not take into account the reality in Europe and the world in general. A sufficient explanation would be to add up the populations of countries involved in wars or conflicts and to assume that the majority of people would like to leave the war zone. That number is very large, even for Europe. Therefore, we should try to reduce the amount of evil in the world, but even now there is an unknown amount of desperate people fleeing towards Europe in order to survive. Many of them will reach their destination and will have to be helped immediately.

Urmas Paet
Member of the European Parliament
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia 2005-2014