Europe’s refugee crisis

European nations must urgently unite to face migrant crisis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 2:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 12:41pm

The European Union has called an extraordinary meeting of its interior ministers on the escalating migration tragedy - for two weeks from now. What does it take to instil a greater sense of urgency about a unified response to what the German chancellor and French president have described as the continent's biggest migrant crisis since the second world war? After all, on top of the drowning of up to 900 refugees trying to cross from Libya to Europe in April, we had hundreds more drown last month, including 50 in the capsizing of an overloaded boat last Thursday, and now the discovery of 71 people suffocated in the back of a van in Austria last week. The latest deaths add up to more than 2,500 who have lost their lives so far this year seeking sanctuary from war, poverty and oppression.

Until now the biggest challenge to European unity has been the Greek debt crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warns that the migrant crisis could become an even bigger challenge. Record waves of refugees would "preoccupy Europe much more than the issue of Greece and the stability of the euro".

She condemned more than 200 attacks on refugee shelters by German far-right extremists and neo-Nazis this year as "unworthy of our country". The asylum issue, she says, could be the next major European project, "in which we show whether [Europe] is really able to take joint action".

Thousands fleeing Africa, the Middle East and South Asia continue to reach the borders of Greece, Italy and Hungary before trying to make their way towards the more affluent countries of North and Western Europe. A record 107,500 reached the EU's borders in July.

European governments are under pressure to create safe passage to keep refugees out of the clutches of people smugglers. Sadly, there remains deep scepticism about that, after months of indecision and recrimination over who should bear the burden. Germany's interior minister says it can expect to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, with polls showing 58 per cent of Germans support arrivals in such numbers.

An unfair sharing of the burden will do nothing for European cohesion just when its economic growth seems to be regaining some momentum. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande rightly call for a unified system for the right to asylum that reflects the vision of a united, modern Europe, and not its history of division and conflict.