Motoring through the industrial heartlands of Germany’s Ruhr valley, nose turned to the Balkans in the southeast, my father and I sought migrants and those associated with them. Our hope was to discover the truth amongst the patchwork of claims, counterclaims, assumptions, allegations, fears, inferences and apologies that have emerged since a phenomenon turned into a crisis about a year ago. ‘Crisis’ became the terminology as the quantity of migrants skyrocketed and the EU remained inert in it’ response. In September 2015 172,843 people reached Europe by sea, followed by 218,394 in October. The markings on the pitch were clear to the world: open borders, open season. The prevailing narrative owes itself to two principal things; prosperity-insulated complacency in Western Europe, and the EU’s silent existential battle to protect one of its defining ideologies to the hilt — free movement.
Let’s make an early and important distinction in terms between refugees and migrants. Doing so will also highlight what seem to be two parallel stories. The first is the war-induced plight that merits swift and compassionate action. The second is more grey and more difficult to define. It is the story of the poor, the hungry and the voiceless. Both deserve our empathy but only the former deserves affirmative action from Europe. France and Britain bear the brunt of responsibility for Libyan lawlessness and have a duty to do what they can to aid and stabilize the country. Received in a controlled way, refugees can be cared for. Syria and Iraq are less cut and dry but nonetheless compassion demands that we must do what we can. The same is not true for somebody from greater North Africa, India, Pakistan or indeed Ethiopia or Eritrea. These are countries with problems of their own but also solutions of their own. Their digital window into our economic Nirvana no doubt plays a part in their arduous efforts to get here, but deprivation itself can’t be a license. People in the latter group are properly called economic migrants, and to distinguish between the two is crucial.
A major contributor to the influx has been Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the EU. In August last year, without consulting Germans or member states that were to be affected, she announced Germany’s new open door migrant policy to the globe. She made a destiny-shaping decision on her country’s behalf without the specific mandate to do so, implicitly permitting those that heard her to use the Balkan states as a footpath to her new promised land. What was left of these nation’s independent sovereignty was brushed aside. It would be hard to overstate the impact this has had those she purports to speak for. Between the Slovenian barmaids, Hungarian farmers and Serbian border officers we spoke to, disbelief was unanimous. She showed a total disregard for them in a dictatorial judgement. In doing so she revealed a major disparity between the EU government’s liberal orthodoxy and the expectations of those governed by it. Motivated by lofty ideals, Merkel’s invitation is an action symptomatic of Europe’s thoughtless elite. She gambled with her people’s security and their way of life.
The Chancellor’s approach is characteristic of a wider EU fixation with an “ever closer union.” They forget ancient cultural schisms, language barriers and racial misgivings: the fact is that Europe is still composed of different people. The collectivism she dreams of hasn’t yet arrived and Merkel’s presumption when she says “the problem is not solved by one (country) making a decision, it must be a decision that is right for all 28” partly reflects her clumsiness.
The Austrian tabloid Kronen Zeitung recently opined “Please don’t force us Austrians, Slovenians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Serbs and Macedonians any longer into the very awkward role of the evil bouncer at the entrance to your multicultural land of plenty.” Borders have come to count for something again and Schengen has not stood the test. The treaty’s main weakness in this situation is that once into Greece, migrants generally refuse to register until arriving at their desired destination. This breaks the Dublin Convention and ensures they are not compelled to remain in their country of entry. Then, once registered, they have access to 26 countries with little further hindrance. This would be more manageable if the number of migrants wasn’t so large and their modes of arrival so disparate.
As of the 10th of March all borders on the Balkan route have closed but by now the horse has bolted. Until recently most Balkan governments parroted the official Brussels line because they were eager to join the chorus of righteousness. They also knew they were lower in the pecking order; Slovenia acceded to full membership in 2004 and Croatia in 2013. To these poor nations of the old Eastern Bloc, completing the arduous negotiation process to join what is (in theory) a more secure economic environment was a long term goal. It is easy to see why they would be reluctant to risk their new position with too much protest.
Unfortunately for the new members however, they could not have foreseen the ineptitude the crisis has been met with. Neither could they have anticipated the burden their people would have to bear on behalf of their richer counterparts.
Until the border closure the region braced for a wave it was confident would be too large to process. When quizzed on the imminence of warmer weather and more waves of migrants, a number of people spoke to us on conditions of anonymity. One spelt it out in bite-size terms. He told us he is one of eight guards at his border checkpoint and it takes two and a half hours to process one illegal migrant. If the job is rushed he is certain to skip key aspects of protocol and the task is likely to be poorly done. Even in these rushed cases the time can only be shaved down to one hour and forty minutes. Therefore, done properly, 160 people would take 50 hours and done quickly the same number of people would still take approximately 33 hours. The legal time limit for holding migrants is 36 hours. The simple numbers tell us how an influx of 200, for example would be handled, let alone any more. One only has to imagine the consequences of a system like this, and others like it, breaking under waves of desperate and frustrated people.
Certainly something had to give, no administration can tolerate ungoverned masses within its borders for very long. To begin with however, the locals of Dobova, a town on the Slovenian side of the Croatian border came together to help. Columns of 2,000 to 3,000 migrants passed through every day under the unforgiving Balkan sun. Danijela, who runs the only cafe, joined her fellow townspeople in donation. She offered food, drink, and her daughter’s baby clothing to what she described as “mainly strong young men between 16 and 30 accompanied by few women.”
Whether it was their pride that prevented them from accepting these gifts neither she nor I could say, but the response to such generosity was to cast the items aside, uneaten or unused. “Who gives to me? Nobody, I work to live,” Danijela says furiously. Migrants of working age receive food and shelter for nothing. In this climate of economic hardship where little comes for free and everybody works, resentment simmers.
Indeed, it would be easy to allow oneself to believe the Europe that absorbs these many thousands every day is immune to the cultural and economic consequences, rich and dynamic enough to adapt quickly enough. Perhaps this was true of the self-confident continent of days past, but today’s Europe creaks at its rusted joints. Europe is bowed by the vast expense of Greece’s bailout and is enjoying a recent low point in unemployment of 10.3 percent (January). This comes in spite of a program of QE during which the European Central Bank has bought €60 billion ($65 billion) of bonds a month, causing precious little change in inflation while digging a deeper hole. Seen through this exacting lens, the EU seems a to be staggering Cyclops; the volume of migrants an unwitting Ulysses.
For such a considerable ethical and financial challenge to overwhelm Europe temporarily is not surprising, then. Systemic inequality within the EU has led to Balkan member states being left without a say. There is little doubt that an EU response could have been more coordinated, more efficient and therefore more humanitarian. Germany’s offer of a welfare state to millions across the globe muddied the already complex question of how best to help existing war refugees. EU quotas for refugee resettlement are certainly a start, but caution in following this solution would be well advised, because though multiculturalism is more or less an established success in Western Europe, not so in Hungary. As a case in point, one farmer we spoke to described those coming into Europe, as “wandering rats.” In the knowledge that these views aren’t rare, it would be necessary for allocations in less diverse countries to be well researched and more judicious rather than rushed.
Increasingly well aware of this, Balkan governments have had little choice but to listen to their ultimate masters: the people. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a razor wire barrier along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, taking a tough stance. As a result his government has been rewarded with a 48 percent approval rating. By beginning to build in June, he positioned himself as the only regional leader to have acted independently from the start. In doing so he insulated himself from the electoral ravages of Hungary’s reincarnation of the Nazi party; Jobbik, who gained a 21 percent share of the vote in 2014 on a thinly veiled anti-Roma and anti-Semitic message. Mr. Orban knew that if he faltered on immigration he had no chance of maintaining his core conservative support. He played to his gallery in order to ensure that the uniformed fascisti of Jobbik remain in the political shallows to the greatest extent possible. Hungary’s powerlessness in the face of the chaos last Summer produced a strong reaction. Perhaps other Balkan states have rushed to catch up in time to prevent such populist rage from taking root in their own midsts. Regardless, it would be fair to assume that leaders in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Skopje and Belgrade were thinking of preserving their own skins from the right wing who were rubbing their hands with glee as they prevaricated.
In the end, the European Union has failed to unite in the face of another challenge. National interest has dominated despite initial efforts to pursue an ideologically on-message collective strategy. Furthermore, it has become clear that the Union is more effective for trade than central government. This discovery has come at the cost of genuine refugees not being accorded the attention they might have been thanks to their unvetted competition. Neither can one ignore the demonstration of so little respect for the standing of Balkan states within the EU. For the future, let us hope that peace returns to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and that it makes way for these unfortunate souls to rebuild their shattered lives. In the meantime, we must do more to target and administer our resources to save and preserve life where we can.
Hubert Cecil is a 23 year old photographer and writer living and working in London. His website is www.hubertcecil.com