EU migrant crisis, Pt. I: Are we wary of compassion?

Migrants crossing to Italy. || Massimo Sestini, Italian Coastguard

Migrants crossing to Italy. || Massimo Sestini, Italian Coastguard

The greatest wave of refugees and displaced persons in modern times— far beyond that created by the dislocations of World War II— will grow this year by at least two million people, [...] and the experts insist that their numbers will rise relentlessly through the balance of the century. Moreover, there is evidence of a mounting unwillingness among the industrialized countries, [...] — and among the less-developed nations as well— to continue to welcome the refugees at home or to keep them alive in hundreds of camps across the globe. As economic resources and tempers are stretched thin, world leaders are facing an awesome question: Has mankind’s compassion reached its limits? Has the quality of mercy been strained to the breaking point?

It would be easy to read the above quotation as something written in Europe, 2015, when a massive influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa streamed across the Mediterranean in overcrowded dinghies with the singular hope of obtaining European asylum. It would be easy, and wrong.

In fact, these questions were posed in America, 1980, in a New York Times article entitled “The Refugee Explosion.” Rather than Mediterranean migrants, journalist Tad Szulc referred to the continued plight of the so-called “Vietnamese boat people,” who fled post-war Vietnam by sea, and among whom hundreds of thousands perished along the way. Over the course of two decades, a little under 800,000 of these refugees survived the hazardous sea journey and safely landed in another country.

In contrast, today’s refugee crisis has seen over 1.7 million arrive on European shores in the past four years. And although we have better technology, better information, and the (perhaps under-utilised) gift of hindsight, the present situation looks remarkably similar to that faced in 1980— and Szulc’s questions about the limits of human compassion are just as relevant.

Although significantly depleted since its peak in 2015, the stream of migrants seeking European asylum shows no signs of stopping. Islamic State’s recent defeat in Iraq and Syria likely signals a drop in migrants originating from those countries, but more and more asylum seekers from around the world— notably Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and perhaps Yemen— will continue to supplement the flow. Similar to the later boat people originating from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, this thinning-but-not-ceasing second wave of migrants is subject to a phenomenon termed “compassion fatigue,” where governments and citizens tire of accepting asylum seekers, processing their applications, and then embarking on a multi-year journey of integrating the newly-titled “refugees” (those who have been granted asylum).

At first glance, it may seem that this apparent exhaustion of the “quality of mercy” stems from sheer volume. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the 28 EU member states received 1.3 million asylum applications— almost double the previous peak of 1992, when 0.67 million applications were made by those fleeing Yugoslavia.

But numbers are not the crux of the matter. As of 2016, Germany had the largest absolute number of refugees in Europe, clocking in at 669,482. That’s 1 refugee per 123 Germans. In comparison, Jordan has taken 657,628 Syrians— and its population is about one ninth of Germany’s. Even Sweden, which has the highest proportion in Europe, has a total refugee population of about 2.3%.

The idea of “too many, too much” can’t explain this unwillingness to continue accepting refugees. In fact, compassion fatigue is a misleading name for the phenomenon—we are more wary than weary. There are four particular concerns that have led several EU states— most notably Hungary, Poland, and Czech Republic— to maintain a 0% refugee acceptance rate, and these same concerns are the root of growing discontent in open-border countries. They run as follows:

(1) Which asylum seekers do we have the responsibility to protect, if any?

(2) What are the economic implications of the crisis?

(3) What are the cultural implications of the crisis?

(4) How can security be maintained if we grant refugee status to those who may be affiliated with radical Islam?

These questions comprise the essence of compassion wariness, and until they are answered, Europe will remain a house divided. It’s not just to soothe minds and restore cordial relationships; overcoming this sentiment is absolutely imperative for the continued unity of Europe as a whole, and the well-being of individual members. If closed-border states remain closed, open ones will flounder under the ongoing inondation. In particular, Italy and Greece will have no chance of rehabilitating their weak economies if they do not first receive multilateral assistance in dealing with the human tide that continues to lap against their shores.

So how to get all hands on deck?

The first step is beginning an open, honest dialogue. Today’s increasingly polarized political climate has precluded any possibility of discussing issues related to migration without an inevitable descent into name-calling. As a liberal Canadian university student, I acknowledge that the political left has been particularly effective at shutting down the conversation, by first labelling any concern about migration as immediately “xenophobic,” “Islamophobic,” or some other prefix ending in -phobic, and then failing to address the concern.

This is an enormous problem. The apprehensions of the compassion-wary, although often framed in less-than-savoury terms, are well-founded. They must be acknowledged, addressed, and solved collaboratively by individuals across the political spectrum. As Barack Obama stated in his last interview as US president: “Whatever your ideological differences, this place has to work.”

Europe cannot successfully overcome the continuing refugee crisis without first overcoming the concerns of its compassion-wary citizens. Effective and united action will only result from acknowledging the problems related to migration and working to provide justified and reasonable solutions. This article is the first in a three-part series that aims to contribute to the dialogue process by systematically responding to the four concerns outlined above. Pt. II will be published 2 March.