Following attacks in Paris by Islamist extremists, East and Central European countries’ reluctance to welcome refugees has turned to outright opposition.
By Colin McIntyre
The deadly attacks in Paris appear to have hardened opposition in East and Central Europe to a plan to relocate thousands of migrants and refugees who have flooded into the continent this year.
The plan for a quota system relocating some 120,000 migrants among member states was already in trouble at a meeting of European Interior ministers in September as Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia voted against it.
But following the November 13 attacks in Paris by Islamist extremists, one of whom was found with a Syrian refugee passport, initial reluctance to shoulder some of the burden has turned to outright opposition in some countries.
Poland’s new government, led by the right-wing Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party, has signaled that it will not accept the EU quota plan approved by the outgoing center-right government following the events in Paris.
“In the face of the tragic acts in Paris, we do not see the political possibilities to implement this,” incoming Europe Minister Konrad Szymanski was quoted as saying, adding that Poland would accept the migrant plan only if it received security guarantees.
“It makes me a bit sad.” – Merkel
The reluctance of these countries to shoulder some of the burden posed by the arrival this year of some 700,000 migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia has brought accusations of “selfishness” compared to “compassionate” West Europe.
Some commentators, however, have jumped to their defense, pointing out that these countries have long histories of emigration rather than immigration, most are grappling with fragile economies, and some are sensitive to Muslim influence after centuries under Ottoman occupation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose open-door policy that could see her country taking in a million refugees this year has come under criticism at home and abroad, has strongly criticized East European countries for closing their doors. She herself grew up in Communist East Germany.
“In East Europe — and I’m counting myself as an eastern European — we have experienced that isolation doesn’t help,” she was quoted as telling a closed-door meeting of the center-right European People’s Party in September.
“It makes me a bit sad that precisely those who can consider themselves lucky that they have lived to see the end of the Cold War now think that one can completely stay out of certain developments of globalization.”
The Paris attacks, in which 130 people died, have also prompted a backlash against Syrian refugees among Republican politicians in the United States.
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives voted, with some Democratic support, to suspend the admission of Syrian refugees next year and then intensify the process of screening them. But it is not clear whether the legislation will clear the Senate and be sent to the White House, where it could face U.S. President Barack Obama’s veto.
“Today it is Europe that is sought as a place of refuge.” – Juncker
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker accused some European governments of national amnesia in overlooking the continent’s long history in providing refuge, from 17th-century Huguenots to Hungarians in 1956 and the victims of Yugoslavia’s wars of the 1990s.
Recalling that the 1951 Geneva Conventions on refugees were aimed at helping Europeans crushed by fallout from World War Two, he added in a speech in September: “Today it is Europe that is sought as a place of refuge. This is something to be proud of and not something to fear.”
Defending the region from accusations of selfishness for closing their doors to refugees, some commentators have noted that Poland, in particular, has taken in an estimated 400,000 refugees from the civil conflict in neighboring Ukraine. Many of them are taking the jobs of Poles working abroad.
Other commentators have pointed out that East Europe has no tradition or infrastructure to deal with refugees from other cultures, unlike Britain, France and Spain, with their former colonies, and Germany, whose post-war economic miracle attracted migrant workers from all over the world.
And they have also pointed to the difficulty of persuading refugees to settle in a country with a struggling economy and little tradition of assimilation, when what most seek is a flourishing country open to outsiders.
Juncker has said Europe’s borders will likely to remain open for the foreseeable future despite the migrant and terrorism crisis. That means that refugees ordered to a country they do not want will likely move on to one that they do.
Colin McIntyre led coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.