Opinion: Refugees are bigger problem than Russian invasion

They are expected to agree on a common position so that they can present a united front at the EU meeting. They are also expected to resist mandatory refugee quotas.

Who is Lithuania going to side with? There has been no intimations that the Baltic leaders are planning to meet. So maybe President Dalia Grybauskaitė is summoning Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius and Interior Minister Saulius Skvernelis for a conversation? The fact that Lithuania is not talking to other countries reminds us that, all the lofty talk about its importance and regional influence notwithstanding, Lithuania remains rather isolated, mostly because it isolates itself and makes no attempt to coordinate its actions with other Baltic states.

The recent influx of refugees is the greatest challenge for the EU over the last decade, much greater than the 2008 financial crisis or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So far, some 500,000 refugees have come to Europe, the number can reach one million by the end of the year. Next year, the flow will only intensify, since the refugees already in Europe will encourage their relatives to follow suit. According to The Economist, there were 49 Somalians living in Finland in 1990; there are now 16,000, representing the third-biggest ethnic group after Russians and Estonians. The news about Europe’s open borders will encourage others to come before the doors are closed. I’d be interested to know how many Syrians who arrive in Europe came straight from the war zone and how many have spent a year or two in refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan. I do not want to speculate, but I think the number of refugees will top two million in a year and a half.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that unless Europe solved the refugee crisis without violating its founding principles of universal civic rights, this would no longer be the Europe we strove for. She urged other EU member states to accept a fair share of asylum seekers. I am not sure what Merkel had in mind exactly, but the right distribution of refugees is definitely not the main problem. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it in more concrete terms.

Regretting the fact that too few EU countries were contributing to solving the refugee issue, which he said was unacceptable, the French PM nonetheless stressed the need to revisit the protection of EU external borders, since “Schengen doesn’t just mean eliminating internal borders, it also means strengthening external borders”. Strengthening external borders was once a priority for the EU. Lithuania could not get into Schengen unless it could prove ability to protect its borders and make sure that Belarusians, Russians and others would not be violating them.

In ideal circumstances, people of Europe would give a warm welcome to refugees, extending them a helping hand. But we do not live in ideal circumstances. For some time now, Europe has been seeing a rise in xenophobic attitudes, anti-immigrant parties have been gaining ground, anti-European moods are high, too. This is happening not just in the allegedly dark corners of Eastern Europe, but even in beacons of tolerance like Scandinavia and the Netherlands, not to mention France and its Front National.

Elsewhere in Europe, the newcomers have been met with less hostility. So far, most Germans have been welcoming. But as the number of refugees grows, the attitudes might change. Receiving, feeding, accommodating refugees will require financial resources, their sheer numbers will encumber efforts to integrate them.

It is worth recalling that refugees will be accommodated in poorer neighbourhoods, local people will not be very welcoming, since most already think that their governments are not doing enough for them. They will be convinced that refugees are being helped at their expense. The tolerant elites will have little direct contact with the refugees, they will not interact with them daily. The refugees will not live in desirable neighbourhoods, they will not dine in three-star restaurants, their children will not attend prestigious schools. Members of the elites will pay visits to refugee camps much like Princess Diana of Wales once inspected a minefield in Angola.

Chancellor Merkel rightly notes that we cannot tolerate those who deny human dignity to others. We must react strictly to racist attacks and arson attacks against refugee shelters. But we cannot ignore reality that an uncontrolled influx of refugees will probably swell the ranks of those hostile-minded. Intolerance will only grow without border controls.

So far, Lithuania’s role in the refugee drama has been shameful. The president, the prime minister and the interior minister initially stated that Lithuania could accept no more than several dozen refugees, only to be forced to step back a little later. The president also said last week that Lithuania was ready to act in solidarity with all EU countries and look for solutions. The number of refugees Lithuania will have to accept is likely to rise. Still, our government’s inconsistency, even hypocrisy is appalling. There are not many countries in Europe that demand solidarity so relentlessly from others and reject so quickly pleas for help. Lithuanian politicians and diplomats often ask, rhetorically, whether the EU is a union of money or values, implying, of course, that it should be a union of values.

MEP Gabrielius Landsbergis recently noted that our own actions will also determine the extent to which the EU will live up to its values. Compassion, helping the disadvantaged, homeless and starving are obviously among those values, but they seem foreign to us. The fear of refugees is all the more incomprehensible, as we know perfectly well that most of them will try to find their way to Scandinavia or Germany.

The EU’s policy towards refugees is still in the making. Lithuania must take part in the discussion, articulate its expectations, fears, wishes clearly and timely, especially as our president and prime minister are so bad at expressing themselves coherently. We must understand that as long as Lithuania comes across as a country hostile to refugees, our suggestions are unlikely to be taken seriously, especially if we were to propose stricter border controls. It is easier to say something stupid than to later eliminate the consequences of having said something stupid. We must therefore match reintroduction of border controls with more funding for refugee camps in Asia and Africa. Supporting one person there costs five-six times less than in Europe.


Kęstutis Girnius is political analyst and teaches at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University

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