KARACHI: As Turkey and the European Union reached a 3.3-billion-euro agreement to regulate the ongoing flow of refugees this week, the crisis poses a completely different challenge in Europe. There is division among EU member states, a majority of which are considering whether to accommodate refugees at all. This week Macedonia shut its border with Greece and blocked the Balkan route in its north. Croatia and Serbia followed suit soon afterwards, saying they could not accommodate refugees or migrants.

As 13,000 migrants are left stranded near the Macedonian-Greek border, a senior research fellow at Karachi University’s Area Study Centre for Europe, Sajjad Ahmad, wondered at a workshop on Thursday whether the refugees were seen as a security challenge in Europe, making it a matter of integration for those being accommodated. And how can Europe deal with the situation without a coherent and uniform policy?

“While the EU states are signatory to the Geneva Convention of 1951 on the protection of refugees, they are not bound to take migrants,” he argued. Migration policies of states might differ, he said, depending on whether a state actually needed migrants or not.

There is migration towards Europe, but the migrants coming from Eastern Europe and in some cases even from Pakistan are moving there to seek a better life, “whereas Syrians and Iraqis are the actual refugees escaping war and mayhem back home”.

He argued that in the current scenario, the refugees from Iraq and Syria had only a narrow chance of getting involved in terrorism, but European countries felt threatened that the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda affiliates might join the refugees and enter their borders.

An assistant professor at the Habib University, Dr Severine Minot, said “the term crisis needs to be clarified and defined”. She said Europe received a “steady inflow of legitimate or legally admitted immigrants estimated at 1.4 million per year from 2010 to 2013”. Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Serbia and Ukraine were the top 10 countries of origin of asylum seekers in Europe.

Quoting from Eurostat, 2016, she said the “number of first-time asylum seekers in Europe steadily increased from 259,400 in 2010 to 431,090 in 2013 and from 625,960 in 2014 to 1,117,330 by September 2015”.

The numbers increased steadily due to the war in Syria, ongoing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and economic pressures in Kosovo and Albania. In 2015, the number of first-time asylum seekers doubled from the previous year which she said “would put pressure on any administrative system to deliver basic amenities such as housing, clothing, furniture to education and healthcare among the people”.

The biggest implication was the rise of the political right along with the xenophobic segments of the European population, she added. The Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 along with the more recent terrorist attacks in Paris, she said, were seen as a pan-European security threat. “Indeed, the European immigration crisis is specifically a refugee crisis and one that is intricately related to human trafficking, illegal immigration and not just confined to Europe,” she argued.

According to the statistics shared by Dr Minot, Turkey is home to approximately 2.75 million refugees. Out of them, 2.5m are from Syria — which is higher than any other country in the world.

She said reports in the western media claimed that oil-rich countries in the Gulf were not hosting refugees, adding that at present “there are two to three million Syrians in Gulf countries who are not counted as refugees or part of the statistics of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as they are classified as Arab brothers and sisters in distress”. However, she said, the “claim cannot be conclusively verified”.

Dr Minot added that Germans showed remarkable political will by taking in 1.1m asylum seekers in 2015. “Angela Merkel has strongly called for European collaboration in tackling the crisis by distributing the burden evenly. It was a brave political move by Germany but also a high-risk manoeuvre considering the limited housing capacity for the asylum seekers,” she concluded.

Contrary to Germany, there had been a war-like rhetoric in Hungary, said Dora Gunsberger, research fellow at the Area Study Centre for Europe. Unlike Germany, the anti-immigration propaganda began in January 2015, followed by a National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism in April and a billboard campaign in June, she said.

“Some hasty actions were further taken between June and November, where illegal border crossing amounts to a prison sentence of up to eight years now and deportation with a bar on re-entry,” she added.

She said the Human Rights Watch recently noted that these legal measures made it “nearly impossible for asylum seekers to get protection in Hungary”.

The fear of immigration has grown in Hungary as EU tries to tackle one of the biggest challenges it has faced since World War II.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2016