But the humanitarian and political crises of the great Syrian exodus are just beginning.
BRUSSELS and LESBOS, Greece — Skala Sikaminias is a little beach town on the northern coast of the Greek island of Lesbos. A year ago, rickety wooden boats and dinghies packed with Syrian refugees began plowing into the narrow stretch of beach next to the taverna in the town square. Within days, the flotilla had swelled to vast proportions; as many as 7,000 Syrian refugees were landing on Lesbos every day. It is a mountainous island, especially in the north, and the road from Skala Sikaminias climbs uphill in dizzying switchbacks. The refugees — wet, hungry, and exhausted after the trip from the Turkish shore 15 or so miles away — had to toil up the road, dragging their belongings in the blazing heat, to meet up with a bus that might or might not come to bring them across the island to an intake center in the main town of Mytilene. Those who couldn’t make it up the road each night, usually 300 or 400 men, women, and children, collapsed in the square and slept there until they could be fetched.
This summer, at the height of the tourist season, the taverna was nearly empty. Only a few customers were eating grilled fish by the seaside, the boats bobbing gently in the harbor. The refugee crisis has reduced tourist traffic on Lesbos by at least half — even though the human flow has slowed to a trickle since March, when Europe succeeded in stanching the flow of refugees. Lighthouse Relief, a charity that provided food, clothing, and rudimentary help to the refugees last year, has been reduced to “eco” work — cleaning local beaches of refugee flotsam, chiefly life jackets. When I arrived in Lesbos in mid-July, two boats had just landed from Turkey carrying a total of 54 refugees. They had been given bottles of water and put on a bus to Mytilene, where two camps host more than 3,000 refugees. The next boat might not arrive for a week.
The refugee crisis is over. At least that is what I was told by a number of diplomats and officials at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels. “We have a grip on the flow,” said Pieter de Gooijer, the permanent representative of the Netherlands to the EU. “Our worry now is slippage” — small groups of refugees escaping into Bulgaria or Macedonia from the big, fenced-in camps in northern Greece. That doesn’t mean there are no refugees, however. Tens of thousands keep pouring out of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Turkish authorities now stop them from boarding boats for Lesbos and other Greek islands.
From the point of view of Europe’s political leaders, who must be attentive to increasingly frightened publics, the refugee crisis was above all a crisis of borders and thus of state sovereignty. It was the refugees, that is, who posed the crisis. The flow had to be stopped — and it was. That is not how events were understood at the outset, a year ago. Then, the crisis was the plight of the refugees, desperately fleeing savage war in Syria and Iraq and hoping for shelter in Europe. Looking back over that year, however, it becomes clear that what began as a moral drama turned into a political one as Europe seemed to lose control of its borders.
Europe has at least temporarily succeeded in solving the political problem — but not the humanitarian one. Although Germany and Sweden have taken in refugees in numbers exceeding 1 percent of their own population, most Southern and Eastern European countries have taken in few or none. About 66,000 people remain trapped in the Greek mainland and the islands, and that figure is growing by the hundreds every week as refugees continue to find ways of reaching the shores of Europe. Some won’t qualify for refugee status and will be sent home as economic migrants; most, however, have a claim to international protection. But it will be years before even these lucky ones receive a new home in Europe. The endless wait has already produced a mixture of fury and despair so toxic that refugees in Moria, the larger of Lesbos’s two camps, set fire to the facility in late September and left it a smoldering ruin.
Events in Syria or elsewhere may swell the numbers yet again. European leaders give the strong impression that they are hoping that Turkey, like a giant sponge, will continue indefinitely to absorb future waves of refugees. That is almost certainly wishful thinking — this summer’s attempted coup d’état in Turkey, and the ensuing crackdown, makes it less likely still. As one U.N. official told me, “Many European leaders are waking up with a hangover, trying to figure out what happened last year. They are not ready to look at Plan B. What if the deal with Turkey collapses? What to do? It’s a crisis of responsibility, of leadership, of solidarity or trust among member states. And nobody wants to take responsibility.”
The gathering storm
The Rue de la Loi in Brussels — in English, the “Street of Law” — is the aptly named shrine to Europe’s postwar principles. Here stand all the institutions of the European Union, an organization founded to bind the continent back together in the aftermath of World War II. The Rue de la Loi is dominated by the vast three-sided structure of the European Commission, a secretariat that devises programs to embed those abstract principles into European policy and law. (The European Parliament, which must actually adopt those proposals, is located 280 miles away in Strasbourg, France.) Across the street from the commission is the European Council, which is made up of the political leaders of its 28 member states and defines the EU’s overall political direction. The very fact that the EU, unlike the U.N. or the IMF, includes such a body serves as a blunt reminder that, whatever its founding principles, the European Union is still a club of states.
EU commissioners — one from each member state — serve six-year terms; the most recent began in 2014. Frans Timmermans, a Dutch civil servant, diplomat, politician, and former foreign minister, serves as the commission’s first vice president, responsible for all policy matters inside Europe, including migration. He speaks six languages, and his English is flawless and idiomatic. Timmermans is the beau ideal of the Eurocrat, that functionary held up to so much ridicule in Britain’s recent vote to leave the EU; he even wears the squared-off, thin-rimmed spectacles that seem to go with the job. He is, nevertheless, a worldly, blunt-spoken figure, not at all inclined to technicalities or tangled legalism. When I noted that the commission anticipated many of the problems of the refugee crisis in a report issued several months before it began, Timmermans said, “It ain’t rocket science. To analyze the problem is not that difficult, and to also point to solutions isn’t even that difficult. The difficulty is to get member states to come together on those solutions.”
By the time Timmermans took his job, hundreds of thousands of Syrians had already fled into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. It was clear that they would run out of space before long. According to the most recent figures from the U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR, those countries harbor 1.034 million, 656,000, and 2.734 million Syrian refugees, respectively. At the same time, the number of migrants illegally seeking access to Europe, most of them Africans arriving in Italy, reached 278,000 in 2014 — almost three times the figure of the year before. Thousands were drowning on the way.
You didn’t have to gaze very far out in the horizon to see massive storm clouds building. Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s Europe branch, said she heard “time and time again” from EU officials that the refugee situation was under control but knew very well that an influx from Syria would utterly overwhelm officials in Greece, where the refugees would first hit European shores. In 2014, she began convening meetings with senior national and EU officials to figure out, she said, “What do we do if a huge number arrives?” No one in power was listening. European political leaders had what felt like much more urgent worries about Greece, which was reeling under vast debt and a ruinous recession and was threatening to leave the eurozone.
One person who did get it was Timmermans, whose job involved looking over the horizon. In early 2015, he and his team set to work devising proposals to prepare for a Europe in which mass influxes of both refugees and migrants would be normal, not aberrational. “A European Agenda on Migration,” issued in May 2015, called on member states to triple the budget for naval operations to save refugees at sea, target smuggler networks, and strengthen the capacity of Greece and Italy to deal with mass migration. More controversially, it proposed a “mandatory and automatically triggered relocation system” to share the burden of caring for refugees across Europe in the face of an emergency. The report also proposed long-term changes to strengthen weak states in Africa and the Middle East that export migrants and to increase opportunities for legal migration in Europe.
The report aroused little interest among the leaders of the 28 member states, most of whom were quite content with their own responses to the problem. “What I learned coming here,” Timmermans said, “is that it’s one thing to come to the analytical recognition that we need to start doing things differently, on a European level. It’s another thing to try to convince authorities, political and governmental, in the member states that they’re going to be under European guidance on these issues.” Timmermans and Collett were like scientists warning about climate change before any icebergs had melted. Europe’s politicians weren’t ready to hear them. And so the first phase of the refugee crisis — the opportunity for early, systematic policy reform — petered out.
The broken system that Timmermans had proposed changing seemed perfectly adequate to most European leaders. The essential principle, codified in 1990 in what was known as the Dublin Convention, stipulated that refugees would be registered in whichever European state they first reached and would henceforth become the responsibility of that state. All European countries acknowledged the international obligation to extend asylum to refugees, though each had its own standards for doing so and its own system of protections and benefits extended to refugees.
Then came the flood.
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