Europe's refugee response is totally lopsided


LISBON, Portugal — Listen to Britain's leading politicians and tabloid press, and it seems clear which country is bearing the brunt of Europe's refugee crisis.

Prime Minister David Cameron warns of "a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean." His foreign secretary claims Britain's social structure is under threat from "marauding" Africans just across the English Channel. 

Despite the hysteria, Britain is little more than a bit player in Europe's refugee drama.

A columnist with the country's best-selling daily, The Sun, denounced refugees striving to reach Europe as "cockroaches" — a word popular with Jew-hating Nazis and the genocidal regime in 1994 Rwanda.

British angst has focused on around 3,000 migrants camped outside the northern French seaport of Calais. More than a dozen have died this year, mostly in attempts to enter the high-speed rail tunnel under the Channel.

Despite the hysteria, Britain is little more than a bit player in Europe's refugee drama.

Numbers in Calais are dwarfed by the 264,500 boat people — mostly Syrians — whom the UN refugee agency says have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe so far this year.

Almost all of them have landed in southern Italy or Greek islands struggling to cope with the influx.

Italian police officers surround a family of migrants during an operation to remove them from the Italian-French border in the Italian city of Ventimiglia on June, 16, 2015.

Still, more refugees arrive by land or air. Germany takes in most of them. The government estimates a record 800,000 people will request asylum there this year. Already in the first three months of 2015 it received 10 times more asylum requests than Britain, according to the latest figures from the European Union.

Even much smaller countries, including Sweden, Hungary and Austria, take more refugees than Britain, which received just 4 percent of EU asylum requests last year. (Hungary tends to be the first country of entry for many asylum-seekers — especially those from Balkan countries.)

That's 0.5 for every 1,000 British citizens. In Sweden the ratio is 8.4 per 1,000. In Hungary it's 4.3 per 1,000, and in Austria 3.3. 

In fact, the UK is letting in fewer refugees than it used to. While the number of first-time asylum seekers in the EU rose to 185,000 in the first three months of this year — almost double compared to the same period last year — Britain saw a fall of 10 percent.  

Yet the Brits are not alone in whining.

Asylum applicants from Kosovo, Macedonia and other places in southeast Europe still outnumber those from conflict zones like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Across Europe, nations are taking an every-man-for-himself approach to the mounting refugee crisis, thwarting attempts at burden-sharing and preventing the EU from forging a collective response to what the bloc's Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos calls the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Governments lined up to reject a planned quota system that would oblige each EU country to take in a limited number of refugees.

Spain said high unemployment meant it couldn't find jobs for newcomers. Politicians in the Baltic states agonized over the impact on society of a sudden influx of non-European faces. Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban said the plan was "insane." He promptly ordered the construction of a 110-mile fence along the southern border to keep refugees out.

More from GlobalPost: Hungary thinks this giant border fence is the answer to Europe’s refugee crisis

Migrants wait at the Macedonian-Greek border near the town of Gevgelija on July 9, 2015, waiting for an entrance to Macedonia on their way north to European countries.

All this has Europe's most powerful nation worried. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned early this month that immigration could be a much bigger concern for Europe than the Greek debt crisis.

Her government last week doubled its estimate of the number of refugees expected to arrive there this year to 800,000.

Last week, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel cautioned that European nations' refusal to help each other deal with the influx risked pulling the EU apart.

"Germany, Sweden and Austria take most of the refugees," he told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper. "On the other hand, there are countries that take no refugees, or very few. We need a fair balance."

Without naming names, Gabriel said too many governments were "profiteering" from the EU but failing to meet their responsibilities. "People who behave like that will destroy Europe," he warned.

Germany has reason to worry.

Germans are more supportive than most of a generous refugee policy, but polls show falling support for the government's pro-refugee stance. This year has seen a sharp increase in arson attacks on refugee centers and other incidents blamed on far-right groups.

More from GlobalPost: Refugees in Germany meet some of the kindest volunteers, and angriest arsonists

An EU-wide opinion poll published last month found that immigration has overtaken the economy as European citizens' top concern. Germans were among the most concerned, with 55 percent listing it as the most pressing issue facing the EU.

The government in Berlin says it can cope with the influx despite the costs estimated at over $6 billion and strained public services in some cities.

German media has given prominent coverage to outpourings of support for refugees — from ordinary citizens volunteering to open up their homes to movie star Til Schweiger (from “Inglourious Basterds”) financing construction of a "flagship" refugee center, or the Bavarian bus driver who drew tears from a national news anchorwith his message of welcome for refugee passengers.

However, the government is taking a tougher line, particularly with migrants from the Balkans. Their countries are considered safe two decades after the wars of the 1990s, yet asylum applicants from Kosovo, Macedonia and other places in southeast Europe still outnumber those from conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Kosovars made up over a quarter of the first-time asylum requests in the EU over the first three months of this year, more than the combined total from Syria and Iraq.

Migrants try to climb onto a train at the station in Gevgelija, on the Macedonian-Greek border, Aug. 12, 2015.

Fewer than 0.2 percent of Balkan asylum seekers have their claims accepted in Germany. But while they wait in the country to be turned down and deported, they receive benefits and cash handouts that can total up to $865 a month for a family of four — more than double the average wage in Kosovo.

"The high number of migrants from these countries diverts resources that we need to take care of people from crisis regions," complains Manfred Schmidt, head of Germany’s national refugee agency.

He knows that demand from crisis regions will grow. 

Syria's bloodletting shows no sign of easing. There are fears of a fresh influx of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to flee intensified violence in Libya. Renewed fighting in Ukraine could trigger a westward exodus. 

If that happens, Europe could face a crisis closer to the scale faced by those who are really on the front line of Syria's refugee tragedy.

Jordan has taken in 630,000 Syrian refugees. Little Lebanon houses 1.2 million, and Turkey is home to 1.8 million, according to the UNHCR. Those figures give some context to the 260,500 Syrians who have applied for asylum in all 28 EU nations since the war began in 2011. 

More from GlobalPost: Add the Islamic State in Libya to the growing list of obstacles for Europe-bound refugees

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