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At Israeli confab, searching for ‘silver-bullet solutions’ to Europe’s migrant crisis

Syrian and Iraqi migrants arrive at the Greek island of Lesvos on Oct. 30, 2015. Credit: Ggia via Wikimedia Commons.
Syrian and Iraqi migrants arrive at the Greek island of Lesvos on Oct. 30, 2015. Credit: Ggia via Wikimedia Commons.

The influx of migrants and refugees into Europe has presented that continent’s leaders and policymakers with some of their greatest current challenges. Those challenges “defy silver-bullet solutions,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken.

Blinken, who made that remark at the 2016 Herzliya Conference, which took place from June 14-16 in Jerusalem and Herzliya, was highlighting one of the topics that reappeared in many of the dozens of speeches and panel discussions throughout the three-day Israeli event. Blinken emphasized that the combination of the migrant crisis and rising global terror has “all of us…linked in unprecedented ways…creating shared vulnerabilities.”

In America, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has garnered controversy, but also rising influence and a presumptive GOP nomination, through his associations of Muslims with terrorism and immigrants with crime. A February 2016 Rasmussen poll found that 70 percent of Republican voters, and 51 percent of all voters, support Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Europe, fear about refugees is tied to anxiety about the loss of jobs and national identity, according to Prof. Jurgen Ruttgers, former prime minister of the North Rhine-Westphalia state in Germany.

“They fear the new cheap labor endangers their jobs. Others have fury because they have been searching for cheap housing for a long time. They think the politicians have no money for them—only for the refugees,” Ruttgers said at the Herzliya Conference.

The migrant crisis has been accompanied by an uptick in European nationalism and support for nationalist political parties, as well as amplified concern about Islamic terrorism. A 2015 report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank noted that since 2011, the number of illegal border-crossing detections in the 28-nation European Union (EU) has surged. Thousands of Tunisians first arrived, followed by an influx of Sub-Saharan Africans. Most recently, the Syrian civil war has led to rapidly growing numbers of Syrian migrants and refugees. In just the first nine months of 2015, the International Organization of Migration estimated that 464,000 migrants crossed into Europe—and 89 percent of them came from Syria.

While most migrants entering the EU have traditionally come through non-landlocked nations such as Greece or Italy, many migrants are now entering landlocked EU member states such as Hungary, Germany, and Sweden, according to CFR. Frontex—an organization that promotes, coordinates, and develops European border management—reported that between January and July 2015, there were 102,342 illegal crossings into Hungary. Germany and Sweden currently receive and grant the overwhelming majority of asylum applications in the EU, CFR said.

The European populations absorbing the most migrants, in turn, have seen stark shifts in public opinion. A 2015 report by the TÁRKI Social Research Institute found that 46 percent of the Hungarian adult population agreed with the position that no asylum-seeker should set foot in the country—the highest-ever support for that stance.

Jessica Bither—program officer for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which “strengthens transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan”—told that the interests of individual nations have consistently trumped a homogeneous European response to the influx of migrants. But at the same time, she explained, the continent’s nationalist and populist political parties have put the migration issue at the forefront of their agendas, “playing on fears and garnering support through that.”

“People in Germany are anxious,” said Jurgen Ruttgers.

In Europe, Bither said migration has posed the immediate challenge of finding housing for the migrants—such as shelters, schools, and gyms. In Germany, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees was having trouble keeping up with asylum claims when, at times, there were as many as 10,000 people crossing the border each day.

Now that the migration numbers are declining in Germany and across the EU, European governments are focusing on integrating the asylum-seekers who were legally accepted into the EU and on facilitating the return of migrants who were rejected for asylum to their home countries.

“No one has the impression that those who have come to us in Europe will leave the country in the near future,” said Ruttgers. “Anyone who wants to be a part of our societies must accept our European values.…If refugees accept our rules and values and work hard to participate in our way of lives [they can stay]. Anyone who does not participate and integrate must go back to his home country after the [Syrian] civil war ends.”

In April, Germany announced a new and controversial immigration law under which asylum-seekers face cuts in government support if they reject mandatory integration measures such as language classes or lessons in German laws and cultural basics.

The move came partially as a result of the growing trend of associating Muslim refugees with terrorism and a fear that Muslim migrants would give rise to a new extremist, anti-democratic culture. Several European leaders—including those from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic—expressed a strong preference for non-Muslim migrants. In 2015, Slovakia even announced that it would only accept Christian refugees from Syria.

While on the one hand, selecting migrants based on their religion would violate the EU’s non-discrimination laws, on the other hand, European leaders have defended such policies by citing their own constituencies’ discomfort with growing Muslim communities. The terrorists that carried out the March 2016 Brussels bombings and the November 2015 Paris attacks were tied to Mideast refugees; they hid themselves among Syrian refugees taken in by European nations. This raised a red flag that terrorist organizations such as Islamic State—which claimed responsibility for the attacks in Brussels and Paris—are interspersing their radicalized recruits among the vast migrant stream and into an unprepared Europe.

The German Marshall Fund’s Bither, however, argued for caution in pegging the increase in terrorism directly to the migrant influx. She said migration “is only part of the story. The issue of homegrown terrorism is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous.”

Bither said that just as the nationalist parties are using economic fear to turn society against refugees, they are using fear of Islam to gain popularity, too.

“They are putting the topic of Islamic extremism on the media cycle over and over again,” she said.

H.E. Jan Jambon, deputy prime minister and interior minister of Belgium, who also spoke at the Herzliya Conference, said that Belgium is rolling out 30 new security measures in response to the March attacks in Brussels—including increased investment in a previously under-financed national security department and providing increased protection for more vulnerable communities, such as the Jewish community of Brussels.

Jambon said that while it did surface that there were ties between the Brussels terrorists and Mideast refugees, he agrees with Bither that the dual challenges of infiltration by Islamic extremists into the EU through migration and the radicalization of youths born in the EU itself (often second- and third-generation immigrants) need to be tackled with equal vigor.

“If we want youngsters to escape Islamic State’s deadly trap, we need to do some things,” said Jambon. “We need to protect, reflect, and promote our standards and values. We need to identify extremism among youngsters at an early stage and follow up on these young people who have gone off track.…We need to have a proactive police approach that is tough on terrorism.”

But most importantly, in Jambon’s estimation, the world needs to work together on combating terror.

“This is an international conflict,” Jambon said. “We have to fight at the European and the global level. I call for an open-minded cooperation.…All people who keep our basic standards and values—regardless of ethnicity, religious, and social status—should stand together.”

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