SHAFAQNA -Â The ethnic background of refugees has changed hugely over the past several decades. In the 1990s, after the fall of the iron curtain, most were Europeans, mostly Christian. Now most are Muslims from Asia and Africa.
Undoubtedly, the expansion of the European Union has increased its internal heterogeneity, but when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, mentioned that Muslims are already part of the culture of many EU countries, these were words that were not given the same welcome in all countries.
Expansion of the EU eastwards meant an incorporation of countries whose values might not be entirely in line with the European â€œnormâ€. What we are seeing now is in part an expression of that tension, a need to balance the EUâ€™s security interests on the one hand and the interests of the development of democracy and protection of human rights on the other.
The increasing numbers of people seeking asylum has thrown into the air a simple â€œprogressiveâ€ development of Europe. Instead, the sometimes hostile reception given to migrants and refugees, the closing of borders, even the possibility of the exit of some countries from theÂ Schengen agreement has taken us back into history, and in particular, the specific history of this part of the world.
Remember that the refugees are now flowing through the Balkan countries that, only 20 years ago, were the scene of inter-ethnic bloodshed. The Balkans had long been under the rule of the Ottoman empire and attitudes towards Muslims in many places are ambivalent, at best. (And the truth is that most countries in central and south-westernÂ Europe are, in turn, not attractive for asylum seekers, but are rather mere transit countries.)
Life in the Balkans might have changed substantially. But still fears of politicians reflect the fears of the population (and vice versa). The sudden arrival of large numbers of Muslim refugees does not make local people there happy. This is true also for Hungary, which historically was under Turkish rule for about 150 years. Croatia has similar attitudes, perhaps rememberingÂ the story of their former compatriots from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Let us also remember that during the Balkan wars in early 1990s Hungary opened its borders for its neighbours and adopted a large number of asylum seekers and refugees. Now the situation is different: Hungary, as well as its new EU neighbour Croatia, isÂ closing its borders.
Another fearsome new factor for Hungary, which routinely was receiving about 2,000 asylum applications a year, is to suddenly find itself fielding the most asylum applications per million of population. In the second quarter of 2015 for Hungary the figure was 3,317 per million people, compared with Austria (2,026), Sweden (1,476) and Germany (997). InÂ Croatia there were only six per million. The EU average was 26.
This new wave of migrants originates mostly from Syria (21%), Afghanistan (12%) and Iraq (6%), as well as Albania (8%) and Kosovo (5%).
Usually refugees fleeing for their lives head for their neighbouring countries, in the hope that they will be able to return home soon. Those countries usually have already respective diasporas who can come to the rescue. No one wants specifically, to risk their lives, if they know that they can get help just across the border.
I remember my visit to one of the Turkish refugee camps back in 2008, where they kept people who wanted to go to the EU, close to the border with Greece. The small cells were for 70 persons each, and three times a day they were given only bread and water. The Turkish officer asked: â€œWhy do we have to keep these people and feed them if they want to go to the EU and do not want to stay here? Greek border guards, pushing them back to us.â€ Little has changed since then.
For a long time, problems with the observance of the rights of refugees have been noted in all border countries. This has been discussed by EU experts and NGOs, but made little impact on the public. Now the secret has been revealed, the Balkan countries, including parts of the EU, have given up their role on protection.
Establishing quotas and strengthening borders does not look like the solution. Therefore it will be useful to have a system of collective responsibility for dealing with the crisis. It is necessary not only to provide humanitarian aid for those who are living in refugee camps but also to create a scheme of study and work for young people in troubled countries, to prepare their new elite.
According to theÂ Gatestone institute, most who manage to come to the EU are young men aged 16-20 years. They make up 80% of all arrivals to Germany. Refugees are with us, and around us in the neighbouring countries. If we do not help them, we will marginalise them. And then â€“ further down the line â€“ they will follow those who promise them a better life and they will believe in it.
By Dr Irina Molodikova – She Â runs the Project onÂ Migration and Security, Central European University, Budapest