Europe’s Refugees Deserve Better

Refugees in the town of Presevo, Serbia, on October 5, 2015. Photo credit: © Ashley Gilbertson/VII for UNICEF

There is a striking contrast between Europe’s legacy of providing protection to victims of past conflicts and its treatment of the asylum seekers reaching its shores today.

My own story is one of surviving Nazi occupation and fleeing communist-dominated Hungary in 1947 to be welcomed in England. I was given an opportunity to start a new life. And I was treated with respect and kindness, for which I am grateful.

I was one of millions in Europe who fled their homes after World War II. Following that humanitarian crisis, Europe adopted the Refugee Convention in 1951. This policy became its moral and operational backbone for decades, and it was tested soon after it was adopted, when more than 200,000 fled Hungary after the 1956 Soviet invasion. The same happened a decade later, after Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. During Yugoslavia’s civil war in the 1990s, almost four million people were displaced. Each time, European states stepped in to help.

Open Society Foundations

Today, victims fleeing civil war in Syria and brutal government repression in countries like Eritrea are not being shown the same consideration.

The European Union was conceived as an instrument of solidarity and cooperation. The plight of asylum seekers today exposes how these values are being eroded. By failing to help the refugees, this political union that I believed to be the embodiment of an open society is failing before our very eyes.

The lack of a unified European policy towards asylum and migration has allowed member states to act selfishly and irresponsibly. Frontline countries like Greece and Italy are neglecting to provide adequate reception and asylum processing, while others, like Hungary, are sealing their borders to keep out those in need.

The chaos created by this lack of coordination has made the influx of refugees seem like an intractable problem. It has precipitated panic and steered public opinion against the refugees — so much so that we risk forgetting that the refugees are the victims here. The EU needs to accept responsibility for the political crisis caused by the lack of a common policy and vision.

The current patchwork of 28 separate asylum systems does not work — it produces inconsistent results in determining who qualifies for asylum and who does not. To respond to the crisis, Europe needs a fair and comprehensive plan. It’s time for the EU to bring back the generous, collective spirit it was founded upon — one that reflects the European values set forth over half a century ago.

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