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Refugee crisis may force EU to rethink, update open-borders policy

As governments squabble over quotas, European citizens show solidarity, volunteering to help refugees

A showdown over Europe’s refugee crisis response looms. On Monday, ministers from squabbling EU nations will hold crunch talks to discuss a proposed quota system and try to smooth over disagreements as to how to provide shelter to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war for European sanctuary. But going into the summit some are questioning if the refugee challenge, and the split national interests it has exposed, could threaten the continued existence of the bloc’s open-border policy — and with it, the very idea of Europe.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented a State of the Union address in which he made an impassioned appeal for member countries to step up to the challenge of resettling 160,000 refugees. In what he described as the first step of what he hopes can become a more comprehensive migration policy, he told EU nations that a “compulsory” plan to take in those fleeing bloodshed in the Middle East was necessary.

But experts are skeptical that a quota system can paper over the deep flaws that they say have contributed to the escalation of the crisis in the first place. The unprecedented numbers of refugees — more than 430,000 since January — has prompted some EU members in the east of the bloc to restrict access across their borders and even float the idea of re-introducing border patrols — both anathema to the so-called European dream. Specifically it puts at risk the free movement of people enshrined in the creation of the Schengen Area in 1995.

Under EU law, as codified in the Dublin Regulation, refugees are required to request asylum in the first country of entry. That has created a particular burden on those EU member countries close to the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea — passageways to Greece and Italy — and nations along the Baltic route. Such nations have so far bore the brunt of the current refugee crisis, with boats arriving daily on Europe’s southern shores.

There is one alternative: a clause of the regulation allows for the redistribution of people from overcrowded camps in Hungary, the Greek island of Kos, and Lampedusa, an island off the Italian coast, to other EU nations in the case of an “emergency.” But the language defining what conditions qualify as an emergency remains vague.

But in the face of massive migration from predominantly Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, some EU countries have started to disregard those established processes. Austria temporarily suspended border checks, letting refugees pass through Vienna on their way to Germany regardless of their first point of entry. And many managed to first cross Hungary and Greece, where they avoided being fingerprinted by the authorities who were overwhelmed by the mass influx of people, or unwilling to accommodate newcomers. In recent months, officials have started 32 infringement procedures to reprimand member countries for not abiding by a series of common EU asylum procedures, Juncker said.

Juncker's plan, outlined Wednesday, added another 120,000 refugees to the total needing to be resettled within the EU. An earlier proposal announced in May called for the redistribution of just 40,000 from Syria and Eritrea. A permanent emergency trigger mechanism, which would come into play once a certain number of refugees request asylum or cross a border — would avert future crises by allocating refugees to member countries according to a distribution key, weighing a country’s GDP, unemployment rate, population and past efforts to resettle people.

Still, the implementation of such a relocation system remains elusive. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to “European solidarity” in his appeal for a quota system, but EU members in the east are not responding.

“The big challenge is now having the member states accept a proposal like that,” said Olaf Kleist, research fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic already rejected the plan Friday, despite it receiving strong German and French support. “Enforcement,” Kleist added, “will be a big challenge,” but a provision to give countries the option to "buy off their responsibility" of resettling refugees by donating 0.002 percent of their GDP to the EU budget might go a long way toward reaching this consensus, he said.

Still, the plan under debate could usher in a much-needed update to the Schengen Convention, which was never designed to allow for the equitable distribution of refugees, says Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director of the international program at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “This is a recognition that the EU is in deep need of solidarity to address the unprecedented number of arrivals that have overwhelmed the capacity of individual asylum systems,” she said.

So far, the only sign of “European solidary” has come from ordinary people. Residents in Berlin, Budapest, and Brussels have opened their homes to Syrian refugeesserved coffee to families queuing at registration points, and volunteered to drive Syrians from Budapest's train station to Austria.

The principles that built the EU helped raise a generation of young people who speak multiple European languages and have never felt constrained by borders, said Ewa Krzaklewska, a sociologist at Krakow's Jagiellonian University. Even in Poland, which so far has agreed to only take in about 2,000 refugees and has declined to resettle more, this attitude compelled volunteers "to be engaged in initiatives that welcome refugees," she said.

“It’s a civil society that's emerging there that stands for human rights and the protection of refugees,” Kleist said. “Rather than assuming that the electorate is anti-immigrant and anti-refugees, there is actually a large portion of European citizens who are more willing to protect and help refugees.”

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