Europe’s First Failure

Generous help for Syria’s neighbours could stem the flow of refugees

European countries will not be able to stop the flow of refugees from the south, not with troops, fences or new border controls within the EU. If Macedonia closes the border with Greece, people will just stream over the barriers. If Hungary builds high walls at the border, the refugees will find new ways, possibly via Croatia. Those involved in the business of assisting the passage of immigrants will not be deterred by the threat of stiff penalties; most of them are not bands of criminals. They are providing a service which is desperately needed.

Bavarian customs officers will not be able to keep those who have made it as far as Austria away from their promised land: Germany. Even the images of violence by right-wing extremists against asylum seekers in Saxony will not achieve that. And anyway, all the EU countries are working against each on the political level because they all want to get rid of the refugees as quickly as possible.

But there are options for stemming the tide of refugees. No one would casually make the decision to undertake a deadly journey across the Mediterranean or be really keen to take the Balkan route to the north. Contrary to common belief, Syrians and Iraqis do not usually come to Europe because they fear for their lives. After all, when they leave the war-torn territory they first go to neighbouring countries, i.e. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They are no longer in mortal danger there but they are confronted with appalling living conditions.

These countries have made a great contribution in terms of assisting the refugees, but they, as well as the international organisations, have been left in the lurch by Europe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has barely over half the resources required for minimum provisions and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has had to reduce food vouchers drastically because they have run out of money.

This is not just miserable – it is also short-sighted. In the initial years many Syrian refugees held out in the neighbourhood in the hope of a peaceful solution. The current stream to the north is a sign of despair. On account of the poor prospects people feel the long trek to Europe is worthwhile.

Many opportunities to improve the refugees’ situation in the region have already been missed. But even now it would be possible to conclude an agreement with Turkey whereby the EU countries would provide several billion euros to make encampments into areas where life with human dignity close to the homeland would be possible. In return Ankara could better protect their own maritime border and allow refugees to take up a legal occupation.

Options for legal immigration could also stem the tide of illegal immigrants to the EU. This does not mean that millions have to be accepted, but specific working visas for Syrian doctors and engineers as well as granting tens of thousands of student visas would be helpful. A family that knows a son or daughter can go to a European university will find it easier to hold out a bit longer in a Turkish encampment.

Even then, thousands would risk the journey northwards and each country would still be required to treat the arrivals in a humane way. But if there were more generous aid it would be possible to appeal with justification to prospective refugees to remain where they are.

Decency is only a first step

The acceptance of refugees in Austria and Germany raises new questions

Austria and Germany did the only right thing when they accepted the refugees stranded in Hungary at the weekend without bureaucratic hurdles. Any different decision would have been a blatant contravention of our society’s values.

But this upsurge of human values between Nickelsdorf and Munich does not bring us any closer to a solution of the refugee problem. The flow to Europe will not abate – if anything it will increase. This raises new questions which no one yet has an answer for.

No matter how unacceptable the cynical treatment of the refugees by the Hungarian authorities may be, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is right on one point: the German government itself contributed to the latest exodus from Syria to Europe via the Western Balkans by declaring itself willing to accept the people. The latest images that signify willingness to help may tempt more families from the unpleasant encampments in the region to risk the dangerous trip to their dream destination, i.e. Germany.

But how many asylum seekers can Germany accept before the hostility to foreigners in the east spreads across the whole country? Will Chancellor Angela Merkel then still be saying “We will manage” if the number of new arrivals exceeds the million mark this year – plus there is no end in sight? The first voices of dissent from the CSU party suggest we can expect trouble. And how long will it be before the German right-wing populists enjoy a boost like Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria?

The EU quota solution pushed by Berlin and Vienna offers just as little as the special summit called for in vain. It is not just that Eastern Europe has expressed a wholesale rejection of the model – even if the Juncker Plan concerning the distribution of up to 160,000 refugees in Europa could be implemented, the question remains open as to what happens with those who arrive now.

How is the EU going to deal with the refugee crisis which is threatening to occur in Serbia once Orbán actually closes the border? The country is poorer than Hungary and has a strong tradition of hostility to Islam. And who is going to help Macedonia which is already overstretched if Serbia itself does not allow any more refugees in? What is to be done if more inflatable boats capsize in the Aegean in the coming autumn months? Perhaps more help at the locations will deter these people from fleeing.

Some people believe the solution is a European military intervention in Syria to end the war. Those who take this view include not only the Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz who of course won’t to take part in it but also the British Prime Minister, David Cameron; he wants to support US air strikes against the Islamic State. Russia too is considering intervention – an expansion of the military assistance for the crisis-stricken Assad regime. This threatens to destroy the recent hope of a diplomatic solution. Interventions from outside will prolong the conflict – possibly by many years.

The victory of decency over meanness at the weekend in no way changes the helplessness and cluelessness of all parties involved in the face of the biggest flow of refugees in our time. And the longer it continues, the more difficult it will be to mobilise the willingness to help.

How Austria needs to change

Immigration is increasing pressure to implement reforms that have been neglected

No one can say at present whether providing for and integrating the refugees from the Middle East will cost hundreds of millions or many billions. But one thing is certain: the flow of immigrants will change Austria. And whether society will manage this gigantic challenge depends not only on money but also on willingness to accept change.

This concerns mainly economic and socio-political spheres in which there has long been a need for reform even without the flow of refugees. The Economic Research Institute boss Karl Aiginger has addressed one of them: success stories of migrants are mostly associated with entrepreneurship. One frequent hindrance to setting up company is the Industrial Code which in many professions blocks new workers, restricts competition and should have been sorted out long ago.

There are many other examples of this type. When immigrants find work, it is usually at the lower end of the pay scale where they do not pay any tax but they do pay relatively high social security contributions. The reduction of ancillary wage costs for low earners, which has long been called for by experts, was again not included in the latest tax reform. Now there are new reasons to address this issue quickly.

The strict work protection measures are also frequently a hindrance to the recruitment of employees which especially prevent small businesses from increasing their workforce. Here again, a modest liberalisation could create new jobs. And if retailers without employees could open on Sundays and in the marginal times of the day, that would especially make use of migrants.

Something also needs to change in residential construction. Austria is a world master in high-quality social housing, and costs have spiralled out of control due to constant increasing standards and requirements. There is already a need for tens of thousands of residential buildings, especially around Vienna, and the need for affordable housing will now probably increase rapidly. Of course we shouldn’t have any prefabricated buildings but a way needs to be found to reduce construction costs – possibly by simplifying the construction regulations and curtailing some standards. Fire protection, disabled access, passive house design, architectonic quality – all that is important, but what is more important is that tens of thousands of new inhabitants need to find a place to live.

In the sphere of health, immigration will increase the pressure on out-patient departments. Most migrants are in the habit of going to a local hospital instead of a GP. Relief will be provided anyway by the planned creation of primary care centres in the urban areas which are strongly contested by the Medical Council. The government must speed up the process here, even if it means making concessions to the doctors. Otherwise queues in the big hospitals will grow even longer.

In the education sector Austria cannot afford to offer the socially disadvantaged so few career opportunities as at present. If the SPÖ and ÖVP parties continue to be obstructive, we cannot be surprised if people say in a few years from now: immigration was managed but integration failed.

And who cares about us?

Solidarity with refugees v increases citizens’ feeling of abandonment

It was an impressive demonstration of the other Austria, the one that wants decent treatment of refugees and the maintenance of a welcoming culture. On a Saturday evening it is easier to go to a concert at Heldenplatz in Vienna than to help new arrivals at the Westbahnhof station or in Nickelsdorf. And the same basic attitude is reflected – one that is not afraid of immigration but which regards it as an opportunity for society and which is at least not willing to make compassion and solidarity dependent on the origin of those involved.

The same spirit is imparted by Economic Research Institute boss Karl Aiginger who has repeatedly emphasised that Austria managed to deal with immigration in the past and that countries profit from migration provided the basic conditions are right. And in Germany it is the chancellor herself who stands firm not only against open xenophobia but also against the stemming of the tide of refugees by stricter laws and measures demanded by many party supporters. Humanity comes first, says Angela Merkel.

But in the case of a substantial part of the population these messages fall on deaf ears – including the electorate in Vienna. On the contrary: the more frequently Social Democrats and Greens, experts and journalists emphasise the positive aspects of the refugee drama, the more these people feel abandoned with their concerns and their anger. For many people the overt provision of welfare for foreigners bolsters their conviction that their own needs are being neglected.

Everything which is painful and deficient in everyday life is suddenly regarded as an entitlement that is not being fulfilled by politicians and the state. Individual responsibility gives way to accusations. New arrivals are just as responsible for their problems as those in power who allow them to be received. The sense of commonality is turning into a fear of coming off worse in a predatory competition. This feeling is poisoning the political climate and driving voters into the hands of the right wing FPÖ party.

Of course, most people in Vienna know that those who are granted asylum are not really responsible for increasing accommodation costs, job losses and higher taxes – and not everybody believes the rumours about generous social services for foreigners. And just the uncertainty as to how long the influx of refugees will continue and how it will change the country in the end is enough to turn a latent dissatisfaction into protest votes. The politicians in office find it difficult to counter this. Austria already has one of the highest social standards in the world, and Vienna has come even further in many areas. Most citizens have affordable housing and jobs that are not in serious jeopardy. The crime rate remains low, and where crime does occur the asylum seekers are seldom involved in it.

But making reference to all these facts is not much help in addressing the general feeling of abandonment. And in the area of the empathy exhibited many politicians still have far to go. Even if it might appear like a meaningless ritual, the message “We care about you” has to come across better so that society holds together.