The European Union risks being torn apart unless member states can agree on how to deal with the record inflow of refugees escaping war-torn countries, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos has heard.
There are currently a record 60 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes by war, violence and persecution. The United Nations Refugee Agency says just under 20 million people have been forced to find new lives in other countries as refugees. More than a million had reached Europe by the end of last year.
Europe has failed to deal with the rapid influx of refugees, with member states putting pressure on the Schengen agreement principle of a borderless Europe by formulating diverging policies, delegates were told.
“No other problem has divided and jeopardised the European Union more than the refugee problem,” German President Joachim Gauck said on Wednesday.
On the same day, Austria said it would introduce refugee quotas while Macedonia sealed its border with EU state Greece. Germany is currently embroiled in an intense internal political and social debate over refugee policy, which has been exacerbated by reports of several sexual assaults on women by foreigners.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to cancel her planned visit to Davos to attend to the growing problem.
Gauck added that Germany was seriously considering introducing refugee quotas itself. If initiated, this would not be seen as a “knee-jerk reaction, but as an element of responsible government” responding to the needs of its own population, he added.
“A limitation strategy can be both morally and politically necessary in order to preserve the state’s ability to function.”
Gauck advocated increased EU investment in countries around war-torn Syria to improve conditions for refugees there.
Division also revealed themselves at another debate at the public Open Forum in Davos on Wednesday evening.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic defended his country’s record in dealing with refugees, but accused unspecified eastern European countries that “did not want any refugees” of being poor EU citizens.
He also rejected the idea of beefing up border controls in Greece, mooted by Germany. “You cannot protect Greek borders,” Vucic said. “Everyone knows that you can do what you want in Greece.”
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said the disagreement between EU member states was to blame for problems in accommodating refugees. “The EU could have coped had we all cooperated,” he said.
William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration, agreed. “Accommodating a million people in a population of 550 million is manageable. But for that you have to have a union that works.”
In Switzerland, the number of asylum seekers has also increased, but not as much as expected in some quarters. At the end of November last year more than 34,000 people requested asylum in Switzerland, already 10,000 more than in the whole of 2014.
But this figure is well below the record of 47,500 set in 1999 in the wake of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.