# 38|2015: Flucht/Artikel/Flucht

Europe’s Migration Crisis from a Cultural Perspective. Is it really all about migration?

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 16.00.48

Graphic 1 & Graphic 2 – Source: http://www.unhcr.org/2014trends/

von I. Reşat Özkan

We live in a post-Cold-War world, which I have every reason to believe is on the brink of a new era which is about to put end to the illusions of the world becoming a uni-cultural society anytime soon. I do not necessarily defend that this would be a desirable scenario, however I suspect that some consequences of the end of the Cold War are merely starting to reveal themselves. As Samuel Huntington points out, the “three worlds” have perished, and as he puts it, we now have a world of arguable 7–8 civilizations, where each pursue their own interests (cf. Huntington 1993: 23).

The – perhaps global – tragedy of Europe’s Migration Crisis I believe not only demonstrates the unpreparedness for such scenarios of even the most developed states, but also divulges how difficult it may be to uphold the values of modern democracies in a global environment of great inequalities. Europe seems to be an ‘Elysium’, among a handful of countries elsewhere, where prosperity and democracy rule; perhaps mostly to those who personally commit to western values, but are unable to live by them in their countries of origin. A majority of those on the other hand, who attempt to enter European soil and reach its northern and western members risking their lives, see this horribly dangerous journey which is labeled illegal by almost every country they have to travel through as the only option to secure their freedom and ensure the safety of themselves, as well their loved ones.

Neither the European community, nor their international counterparts and not even the United Nations so far haven’t managed to put a robust and far-sighted plan to address the migration crisis of Europe as of 2015. Thousands are losing their lives as days pass by, and millions of others are set for this dangerous journey, at the end of which they simply wish to find hope. Aside from its gigantic scale, the scope of this crisis presents a unique challenge to all parties involved: the host countries, the transit countries, and the destination countries.

Due to this immense diversity and to prevent information distortion, I will be focusing primarily on the cultural aspect of the debate, whilst endeavoring to underline a number of points concerning the security disquiets the situation provokes. Also, the reader may observe a selection of statistics which convey the state of the people involved according to international organizations such as the IOM and UNHCR among others. Reflections on the outcome and on the near-future of the present situation will be analyzed from an idealist as well as a realist point of view.

What exactly is going on around Europe’s borders? (1) – MENA and the Balkans

The ‘Third World Countries’, which were once stages to the struggle between the First and the Second worlds, have found themselves in an arguably freer, yet challenging environment with the fall of communism in Europe. This led to sectarian clashes throughout MENA (Middle East and North Africa) as well rising ethnic tensions, which hit their peak with the Arab Spring, which was hoped to contribute to the journey of MENA countries towards becoming modern democracies. Similar events mainly fueled by ethnic and racial motivations triggered terrible proceedings in the Balkans, which had reached as far as “alleged” genocides (alleged simply because the respective resolution which would brand the massacres in and around Srebrenica as a genocide were vetoed in the Security Council by the Russian Federation earlier this year) (cf. BBC 2015). Occurrences in Macedonia earlier this year also indicate that tensions in the regions are still quite present and sensitive (cf. Al Jazeera 2015).


More recently, the unfolding of the events in Ukraine, including the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation (cf. Walker & Traynor 2014) and Ukraine’s loss of control on an important part of its sovereign territories have most regrettably contributed to the number of crises around Europe. UNHCR reported 275,000 IDPs as of mid-September 2014 in Ukraine alone, with more than 6,000 Ukrainians having sought asylum in other European countries, in addition to 168,000 people seeking refuge in the Russian Federation, according to UNHCR’s 2015 regional operations profile of Europe (cf. UNHCR 2015). Russia, a vital energy supplier of Europe and a key trade partner of the EU, has suffered sanctions from the Western world as a result, from which the EU member states have also been affected (cf. BBC 2014). The results were increasing unemployment for both parties, the Russian Ruble drastically losing value over the course of the conflict (cf. Bloomberg Business 2015), and increased internal tensions within Baltic countries such as Estonia and Latvia, both of which are home to significant Russian-speaking minorities, which also neighbor the Russian Federation. Eastern Ukraine, Crimea, Northern Georgia, and Transnistria are increasing concerns for the stability of the European region as a whole, as such scenarios trigger significant economic and social ripple effects, including mass-scale migration, as described above.


With 7.6 million IDPs, 12.2 million persons in total in need inside the country (cf. IOM 2015), and one of the most brutal conflicts so far, Syria is one of the most unfortunate cases the European and the Middle Eastern communities have ever endured. 1.17 million people have sought refuge in Lebanon as of July 2015, 249,726 in Iraq, 1.8 million in Turkey (cf. ibid.) and 629,245 “total persons of concern” (UNHCR 2015) in Jordan; in addition to a death toll of 190,000 by October 2014 (cf. Council on Foreign Relations 2014). Half of the refugees are women and girls, and at least 25 percent are children of seventeen or younger (cf. ibid.).

In addition to the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria, the civil war that wages throughout the country which shows tendencies of spreading to neighboring countries, and which almost did in the case of Iraq, faces a total cultural collapse as all parties engaged in the conflict seek to instate their own heritage over the land and its people they ‘acquire’. These parties could be described as Assad’s forces (the FAA), the ‘moderate’ groups (the FSA among others), more radical groups such as the Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, Kurdish armed groups such as the YPG and finally the ISIL (Daesh). The complexity of the situation simply adds to the hardship for the refugees to find shelter inside the countries where they seek refuge, as they in some cases may be looked upon with suspicion of infiltration by militants into receiving or transit countries.

This seems to be one of the reasons the general public in such countries have anxieties over receiving Syrian refugees. The Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea as one, the Western and Central Mediterranean as another, and the land route (which increasingly becomes harder to follow) going through Turkey, Greece/Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary are three major routes Syrian refugees have to take should they wish to reach European soil (cf. BBC 2015). Measures such as the installation of border fences between Greece and Turkey by the Greek Government (cf. Popp 2014), the controversial razor-wire installations between Hungary and Serbia by the Hungarian Government which are planned to be upgraded to a 4 meter-high fence for 110 miles (cf. Kingsley 2015) are among the attempts to slow down, if not stop the flow of migrants to Europe, which are failing and are condemned to fail as the root causes of the problem remain unaddressed.

Refugee Camps, Smugglers, and Asylum Procedures

Without drifting too deep into policies, as this work will primarily focus on a theoretical analysis in the light of the statistics provided in it, I would like to mention some other points that surely deserve remarks. Thirty-eight European countries recorded 264,000 asylum applications in 2014, 216,300 of those were made in the EU member states, with Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, and the United Kingdom being the top application receiving countries (cf. UNHCR 2015). Turkey responded to over 1 million refugees in 2014 with setting up 22 camps along its borders with the region, where it accommodated 217,000 persons (cf. ibid.). The Mare Nostrum Operation is calculated to have rescued over 100,000 people as of 2015 (cf. ibid.).

Despite these numbers, thousands of lives are still being lost as migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean under inhumane conditions. Smugglers, who are individuals or groups who “offer” trips to Europe from crisis regions and North Africa, are among the perpetrators of these losses, as they give hope to those who are desperate. The UN estimates that 60,000 people have already attempted this journey in 2015, as EU refugee quotas are proposed (cf. BBC 2015). Giampolo Mescumi, who spent two years travelling with traffickers across the world describes the smugglers with the following words: “They are clever. Think of a smuggler as someone who never sleeps and spends 24 hours a day thinking about how to break into Europe. They read newspapers, study European laws, study what Frontex are doing – they will probably even read this piece” (ibid.).

What’s next for Europe?

The EU is at crossroads and its members are either to fulfill their commitments to the Union, or continue the tradition of prioritizing their national interests before the common policies that bind all member states. The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker almost summarizes what I try to convey with his following words:

“What we need, and what we are sadly still lacking, is the collective courage to follow through on our commitments – even when they are not easy; even when they are not popular … Instead what I see is finger pointing – a tired blame game which might win publicity, maybe even votes, but which is not actually solving any problems.” (Emmott 2015)


It is agreed by a vast number of scholars that a coordinated EU response to Middle Eastern and African migration would be more solution-oriented and promising both in terms of reaching a comprehensive plan to combat the struggles that challenge the entire continent and the national interests of the nations, as it would enable the member states to share the responsibility among each other. Terri Givens and Adam Luedtke argue that politics at the national level has determined the success and the nature of various harmonization proposals, by determining the positions of member states when negotiating in the European Council (cf. Givens & Luedtke 2004: 146).

In 2014, Former Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini described the refugee crisis: “This is not an Italian problem” (Der Spiegel, 2014), and she was absolutely right. The vast majority of the migrants simply aim to seek asylum in Europe, mostly in northern member states. However due to its location, Italy presents a “landing spot” for the refugees, which make it a transit country, aside from its destination country role once the asylum seekers file their applications for Italy.

However, the aspirations to establish common policies, although voiced by now the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission in the Juncker Commission Federica Mogherini, the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz (cf. Der Spiegel 2014), and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, conservative and national responses often cause the EU to show itself to be a union which does not yet seem to be any close to achieving harmonized external policies. It is clear at this point that neither Eurosur, Frontex or Mare Nostrum are sufficient to address the problems the EU is facing with its migrants.

What kind of migration?

Europe has a long-standing culture of migration and integration, yet today’s challenges seem almost unique and extremely complex to respond to. The main reason for this could be shown as the European Union itself, as a union of sovereign democracies that are bound by common legislation, executive, and jurisdiction is a first in history.

The intricacy of the EU policies and legislations also add to the hardships of the current situation. This complexity is partly driven by various understandings, expectations, and interests that are shared or contested by its very member states. In an age, where the meaning of citizenship is questioned, and the loyalties of the members of a nation’s society are probed, such as inquiries into the incorporation of Muslims in European societies (cf. Bertossi & Duyvendak 2012: 242).

Whether the distinction between the types of migration fall as short as migrants being labeled “legal” or “illegal”, it is observed that a differentiation between “occupant society” and “the locals” is often made. To ensure the “assimiliation” of the migrants, and to control the inflow of the “foreign persons” (Bauböck 2004: 49), governments often introduce measures to illegalice migration which in itself is described as a threat to the public security, as it indirectly encourages activities which may be seen as human trafficking.

Scholars such as Bloemraad and Schönwälder argue that political incorportation has received far less attention than other integration dynamics, such as incorportation into labor markets or educational systems, and outline that some questions such as “why are certain minority groups more successful than others” should be asked and it must be bared in mind that it takes time for the immigrants to develop the necessary skills in the political systems of their receiving countries, as political careers of would-be politicans are highly dependent on contacts and networks built over time (cf. Bloemraad & Schönwälder 213: 568).


From an idealist point of view, it would be expected that national interests were cast aside, and Europe would have its doors wide-open, which would ensure that the core European values are upheld. This could however cause a global-scale boom in migration, and perhaps even trigger a total economic collapse in Europe. On the other hand, a strict realist approach, which attempts to ensure the “well-being” of the Europeans as a priority and disregard Europe’s historic commitments to its values and basic human rights in this process would prove a xenophobic approach and have terrible effects on the European legacy in the long run.

I believe that decisions that directly affect the lives of millions of people should not and cannot be made by Europe alone, as the situation presents a global challenge all the way from its roots to its indirect consequences around the world. I therefore certainly believe that the humanitarian, the military, the European, the African, and the global aspects of the struggle should be well distanced from each other and debated accordingly, as so far efforts to approach the crisis as a whole have failed terribly, due to a number of reasons. The Theory of International Relations should be accepted as the only way that promises a lasting positive peace and a possible end to the conflict, and should be applied by an international platform that will be able to provide a technocratic yet humane approach, in my opinion.

Heft #38|2015 als .pdf

I. Reşat Özkan is an undergraduate student of Political Science at the University of Vienna, with multiple years of experience in civil society and political engagement. twitter.com/iroresat


(1) Europe: Balkan Countries (regardless of EU membership), EU, Georgia, Moldova, Turkey, and Ukraine.


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