by Ramsha Ahmed
Since the end of World War II, the European region has witnessed a massive influx of migrants. The European Union’s migration crisis, however, truly began in 2015, when over a million refugees (1.3 million) fleeing war-torn Syria, came to the region in search of a safe haven. Europe had not seen such a large influx of refugees in decades. This mass inpouring of migrants into the EU raised (and continues to raise) a number of pertinent questions – from less contentious ones, such as: “what can be done to accommodate these large groups of people?” to extremely controversial ones about whether this wide array of people is a threat to European identity and the security of the Union. In addressing the latter concern, it is also important to take note of EU’s response to Ukrainian refugees in the wake of Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.
European Union and Identity Politics
The need for a single European identity has long been a source of debate. It was seen as a “pre-requisite for a functioning democratic political system” in the EU. However, despite attempts to harmonise and create a unified identity – from the introduction of European citizenship to the creation of a Union flag – there is still ambivalence on the matter. Whether residents of the 27 EU Member states now identify themselves as mainly EU citizens or continue to strongly identify with their nation states is perhaps a separate and longer debate. What is relevant to the migration crisis, however, is the formation of a common European identity in the first place. Primarily because it begs the question: what does this identity mean for those coming into the region from non-EU states? In particular, what does it mean for migrants from Eastern parts of the world, who are far removed from this European identity? Is there a place for Muslims, Jews and Hindus to migrate to the EU in search of equal opportunities and in extreme cases, to seek freedom and protection from persecution? Or will identity politics continue to curtail their freedom of movement?
EU Identity and its impact on Migrants and Refugees
An integral part of EU’s identity is rooted in the infamous motto: “United in Diversity” where all 27 Member States, regardless of their differences, have come together to work for peace and prosperity. Thus, historical national disputes aside, the EU presents a united front on the international stage. Therefore, it also has a shared migration policy, which has evolved particularly following the Syrian migration crisis. For instance, in 2014, the EU set up a Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian crisis. However, when it came to welcoming these migrants into the region, the situation was a bit different.
This can be seen in certain political views prevalent during the time. David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (prior to Brexit), spoke of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” as if they were a nuisance rather than desperate men, women and children fleeing war and impoverishment. There was a clear attitude of distaste in parts of Europe regarding this crisis. This is not to say that officials in the EU legislative bodies did not work to accommodate and aid Syrian refugees, but rather a comment on the general outlook on the matter.
In particular, the idea that many Member States had differing opinions and ways of dealing with this refugee crisis which were difficult to reconcile. It can be concluded that if and when national identity trumped collective EU identity, there was an obvious disparity in the treatment of migrants. For at the core of EU values is lack of discrimination and a recognition of the basic human rights of freedom and security but nationalist arguments of culture devaluation continue to view migrants as a threat to their unique identity.
Migration and EU Security Concerns
Although liberal democratic principles are at the core of EU values, the EU’s security concerns regarding migration are often in conflict with these principles. In particular, a liberal democracy would be welcoming of all peoples, regardless of race, gender or religion. However, many countries in the EU have expressed their desire to have a closed border policy due to fear of migrants. This fear stems from stereotypes regarding Muslims and Africans, for instance, in terms of terrorism and crime.
Since the 1900s, migration has been seen as “a threat to society security.” Border control was proposed as a solution to the EU security threat inherent in migration. This was heightened during 2017 when the EU aimed to “protect” its nations from the threat of outsiders by attempting to have a closed door policy with increased border control. Among the many security concerns posed by migration is the one that an extremely diverse cultural environment can increase the number of ethnic and religious conflicts in the region. Further, the idea that the immigrants will take over their jobs and negatively impact their economy and society as a whole is still rampant in modern EU politics; but how (if at all) has it evolved over the years? Turning to the current war in Ukraine can perhaps provide an answer to this question.
Migration from Ukraine: a crisis?
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, Europe was once again left to address the massive upheaval of a refugee crisis. The European Council immediately condemned Russian aggression and the EU responded by sending aid to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia, thereby playing an active role in minimising this humanitarian crisis. However, when it came to this particular refugee “crisis”, it is essential to note the stark difference in the EU’s treatment of Syrian refugees in 2015 and those coming in from Ukraine.
In keeping with the right to freedom of movement set out by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, EU Member States have been unanimously welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, with prior concerns about security and identity suddenly being put on the back burner. In fact, it is these very concerns that are now presented as reasons for readily accepting Ukrainian refugees. The claim that they share a European identity, for instance, is seen as a legitimate reason for a welcoming attitude. When addressing the matter, Kiril Petkov, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, bluntly stated: “This is not the refugee wave we have been used to—people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts.”
Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, also chimed in with a similar stance about how every single Ukrainian refugee was welcome in Hungary; which was vastly different than his general anti-immigration attitude. Ultimately, the idea that none of the European countries feels the need to worry about these particular refugees is inextricably tied to identity politics and security concerns. Most of the countries that have been anti-migration – namely, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic– have suddenly began accepting Ukrainian migrants. The Temporary Protection Directive, adopted in 2001, was also activated by the EU for the first time in two decades in order to help accommodate the Ukrainian refugees. Why was this measure not necessary during the 2015 migrant “crisis”? Is it a reflection of European double standards or can it realistically be claimed that the war in Ukraine is perhaps more pressing than that in Syria?