Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 January 2020

Year in review 2015: The migrant crisis - tales of personal tragedy and political chaos

They have crossed treacherous seas in unseaworthy boats, trampled through dark forests carrying their worldly possessions on their backs. They have boarded crowded trains, walked miles along lonely motorways, slept rough, given birth to children in undignified squalor. Many have arrived at Europe’s door bloodied but unbowed; many have died trying to get in.

Trafficked by human smugglers, they have endured privations that have shamed an entire continent. Some have been stuffed into the backs of lorries and asphyxiated. Others have drowned in the Mediterranean, fallen from trains or frozen to death clinging to the undersides of lorries. Fleeing bloodshed and chaos at home, they have made extraordinary journeys that have tested the human spirit almost to destruction.

Who are they, this tide of humanity surging into Europe? For some Europeans they are unwelcome arrivals, economic migrants best deterred by a regime of border fences, razor-wire and deportations. Others welcome them as refugees and fellow human beings caught up in a terrible cycle of violence not of their own making.

A thousand years ago the great cities of the Muslim world attracted migrants in their droves. When Europe was a backwater, Baghdad under the Abbasids could boast of being the greatest city on Earth. Rich, dynamic and sophisticated, metropolises like Damascus, Cordoba, Fes, later Cairo, Jerusalem, Samarkand, Kabul and Isfahan all drew in migrants from every corner of the world.

Today the situation is reversed. The lion’s share of migrants desperately trying to make their way to Europe come from some of the most violent and benighted countries of the Muslim world – from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea. The explosive arrival of ISIL in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the regional instability, sending ever-greater flows of refugee-migrants west to an uncertain future.

If 2015 was the year of a migration crisis unprecedented in modern times, the greatest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War, here’s how the situation could evolve in 2016:

Populist western politicians will continue to make capital from the crisis

These are good times to be a populist. In America the leading Republican presidential contender Donald Trump threatened to repatriate any Syrian refugee accepted into the US. “If I win, they’re going back,” he said in October, neatly reversing his earlier position that the US needed to accept more refugees. Expect a lot more of this. Think the anti-immigration National Front in France, Ukip in the UK, Pegida in Germany, Law and Justice in Poland, Sweden Democrats Party, the Danish People’s Party and others. As Morgan Johansson, Sweden’s immigration minister, said recently: “We haven’t heard rhetoric like this in Europe since the 1930s. It really worries me.” One reason we can expect to hear more in this vein is that wherever there’s an election, there’s a migration crisis to exploit. Austria and Portugal hold presidential elections in 2016, Ireland has a general election and there are parliamentary, state and assembly elections in Georgia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Lithuania, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Germany.

The migration issue will be linked increasingly to terrorism

One man’s refugee is another man’s economic migrant is another man’s terrorist in the making. If that sounds excessive, listen to Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán: “Of course it’s not accepted, but the factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants,” he said in November. “The question is when they migrated to the European Union.” Fears about fake Syrian passports and the ease of movement of the Paris suicide bombers between Europe and Syria have added grist to the migrants-as-potential-terrorists mill. Headline-loving Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US after a husband and wife killed 14 people in a local government office in San Bernardino, California.

Chancellor Merkel’s political fate will be decided by the migration crisis

For years she has been the indomitable European leader, the unruffled and supremely pragmatic Frau Merkel to whom other EU premiers defer and the sensible Mutti to her domestic audience. Then, earlier this summer in a move many branded “reckless”, she suddenly announced that Germany would welcome more than 800,000 new migrants by the end of 2015 and would refuse to cap the number – only later to reinstate border controls and return to existing rules on asylum. Cue much German soul-searching, vociferous criticism from Merkel’s opponents and the increasingly voiced suggestion that she may not stand for another term in 2017. How Germany copes with the challenge of housing, educating and employing up to 1.5 million new migrants will go a long way to deciding whether she does.

Pressure will grow on Middle Eastern governments to resolve the regional crisis

Perceptions may be unfair, but from Europe the distinct impression is that Arab governments are not doing enough to help resolve the Syrian catastrophe that lies at the heart of the migration crisis. While Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have borne the brunt of welcoming fleeing Syrians, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq stand accused of doing too little to combat ISIL. If air power is insufficient to destroy the group and if Western “boots on the ground” are neither desirable nor effective, who – apart from the Kurds – is going to do the fighting to dislodge the most noxious authority in the Middle East?

The EU will look more irrelevant than ever to its citizens

Striking a balance between common humanity and protection of its borders has proved a challenge too far for Brussels. The EU’s failure to respond effectively to the crisis has allowed a growing wedge to appear between New Europe in the east and Old Europe in the west, not to mention the divide between rulers and the ruled. With age-old memories of the Ottoman Empire stirred up by the crisis, countries like Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic regard an influx of largely Muslim refugees and migrants as destabilising. They have not taken kindly to patronising admonition from Brussels bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the Schengen Agreement allowing free movement within the EU is under pressure like never before.

It’s Christian Europe against the Muslim Middle East all over again

From Poland, Hungary and Holland to Greece, Denmark and Slovakia, fears of an “Islamic invasion” of migrants have been heartily expressed by politicians, feeding into an ancient trope of Christendom versus the Saracens. The narrative will be given added impetus by the clamour of Islamic extremists on one side and European far right movements on the other, assiduously reported by an excitable media. The majority of Europeans, however, Christian, Muslim and otherwise, will continue to reject the stereotypes.

Prospects for peace in Syria are just about improving but the migrants will still come

After almost five years and more than 200,000 killed, Syria desperately needs peace. Russia’s entry into the fray, however controversial, may make that more likely now. Tentative diplomatic efforts to resolve the civil war are under way, bringing the US and Iran around the same table. The road ahead will be long and bloody but a modest start has been made, albeit unforgivably late. Syrian migrants will continue to flee their ravaged nation and travel west until they have a safe and secure country to live in.

ISIL will have a bad year

The honeymoon is over for ISIL. They have lost their shock value and disgust and appall audiences in Europe and the Middle East. Though their efforts to eliminate diversity, tolerance, and understanding between faiths have been boosted in the short term by attacks such as the Paris attacks, ultimately they will be defeated by a combination of Arab, western and people power. Islamist revivalist movements always fizzle out, not with a bang but a whimper.

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, winner of the 2015 Ondaatje Prize.

Updated: December 26, 2015 04:00 AM