A testing time for Europe

A rubber boat carrying migrants and refugees arrives from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos

The hottest news topics in Europe this summer have been the Greek crisis and the refugee drama.

Both the crises which dominated the summer headlines ultimately present the same challenge: solidarity within the EU and solidarity with people fleeing from war, discrimination and misery. On the Greek Aegean islands, both crises came into a frontal collision. With the adoption of a new aid package, Greece’s exit from the Eurozone appears to have been averted, at least for the time being. In an interview given on 16 August the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, expressed her opinion that the question of dealing with refugees will in the long term occupy more of Europe’s attention than either the Greek question or the stability of the euro.

The number of people seeking refuge or asylum in Europe has reached record highs. Yet, at the same time, we see about 60 million people fleeing worldwide, but only just under 4% of them end up in EU countries. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall new walls and fences are now being erected in Europe, along the borders between Hungary and Serbia, between Bulgaria and Turkey, and in Calais on the French side of the Eurotunnel. But defence measures and deterrents cannot constitute a valid refugee policy. The fact that EU countries are not managing to reach agreement even on binding quotas to share out 40.000 refugees among them is an indictment of Europe’s incapacity to manage this crisis.

The global movement of refugees is the symptom of a more deep-rooted disease. The way the world community organises itself is under scrutiny. This was made abundantly clear in an impressive manner by Pope Francis in Bolivia on 10 July 2015 during his address to the popular movements. He opposed a system “that has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature”. This system was no longer acceptable, he said; the structures need to be changed.

The Pope denounced old and new colonialism, which reduces the poor countries to mere suppliers of raw materials and cheap labour and generates violence, poverty and misery, as well as forced migration. Human suffering has a face: “the faces of the endangered ‘campesino’, the poor labourer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, the exploited child, the mother who lost her child in a shoot-out because the barrio was occupied by drug dealers, the father who lost his daughter to enslavement… when we think of all these names and faces, our hearts break because of so much sorrow and pain. And we are deeply moved, all of us.”

Pope Francis describes here the reality of life that drives people to flee. Last August a photo went round the whole world of Laith Majid, who had fled with his family from Syria, arriving in tears on the beach of the Greek island of Kos, his little daughter in his arms. Refugees have names and faces. Sometimes it is a good idea for us to recall the words of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states the following in its preamble: “Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity”. These words apply in the current situation too, especially to refugees and to asylum-seekers.

Martin Maier SJ