The Slatest

Europe Refugee System Breaking Down as Winter “Catastrophe” Looms

Slovenian soldiers build a razor wire fence on the Slovenian-Croatian border in Gibina, northeastern Slovenia, on Nov. 11, 2015.

Photo by Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

EU leaders warned this week of a coming humanitarian “catastrophe” as winter approaches, with tens of thousands of migrants and refugees traveling through the Balkans trying to reach Europe. The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, is distributing survival packages including blankets and sleeping bags but says its resources are limited and there are reports of fights breaking out over blankets as temperature begin to drop.

How have things gotten this bad? The EU reached a resettlement plan in September that would redistribute 120,000 refugees throughout the bloc’s 28 members, but only about 100 have been moved so far. Even if the plan were fully implemented, it would be inadequate: 770,000 people have reached Europe by sea this year, 220,000 of them in October alone.

Any semblance of unity on addressing the crisis seems to be breaking down. Germany declared this week that it would send refugees back to the first EU country they entered under the EU’s controversial Dublin system, which holds refugees’ country of first arrival responsible for their claims. The foreign minister of Hungary, a major point of arrival for refugees, rejecting this, declared the Dublin system “dead.”

Slovenia became the latest European country to erect a border fence this week, setting up razor wire along part of its frontier with Croatia to control migration. About 180,000 people making their way to northern Europe have entered the country since mid-October, many of them diverted by Hungary’s own border fence. This week also brought news of a hunger strike at a detention center for asylum-seekers in the Czech Republic. The country, which has seen fewer arrivals than other countries in Eastern Europe, has been criticized for its detention of people making their way through the country to Germany.

The crisis is growing more acute in Western Europe as well. This week Sweden, one of the most popular destination countries along with Germany, called in its military to help manage the influx because its civilian agencies are overwhelmed. In France, clashes between police firing tear gas and residents of a makeshift camp in Calais known as the “jungle,” throwing objects and lighting fires, have gone on for three straight nights.

These events on the ground have largely overshadowed an EU-Africa migration summit held in Malta this week. EU countries are likely to offer African governments aid in exchange for their help in stemming the flow of migrants, many of whom have made the dangerous crossing across war-torn Libya and the Mediterranean. But while African migrants have been arriving in larger numbers and the aid may be generally worthwhile, the conference feels a little beside the point given that the major increase in arrivals this year has been driven by refugees from conflicts in the Middle East.

“There is a risk of collapse,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said this week of the joint European response to the crisis. “If we don’t manage to create common instruments to deal with this on a European level, we fall back on the illusion that we can face it through national instruments, which we see very clearly doesn’t work.”