On Monday, E.U. governments fell short of meeting their goal of resettling 40,000 refugees currently in Italy and Greece to other European countries. Because commitments were voluntary, several countries refused to take any, and others took considerably less than what was originally proposed in May. Only 32,256 refugees were accounted for, plus a separate 22,504 from camps outside of Europe.
A main point of contention was that humanitarian sentiment aside, this is not a one-off issue; more immigrants will arrive in the future and some European countries (particularly those with high unemployment) are not willing to foot the bill for never-ending needy arrivals. Greece, which is being wracked by economic turmoil, can hardly be expected to adequately provide for the approximately 1,000 additional refugees that the International Office of Migration estimates will arrive every day. (The UNHCR estimated that 77,000 have arrived in Greece by sea this year.) Spain, where unemployment is over 22% (and nearly 50% for youth), agreed to accept only 1,300 refugees — several thousand short of its suggested quota.
Several central and eastern European countries are explicit about religious and cultural differences being behind their refusal to embrace these refugees, most of whom are Muslims from Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has argued that Christian arrivals are less likely to stir fears among the local population, whereas terrorists might try to mingle among Muslim refugees. (Slovakia is one of the countries with the lowest acceptance of asylum seekers; 14 people were given formal refugee status in the past year out of 331 applicants.)
Far-right and nationalist groups have also demonstrated in central and eastern Europe in recent weeks “against the Islamisation of Europe.” (A Czech group calling itself the Bloc Against Islam managed to collect 145,000 signatures on a petition against Muslim immigrants.) And government stances are often influenced by those sentiments. Referring to North Africans, Czech President Milos Zeman was quoted by a spokesman as saying “Refugees from a completely different cultural background would not be in a good position in the Czech Republic,” in contrast to “culturally close” immigrants like eastern European Slavs and Syrian Christians.
But mentioned nowhere is the hostility of wealthy Muslim countries (notably Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, members) towards Muslim immigrants. For example, from 2009 to 2013 over 259,000 Pakistanis were deported from four “brotherly Islamic” countries: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Oman. Saudi Arabia, which has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system, announced last October that it would deport more than one million people who live and work illegally in the kingdom. It deported more than 122,000 Pakistanis from 2009 to 2013, and last March Riyadh stated that it had deported over 370,000 foreign workers in the previous five months. (Other GCC countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain have followed Riyadh’s lead in expelling undocumented workers.) Granted, in many GCC countries foreign nationals already make up the majority of the population, and face discrimination and often dismal working conditions. But the sheikhs and emirs could spare plenty of oil wealth to provide for their co-religionists, and for some refugees Saudi Arabia is much closer than Europe, both geographically and culturally.
It’s a mistake to think that Europe can solve the Middle East and North Africa’s refugee crises on its own. Perhaps a joint E.U.-GCC refugee resettlement agreement, if one could ever be reached, would be the best long-term solution.