Fluchthelfers = Flighthelpers…
The meaning of the phrase “refugee crisis” in Europe can be hard to grasp — until you see the photographs.
A Syrian toddler, dead on a Turkish beach, after the boat in which his family was attempting to flee to Europe capsized at sea. Desperate families crowding a Hungarian train station, their children sleeping on floors and sidewalks, fearing Hungary will intern them in sinister-sounding “camps.” Greek tourism towns filling with tents and with humanitarian workers, to accommodate the rickety boats of refugees that arrive daily at the shores.
Today, more than 19 million people have been forced to flee their home countries because of war, persecution, and oppression, and every day an estimated 42,500 more join them. Many, though far from all, of them head for Europe, which is why the crisis there can appear most acute.
There are two layers to this crisis and why it has grown so dire. The first is the sometimes-overlapping web of wars and crises that has forced millions of people from their homes in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere — and that has opened, ever so slightly, a previously closed route to Europe.
The second, and less-discussed, is the increasingly anti-refugee politics in Western and other wealthy countries that are best suited to take them. People in those countries, insecure and fearful over the effects of immigration, preoccupied with vague but long-held ideas about national identity, are driving nativist, populist politics, and thus policies that contribute to the crisis.
The result is that at a time when more people than ever need help, wealthy countries are more reluctant to help them — putting thousands or millions of innocent refugee families in peril.
The biggest driver of the crisis by far is Syria. Four million people, nearly a fifth of Syria’s population, have fled the country since the war began in 2011.
It’s not hard to understand why Syrians are fleeing. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has targeted civilians ruthlessly, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs; ISIS has subjected Syrians to murder, torture, crucifixion, sexual slavery, and other appalling atrocities; and other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have tortured and killed Syrians as well.
Most of these Syrian refugees have ended up in underfunded and crowded camps in neighboring countries. But seeing little future for their families in the camps, and knowing they may never be able to return home, many have decided to set out on the dangerous and uncertain journey for a better life in Europe.
But it’s not just Syria. Older, longer-running conflicts have displaced, for instance, 1.1 million refugees from Somalia and 2.59 million from Afghanistan.
Political and sectarian repression in other countries has contributed as well. Many families in Eritrea, for example, are fleeing the dictatorship there that is sometimes called Africa’s own North Korea. In Myanmar, a Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya has endured brutal violence and ethnic cleansing, sometimes with the tacit support of the Myanmar government or even at the hands of government forces themselves. Fleeing Rohingya made headlines in recent months after thousands became stranded at sea, marooned in dangerous boats because neighboring countries refused to take them in.
Meanwhile, in Central America, gang violence and lawlessness made thousands of families so desperate for their children’s safety that they sent those children on a perilous journey north toward what they hoped would be safety in the United States. Many of their futures remain uncertain.
To be sure, there are also many economic migrants who travel to wealthy countries in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. But their presence doesn’t erase the desperate need of refugees who make the difficult decision to flee with their families, risking drowning in the Mediterranean or dying on the roads because the terrifying dangers of the journey are still preferable to what they face if they stay behind.
As you can see, these crises sending refugees fleeing for safety are not all necessarily related, and indeed many are totally distinct. But the global refugee crisis is more than just a collection of these individual humanitarian disasters. There are a few common elements tying much of them together. One of them is the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-government protests that hit the Middle East in 2011.
For years, the EU kept refugees out of sight and out of mind by paying Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s government to intercept and turn back migrants that were heading for Europe.
Qaddafi was something like Europe’s bouncer, helping to keep the potentially significant number of African migrants and refugees from ever reaching the continent. His methods were terrible: Libya imprisoned migrants in camps where rape and torture were widespread. But Europe was happy to have someone else worrying about the problem.
But then came the Arab Spring. In 2011, Libyans rose up against Qaddafi, Europe and the US eventually intervened, and with Qaddafi’s regime gone, Libya collapsed into chaos. Though the journey through Libya remained dangerous, it was also suddenly open, making it easier for both refugees and economic migrants from across Africa to use the country’s shores as a launching pad for the cross-Mediterranean journey to Europe.
At the same time, the Arab Spring also helped lead to Syria’s war, and to conflict in Yemen, and eventually to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Of course, none of this caused the exodus of refugees from, say, Afghanistan or Myanmar, but the Arab Spring was perhaps the largest single spark of the ongoing, global refugee crisis.
As the crisis has grown, and particularly as more refugees have left camps in places such as Jordan or Myanmar and set out for wealthier countries, the crisis has also become far more difficult to ignore.
It is not merely a matter of swelling numbers of people in far-off refugee camps — although that is happening too, and the camps are in crisis — but of desperate families reaching the shores and borders of Europe.
There are a few reasons that refugees have become more willing to brave the journey to Europe (or to Australia, in the case of some Southeast Asian refugees; or to the US, in the case of Central American refugees). The first is that the crises in their home countries have simply become too dangerous to tolerate. Another is that while many initially fled into camps, those camps have become dangerous as well, and offer little future for families who may spend years there.
This summer, the European Union, United States, and Kuwait respectively pledged $1.2 billion, $507 million, and $500 million for aid to refugees. That’s good, but it’s still far short of the $5.5 billion in aid that the UN says is needed for these refugees, as well as another $2.9 billion for displaced Syrians within Syria. As a result, the camps are often crowded and undersupplied, which leaves the people who live in them cold, hungry, and subject to the ravages of disease.
In the meantime, other crises have opened previously closed routes, for example through Libya. And as the numbers of these refugees have grown, so have the often exploitative smuggling networks that lead the journeys, often for exorbitantly high fees, in dangerous conditions, and with little regard for the safety of their charges.
And so hundreds of thousands of refugees have made their way to Europe, with most crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats and rubber dinghies. Those boats are barely seaworthy, so tragedies are frequent: UNHCR estimates that 2,500 people have died just this summer while attempting to make the crossing.
That influx to wealthy countries makes the crisis seem, for those countries, far more immediate and extreme. When children die in Syria, that rarely grabs the developed world’s attention — sadly, and unjustly, it has come to seem routine. But when they die in the back of trucks in Austria, or in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Greece, that feels much harder to ignore.
Rich countries, in their efforts to deter refugees from reaching their shores, have actively avoided policies that would make the journeys less dangerous, and thus contributed to the danger. Last fall, for instance, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing. The Italian government ended the operation in November. Since then, it has been replaced by the EU’s far more limited Frontex program, which only patrols within 30 miles of the border, and does not have a search-and-rescue mission.
The result, predictably, has been deadly: An estimated 2,500 people have already died so far this summer. This is not an accident. It is the result of European policy meant to keep out refugees.
Within Europe, countries are also trying to restrict refugees from getting to or staying within their borders. Hungary has erected a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia in an effort to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe over land. It also announced new laws that will make it a crime to damage the fence or cross it, and will make illegal border crossing punishable by up to three years in prison. The Hungarian government also shut down train service to Germany in an apparent effort to discourage refugees from using Hungary as a transit country on their way to seek asylum there.
And Austria has now introduced checks along its internal border with the rest of Europe to search for refugees and other immigrants being smuggled into the country. Although the government claims that the checks are a humanitarian measure intended to prevent tragedies like the recent deaths of 71 people who suffocated in the back of a smuggler’s truck, critics have charged that they constitute a violation of the EU’s open-border policy.
Australia, meanwhile, has gone to great lengths to prevent so-called “boat people” from reaching its shores, including imprisoning them in abusive detention centers on remote pacific islands, and shipping them off to Cambodia.
In North America, the US has stepped up enforcement efforts after last year’s child migrant crisis, including sending aid to Central American countries in exchange for efforts to keep children from making the journey to the United States. As with Europe and with other right countries, the whole idea is to keep refugees from showing up in the first place — even though these efforts never solve, or often even address, the underlying crises that cause the refugees in the first place.
For years, the world’s wealthiest countries have, for the most part, steadfastly refused to accept more than the barest possible minimum of the world’s refugees. As a result, now that the crisis is growing out of control, there is no plan in place to handle it, and no agreement on how the burdens should be shared.
The European Union is particularly ill-suited to this. In theory, the EU is supposed to handle refugees collectively, to act sort of like a unified country in the way that, say, the US collectively takes responsibility for refugees who show up in Arizona, rather than making Arizona carry the entire burden. But in practice, most EU member states don’t want to take their fair share, and EU rules mean they don’t technically have to. As a result, the majority of incoming refugees are stuck in the same two or three countries, which quickly became overwhelmed. That is bad for those countries and bad for the refugees.
Part of how this happens is a European Union rule called the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to stay in the first European country they arrive in until their asylum claims are processed. In theory, this rule is a way to prevent applicants from “orbiting” the EU by filing application after application in different countries until one of them finally gets approved. But in practice, it’s a rule that has trapped thousands of refugees in Greece and Italy, simply because those countries are the easiest ones to reach by boat across the Mediterranean. And it’s a rule that many EU countries exploit in order to push much of the burden of handling refugees onto these two countries.
The results have been disastrous. Doctors Without Borders’ Stathis Kyroussis described the current refugee crisis in Greece as the worst he has ever seen: “I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Greek reception centers, where arriving refugees are held, lack sufficient food and health care, and are so severely unsanitary and chronically overcrowded that the conditions in them may amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.
European countries could, and in theory should, accept many of these refugees into their own borders. This would be much better for the refugees, and also healthier for the EU, whose ideals of burden-sharing have been strained nearly to the breaking point by the migrant and refugee influx. But most EU nations are instead acting selfishly to keep refugees out.
Germany, to its credit, recently agreed to suspend application of the Dublin Regulation for Syrian refugees, who will now be permitted to apply for asylum directly in Germany. But the rest of Europe has largely failed to follow Germany’s moral leadership. And while there are now small signs that might be changing — on Friday the UK announced vague plans to accept “thousands” of Syrian refugees — there is as yet no unified EU response, and thus Europe’s status quo remains unfriendly to refugees.
The United States, for its part, has largely ignored the crisis. Thus far it has resettled only 1,434 Syrian refugees, and has pledged to take only a few thousand more. The entire US refugee resettlement program is capped at 70,000 refugees globally — a cap that has remained the same for years, despite the growing crisis.
That problem would be much easier to solve if it were just a question of money. Europe is wealthy, and so are Australia and the United States. There is no doubt that we could bear the costs of resettling and sheltering the refugees who need help, even with their growing numbers. And in the long run, such a program would likely pay for itself: Immigration tends to be a net economic positive for immigrants and their new home countries alike.
But the problem isn’t really about money. Rather, the challenge is about overcoming the domestic political forces that drive nativism, right-wing populism, and anti-immigration policies. The political forces are complex, but they often come down to an anxiety about change.
Taking in large numbers of refugees requires accepting that those refugees might bring changes to a nation’s identity or culture. That is of course often a very good thing: Refugees have been enriching their host countries for generations, improving everything from their snack foods to their scientific discoveries. But accepting them means accepting changes that can feel scary. As Max Fisher wrote, taking in large numbers of refugees means having to modify, ever so slightly, your vision of what your town and neighborhood look like, and having to widen the definition of your community’s culture.
And therein lies the real problem: This crisis has arisen at a time when many people in wealthy countries already feel tremendously threatened by immigration, and by the idea that their towns, communities, and cultures are changing in ways that feel uncomfortable or scary.
That is especially acute within the EU, partly because economic duress has led to the growth of right-wing, populist anti-EU parties that are also anti-immigration, and partly because internal migration within the EU has already heightened populist anxieties about foreigners. And here in the US, Donald Trump has ridden a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to the top of the polls in the GOP presidential primary, which just goes to show how strong those feelings have become.
Political scientist Deborah Schildkraut, who studies immigration and national identity, told me in July that this kind of anti-immigrant populism is often driven by a deep sense of insecurity over demographic change.
Here in the United States, for instance, studies have found that when Americans are shown headlines about the country becoming a majority-minority nation, that makes them more conservative on a host of issues, including those not related to migration. That has fueled Donald Trump’s dizzying rise in popularity this year: As Dara Lind writes, the appeal of his anti-immigrant demagoguery is at root not about jobs or economics, but about fear.
One study found that white Americans are far more comfortable with the idea of immigrants who are like them — for instance, those who are white or Christian, or who come from a European country that feels culturally similar to the US — than with those who do not share their religion, ethnic origin, or cultural background.
In Europe, similar insecurities have driven the rise of anti-immigrant parties and policies. In the UK, where a recent poll found that an astonishing 67 percent of people thought the government should deploy the army to keep immigrants from crossing into the UK through the Channel Tunnel, the polling outfit YouGov concluded recently that “when we think of immigration as an issue, we link it to government failure, economic insecurity and Britain’s decline from greatness.” UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond claimed in August that migrants from Africa were a threat to Europe’s “standard of living and social infrastructure.”
On Thursday, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban defended his government’s harsh treatment of refugees by explicitly calling them a threat to Europe’s Christian identity. “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim,” he said. “Or is it not worrying that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?”
The truth, of course, is that it would never have been possible to freeze any country’s “culture” or “values” in a fixed status quo. Whatever policies Europe has on refugees and migration, culture and social norms there will continue changing, as they always have. But that is part of what often drives the desperation of anti-immigration politics, how they can be so inhumane: Even if they take in zero refugees, they are fighting a losing war.
Unwilling to face this reality, a number of Western countries have taken the attitude that they can ignore the crisis and make it somebody else’s responsibility. The UK wants France to keep refugees away from the UK. France wants Italy to keep refugees away from France. Italy, like Greece, wants the rest of Europe to take its refugees. But pretty much all of Europe agrees that Turkey, which has the largest refugee population on Earth, many of them Syrian, should be handling it.
The United States, for its part, has the resources to resettle more people and a resettlement program with the expertise to do so, but has thus far preferred to ignore its responsibility to the global community, secure in the knowledge that the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean will keep refugees from forcing the matter by showing up unannounced.
With the rare exception of Germany, each country is trying to push the burden on somebody else, which means nobody is actually trying to handle the crisis, which means the crisis is getting worse all the time.
But the crisis is already here. The desperate refugees have to go somewhere. Leaving them to die under barrel bombs, or be persecuted by dictatorships, or to live out their lives for a generation or more in packed refugee camps in Jordan or Turkey or Kos is not a real option, but it’s the option that the world is trying to choose. That’s a failed strategy. And it is simply too high a price to pay to soothe our own insecurities…
On September 2, Ole Seidenberg flicked on the morning news in Berlin and saw an image he still can’t get out of his head: a police officer holding the tiny, limp body of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who had washed up on a Turkish beach while trying to flee by boat to Greece. The photo of the dead boy has since become the most famous symbol of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis.
Seidenberg thought of his own 4-year-old daughter and quickly canceled a holiday in the countryside that he and his wife had planned. Instead, the 32-year-old social entrepreneur decided to take a very different trip: He drove out of Germany, through Austria, and into Hungary to pick up refugees and ferry them back to his home country, a move that would help them gain asylum.
Seidenberg is one of at least 100 Germans who call themselves “Fluchthelfer,” which roughly translates as “escape helpers.” The term has a unique historical resonance in this country. During World War II, German Fluchthelfer helped Jews escape and hide from the Nazis. During the Cold War, they helped East Germans who were trying to escape the communist regime and flee to the West.
Modern-day Fluchthelfer, for their part, are creating an underground railroad to move refugees around Europe — and help those trying to escape war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria gain asylum.
The movement has arisen in reaction to a controversial European Union law called the Dublin Regulation, which states that asylum seekers must have their refugee claims processed in the countries in which they first arrive in Europe.
The law was originally meant to keep immigrants from circulating the continent, applying for asylum in many different countries. But amid the current crisis, with thousands fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya every day, it means that refugees crowd into just a handful of countries: Those who travel via boat tend to end up in Italy and Greece, and those who travel overland through the Balkans tend to turn up in Hungary.
The pile-up has created all sorts of roadblocks for the refugees. Italy and Greece have become so overwhelmed by applicants, immigration officials can’t keep up. Meanwhile, the right-wing government in Hungary has become openly hostile to immigrants, refusing asylum claims and placing immigrants into chainlink pens with inhumane conditions. And because of the Dublin Regulation, refugees can’t pass through Greece, Italy, or Hungary and make it to countries with more generous asylum policies and shorter processing times, like Germany or Sweden.
Critics say the Dublin Regulation is fundamentally flawed: It puts an undue burden on just a few countries, and it means the fates of desperate refugees are determined by accidents of geography. So that’s where the escape helpers come in. If, say, the Fluchthelfer can sneak people from Hungary into Germany, the asylum seekers could have a better chance at gaining refugee status in Europe.
The catch is that this type of human smuggling — though volunteer and unpaid — is obviously illegal, flouting both the Dublin Regulation and human trafficking laws. But escape helpers view what they’re doing as a form of civil disobedience. And despite its illicit nature, the underground railroad remains broadly popular in Germany.
“At the moment, there’s a lot of acceptance in society for Fluchthelfer,” said Max (not his real name) a volunteer with the Peng Collective, an activist group that has helped organize and coordinate more than 100 volunteer escape helpers like Seidenberg. Wearing a blue hoodie and black jeans at Peng’s headquarters, an old factory in a Turkish neighborhood in Berlin, Max explained that he has already driven five groups of refugees across European borders into Germany, and he’ll continue to do so until asylum seekers have the same freedom of movement as other Europeans.
“All the escape-helping movements in the past have been illegal,” he said. “But they were justified in the books of history afterward.”
Ole Seidenberg’s first “escape helper” journey began on September 4. With a friend, he rented a silver Volkswagen Sharan, and left Berlin at night, driving through the Czech Republic and Slovakia to reach Hungary by Saturday morning.
Nothing went as planned. Little did they realize that right as they were driving, European countries were already in the middle of changing the already confusing rules around refugees — a perfect illustration of just how fluid the situation is.
Their original plan was to go to the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, a major transit hub for Europe where immigrants had been arriving from the Middle East. The station had become a “de facto modern refugee camp,” and thousands of asylum seekers had been stranded there for days. The far-right government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, had ordered police officials to bar asylum seekers from getting on trains, even closing down the station at one point. Seidenberg hoped to pick up a refugee family and smuggle them back to Germany.
But that night, an unexpected twist occurred. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she was temporarily loosening her country’s immigration laws: Any Syrian refugees who made it into Germany could apply for asylum. They wouldn’t be deported back to the European country where they’d first arrived. In response, the Hungarian government sent 100 buses to the train station to clear out the asylum seekers and bring them to the Austrian border, where they could then move on to Germany.
By the time they reached the train station — which Seidenberg said smelled like urine and sweat — thousands of refugees had already been loaded onto the buses bound for the border. It seemed like the underground railroad was no longer needed, at least for the refugees at Keleti station.
At that point, the two ran into a pair of Berlin-based computer hackers who were also in Budapest as escape helpers. One of the hackers, Alex (not his real name), told Vox that he had been checking Twitter and trying to figure out where they might be needed. They heard that an area about 31 miles from the Austrian-Hungarian border had become a hotspot, and that if they drove through the countryside toward the border from Budapest, they would find refugees looking for a ride.
The group drove their two cars through Budapest’s streets and on to the refugee hotspot. As they neared the border, Alex said, they saw hundreds of refugees, along with a handful of cars opening their doors. When Seidenberg opened the doors of his Volkswagen, a family from Iraq tried to get in. The car was so full that Seidenberg’s friend had to get out and wait while Seidenberg drove the family to the border.
By 1 am, after ferrying several groups of refugees back and forth — a small effort to make an inhumanely rough refugee journey a little easier — Seidenberg, his friend, and the two Berlin hackers reunited at a gas station on the Austrian side of the Hungarian border. They wanted to figure out their next steps.
There, they spotted a family carrying a bunch of plastic bags, seemingly left behind. The family, originally from Aleppo, Syria, was hesitant to accept a lift. They had just paid 500 euros to traffickers who left them at the gas station in the middle of the night, and were wary of further strangers. “They thought we must be traffickers ourselves,” said Seidenberg. “Why would we appear in the middle of the night in the gas station?”
After a tense negotiation, Seidenberg and his friend agreed to drive three men and three children to Frankfurt. Alex and his driving partner took another three adults who were headed to northern Germany.
In Seidenberg’s car, the refugees fell asleep within 10 minutes. “They were completely exhausted,” Seidenberg says. “They were on their legs 17 days. They had lived in Turkey [in a refugee camp] for 10 months.” From Turkey, they had traveled by boat to Greece and from Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, then Hungary. Seidenberg wondered how they could trust him enough to just fall asleep in his car, but he soon realized that they were so tired, they had no other choice.
Seidenberg also learned that the Syrians were more of a de facto family that had formed in a refugee camp in Turkey than blood relatives. There were three men and three children — 6, 10, and 11 years old. Two of the men were friends, and the other man said he was the uncle of the three children. The hope was that if the kids got asylum in Europe, they could bring their mother over. The man’s own children were with his sister in Turkey. “They have no idea what’s going to happen.”
“We drove through the night, scared, because there were so many police at every gas station,” Seidenberg said. After all, the escape helpers were risking serious consequences. In Austria, they could be fined for smuggling people in this fashion. In Hungary, they could face up to four years in jail. In Germany, they were risking up to 10 years of prison time under trafficking laws.
“It’s funny how you feel criminal although you’re not doing something bad,” Seidenberg said. If he was caught, he planned to negotiate. “I would say, ‘Look, read the news. Do you know what Merkel did?'” He felt confident that he’d be heard out. “How could they put us into jail for helping to drive people?”
And if he did get caught? “Even if I were to be put in jail in Hungary, it’d be such a big thing for the press,” Seidenberg said. “Humans helping humans to do what it is their right is to do: seek asylum in another country instead of just the country they reach first.” He added, “The Dublin Agreement is absurd.”
By Sunday at about 10 in the morning, Seidenberg and the refugees had arrived in Frankfurt. They drove to a Syrian relative’s home, and together ate a breakfast of eggs, feta cheese, and flatbread, and drank many cups of black tea.
Seidenberg has kept in touch with the group of refugees, and learned that they’re now getting their paperwork together to apply for immigration in Germany. “One of them sends me WhatsApp voice recordings all the time to say hello and let me know how he’s doing. It’s really cute,” he says. One of the Syrian refugees will also come to Berlin to spend Christmas with Seidenberg and his family.
About a week after the drive, Merkel reinstated border controls around Germany — the refugee influx had already become too overwhelming. Hungary, meanwhile, had erected a razor-wire fence at the border with Serbia to seal the country from foreigners coming in from the Middle East through the Balkans.
That means the escape helpers have become even busier. “Hungary is closing their borders more and more; there are more controls on the Austrian-Hungarian border,” said Seidenberg. But the escape helpers adapt to these changes, often communicating over encrypted messages. “As the refugees’ routes change, so do the routes of the escape helpers. It’s not going to end.”
What happens next isn’t clear. How will Europe deal with the 19 million people seeking safety and better prospects? Will other European countries follow Germany’s lead and try to be more welcoming?
The situation will only become more dire during the winter, worsening what is already Europe’s most urgent immigration emergency since World War II.
“People are going into the streets, protesting [against accepting more refugees]. They are afraid that with [these refugees] it won’t be their Germany anymore,” Seidenberg said. “But if you go there and meet those people, it washes away anything that could make that anxiety real. These people just left their countries. They need help. Everything else — that they are Muslim, that they come from a different country — it’s not important. You don’t organize a process and then help.”
First, we have to have empathy and help, and then get organized to help some more…