Closing Europe’s borders is not the solution to the refugee crisis, but it might help open a real discussion about it.

by Dardis McNamee and Gregory Weeks

On January 18th, the eve of the EU Asylum Summit in Vienna, Austria’s Chancellor Werner Faymann announced that Austria would be suspending the Schengen Agreement and policing its borders again.

It has been an agonizing turn-around for the socialist chancellor, who as recently as December, refused to set limits on taking new refugees.

Events in Cologne, Germany, changed all that. There have now been 531 criminal complaints following the New Year’s Eve assaults on women at the Cologne Central Train Station, including sexual molestation and rape, fundamentally altering the European debate about migration and refugees. The 28 member countries of the European Union are now faced with a dilemma: Can they limit the numbers while maintaining the humanitarian principles of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention?

After initial praise, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has since taken a political pounding for her “culture of welcome”. But the problem remains: How many refugees can or should Europe take?

While Germany, Austria and Sweden have been the prime destinations for those fleeing Afghanistan and Syria, in the end, every single EU member state will be affected. The chaos of Europe’s indecision has been damaging to the Union, revealing the weaknesses inherent in having only a patchwork Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Jobs, but not only

As the Summit opened, Austria had implemented a total cap of 127,500 refugees through the end of 2019. But setting caps and closing the borders will not stop the flow. They will simply shift the problem elsewhere.

Still, the debate is about much more than that. The raw numbers combined with the profound cultural and religious differences have created an explosive mix that Europe’s leaders will be forced to confront if they want to limit the rise of the far right.  The weak economy, as well as the threat of “migrant terrorism,” add fuel to the fire.

As a result, attitudes towards migration are starting to harden in Europe.

Women particularly are afraid, and rightly so. Again, it is the numbers: According to UNHCR, Over 70% of the refugees are young Islamic men between 15 and 30, from countries where women have little autonomy and few political rights. The horrific events in Cologne revealed a deep contempt for European women whom, according to police reports, they viewed as little more than playthings.

Even more disconcerting, officials suggest the attacks appear to have been planned in advance, and the police unprepared for the extent of the aggression. As a result, applications for gun permits in Austria have quadrupled, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Chancellor Faymann’s suspension of Schengen and closing of the borders is only the last in a string of moves designed to regain control of the situation.  Closing the borders, it is argued, could actually be seen as humanitarian, as the number of migrants would otherwise soon exceed Austria’s ability to care for them.

Refugees will change society

The problems for women are only the beginning of what Europe will experience as it takes in refugees.  The very fabric of European society is already changing: As the EU has tried to honor the Geneva-Convention rights for refugees from war zones, it risks eroding the rights, safety, and security of its own female citizens and the broader values of all Austrians.

A police-state atmosphere is developing on the EU’s external borders. Hungary has built a fence, and Austria is doing the same. Where will this lead? First, closing borders will end freedom of movement, a feature of the European project since the 1950s. Germany’s Foreign Minister Thomas de Maizière warned back in August, 2015, that Schengen may be unsustainable; a permanent reintroduction of border controls would put the EU back 20 years.

Migration will change us – this is the hard truth. We must also face the evidence of terrorist acts by second-generation migrants, that even apparently successful integration is no guarantee against violence. What we do next, will determine the future of Europe. If we are smart, this crisis can be the making of the EU. Open discussion has at least begun.

As Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said last September, “We knew from the beginning that we were not going to be able to take everyone.”


Gregory Weeks

Co-Author Dr. Gregory Weeks is the Founder of HSI, The Human Security Initiative in Vienna, Austria. The Human Security Initiative is an academic platform for research and publication on the concept of Human Security. It touches on the main aspects of Human Security with articles published by students and scholars of International Relations.



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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic