U.S. needs to shoulder a bigger share of the burden, expert says at Vienna panel discussion on refugee policy

Refugee experts speaking Sunday during a panel discussion at the Burgtheater in Vienna may not have directly addressed the political context, but the big gains made by Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) in three state elections show that the pressure is on to find a European solution to refugee crisis.

The elections were characterized as a referendum on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, with protest votes propelling the AfD into the legislature in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate. A renewed surge of refugees this coming summer could give the AfD — along with similar parties in other countries — even more traction in upcoming elections.

Anti-refugee demonstrators march near the Austria-Slovenia border near Spielfeld in November 2015. (photo by author)
Anti-refugee demonstrators march near the Austria-Slovenia border near Spielfeld in November 2015. (photo by author)

Right-wing populist leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are just waiting for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of welcoming refugees to fail. Such a failure would represent an opportunity for right-wing authoritarian parties to grasp more power across Europe, said panelist Gerhard Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank that helps shape regional refugee policy.

Has compassion yielded to fear?

With yet another summit approaching, panelist Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Europe must stand firm against political pressure from the right.

“The focus should be on protecting people, not borders,” said Fleming. Referring to a massive Oct. 3, 2015 rally at Vienna’s Heldenplatz, Fleming said it wasn’t so long ago that compassion was winning over fear. “Now, fear is winning, but surveys show there’s still a lot of compassion in Europe. It’s just not well organized,” Fleming said, urging Europe to look in the mirror before it’s too late.

The panel discussion, sponsored by the ERSTE Foundation, Der Standard and the Institut for Human Sciences, was aimed at trying to find ways to deal with the growing global flow of displaced people and, more specifically, several million Syrian war refugees who have sought asylum in Europe over the past year.

Along with Fleming, the session featured Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Kilian Kleinschmidt, adviser to the Austrian government in refugee issues, Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative and Randall Hansen, political scientist at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

The U.S. needs to “step up to the plate”

Hansen, one of the world’s top academic experts on refugees and migration, drew the biggest round of applause during the discussion when he said that the United States must play a bigger role in dealing with the refugee crisis.

“The United States largely created this problem,”  he said, “through an illegal, immoral and absolutely unnecessary invasion of Iraq that destabilized the state system in the Middle East,” led to the refugee crisis and the emergence of ISIS. He believes the U.S. needs to take responsibility for those consequences.

“Fifty percent of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18. We have millions of young people … in refugee camps who disappear into the cities, who have no hope, no perspective, no education,” Hansen continued. “And the demagogues of the world, like Donald Trump, and even some sensible people … raise concerns about the security threat of refugees.”

Leave millions of young men in the global south with no hope, no education, no future [and] you will have a security crisis. I will guarantee you it will come home to Europe and North America.

– Randall Hansen, political scientist,
Munk School of Global Affairs
at the University of Toronto

What should the EU do in the short-term and long-term?

An Austrian soldier watches warily as a youngster tries to engage him play at the border of Austria and Slovenia near Spielfeld in November 2015. (photo by author)
An Austrian soldier watches warily as a youngster tries to engage him play at the border of Austria and Slovenia near Spielfeld in November 2015. (photo by author)

Overall, the European Union need to be bolstered against political crises, said Johannes Hahn, a former Austrian government official who now is the EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.

“The EU is a fair-weather institution,” Hahn said. “When it gets stormy, we reach our institutional limits,” he said. Securing Europe’s external border should be a high priority because it would citizens a greater sense of security, which in turn could give governments more room to negotiate a pan-European solution to the refugee crisis.

Europe and the rest of the world  could also do more to address the refugee and migration issue at a proactive structural level, said Kilian Kleinschmidt, an advisor to the Austrian government in refugee issues. He believes the money now used for development aid in the global south should be redirected toward addressing some of the economic root causes of the refugee crisis and the larger issue of economic migration. The fact that the problems are growing is a clear sign that global economic inequality has not been addressed in a meaningful way, Kleinschmidt said.


[A previously published version of this article stated incorrectly that the panel discussion was held in the Hofburg. The event was held at the Burgtheater.]

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Bob Berwyn is a journalist, student of life and world citizen and living in Vienna after 20 years reporting on the environment in the mountains of Colorado.