Several European countries have refused proposals for an EU-wide system of refugee quotas. Leaders from countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have also drawn international criticism for publicly questioning the policy of “Christian countries” taking in Muslim refugees.
Only Slovakia has gone so far as stating it will outright refuse to accept non-Christian refugees (in breach of EU law), but others have hinted that they strongly prefer not to take in Muslim refugees. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example, has said his country has the “right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people”, while the Interior Minister of Cyprus confirmed on public radio that Cyprus also prefers to host only Christians (and, ideally, Eastern Orthodox Christians at that).
In Hungary, meanwhile, the government has been overwhelmed by thousands of people fleeing from ISIS and the brutal civil war in Syria. As part of its response to the refugee crisis, Hungary is currently building a 175km-long razor-wire fence to keep people out.
Western European leaders have been quick to condemn both Slovakia’s asylum policy and Hungary’s fence, but they have also been criticised themselves for failing to provide adequate support to those EU countries – like Hungary, Greece, and Italy – that are on the front line of the refugee crisis.
Nevertheless, French President François Hollande recently made a thinly-veiled swipe at both Slovakia and Hungary in particular, saying: “There are some countries that would like to pick and choose the refugees they host in the name of ethics or religion. There are some countries that would like to build walls. What would these countries have thought when the [Berlin] wall came down if we had said: ‘Don’t come, stay where you are, wait.”
We had a comment sent in from Bastian, arguing that he fully supports Hungary’s fence, and adding that he thinks Hungary is the only country in Schengen taking ‘rule of law seriously’ when it comes to the refugee crisis.
To get a response, we took Bastian’s comment to Timothy Kirkhope, a British Conservative MEP and member of the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. What would he say to Bastian’s comment?
We also spoke to Babar Baloch, UNHCR Spokesperson for Central Europe, currently based in Budapest, Hungary. How would he respond?
From UNHCR’s point of view, we think walls and fences are not an answer to a refugee crisis. If there’s an agreement that seeking international protection and asylum is not a crime, then there’s no point putting an obstacle in the way of a refugee population. However, I think Hungary has actually maintained access to their territory. People have been allowed to come in – so far we have seen over 145’000 people who have claimed asylum – but what we are looking for from Hungary is a better process of registration of these people.
But we also go a step further and say that countries like Hungary, Italy, and Greece, should be helped by other European states as well. In our view, no one country can take care of these people single-handedly, so we’re asking for Europe to please come forward and have 200’000 relocation spaces for countries like Greece, Hungary, and Italy, when they register people. This responsibility needs to be shared.
Finally, we’ve had a lot of readers saying they are concerned about the social impact of so many Muslim refugees coming to Europe. This is precisely the argument put forward by countries like Slovakia when they say they would prefer not to accept non-Christian asylum applications. How would Babar Baloch address these concerns?
The principle of asylum goes beyond religion, race, ethnicity, social standing, and things like that. It’s a very basic human right that the international community has agreed upon. We have said that you cannot base your criteria on discrimination, helping one group and refusing another. In terms of the social impact, I say again that it’s a humanitarian consideration. We know that these people are direly in need of international protection.
We see that, throughout the world today, there are 20 million refugees. Not all of them are coming to Europe; in fact, over 90% of the world’s refugee population is hosted in developing or least-developed countries. So, there are 300’000 coming to Europe, and Europe can deal with them, Europe has the resources. But we are looking for the political will and understanding from the general public, because if you come [to Hungary] and go to the border and see women, children, and families that have been through a lot of trauma, we need to find an answer. And I’m sure that everybody, as humans, would like to help. This is the understanding we try to seek.
Are countries like Slovakia wrong to accept only Christian refugees? Do EU Member States have the right to decide they do not want ‘a large number of Muslim people’? Or does the principle of asylum go beyond religion, race, and ethnicity? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!