Over the centuries, Europe has had a strained relationship with its minority communities. What will the influx of Middle Eastern refugees mean for a continent eager to reconnect with its historic roots?
"Europe will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War. The ongoing refugee crisis, combined with Ukraine's conflict with Russia, saw governments plan and construct border walls and security fences across the continent in 2015.… Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 40 countries around the world have built fences against more than 60 of their neighbours. The majority have cited security concerns and the prevention of illegal migration as justifications."
"More neighbours make more fences," The Economist, January 7, 2016
Disconcerting and horrific images of an extraordinary modern phenomenon continue to dominate our television screens and haunt our memories: the mass migration of hundreds of thousands of desperate people forcing their way from war-torn Muslim nations into Europe—a migration that shows no sign of stopping.
Small inflatable rubber boats, packed precariously to overflowing with migrants cheating death to cross the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas; crowds of frustrated and hungry people incensed by attempts of officials to contain and control them; snaking columns of migrants plodding resolutely along roads and pathways, across fields and down railroad tracks; thwarted migrants enraged by razor-wire fences blocking their passage to freedom; the emotional relief of distressed fathers and distraught mothers, along with their precious children, to be on safe ground at last.
Who can forget April 2015, during which five boats carrying almost 2,000 migrants sank near Lampedusa (an Italian island southwest of Sicily) and 1,200 people drowned; or August 27, when an abandoned and foul-smelling truck on a highway in Austria was found to contain 71 deceased migrants, including several children; or the harrowing picture in September of the lifeless body of little Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who was washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea near Bodrum, Turkey?
Nearly 4,000 people tragically drowned during 2015 in their struggle to reach Europe. People traffickers and organized crime played a major part in this lucrative, illegal movement of peoples, with scant regard for safety. Yet they keep on coming and a relentless, seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of humanity continues its passage to Europe.
In 2015, more than one million came by illegal routes mainly through the EU member countries of Greece, Bulgaria and Italy (with a few coming through Spain, Malta and Cyprus). In January, the flow (50,000 for the month) showed no sign of abating even as weather deteriorated, temperatures plunged, people became ill and many others tragically drowned. The UN has predicted yet another million will likely arrive in 2016, while the EU Commission suggested it could be as many as 3 million more.
The media unsurprisingly dubbed 2015 the "Year of the Migrant," as a veritable exodus of biblical proportions continued to dominate world headlines. Migration into Europe became a virtual tsunami, as desperate people, consumed with escaping the violence and privation of their native countries, came looking for a better life for themselves and their families.
This mass migration has become Europe's defining political challenge, creating huge stresses, major political divisions, and incessant squabbling about how best to deal with and resolve the crisis. And, it understandably raises important questions. Why is this vast migration happening and what are its causes? In what ways will its impact change Europe? And can we place this extraordinary movement of peoples in a wider biblical context? These are the questions we will examine in the rest of this article.
There has always been a healthy level of legal and managed immigration into the nations of Europe, but this current migration is entirely different and bypasses normal immigration procedures. It is composed entirely of irregular, "illegal" immigrants, who come in the desperate hope that they will not be turned away. It is part of an ongoing and worsening crisis—part genuine refugees fleeing for their lives, and part economic migrants seeking a more prosperous life.
Between 2007 and 2011, large numbers of illegal immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia attempted to reach Europe via Turkey and Greece, but the construction of a border fence between these two countries effectively closed the door to that route. Boat voyages then became the norm for migrants desperately hoping for a safer, peaceful and more prosperous life elsewhere. The aftermath of the Libyan Revolution in 2011, in particular, generated a marked increase in migrant traffic from the Libyan coastline across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy—a route deemed the deadliest in the world.
After a notable migrant shipwreck in 2013 near Lampedusa, which resulted in more than 360 migrant deaths, the Italian government established a large-scale naval operation involving search and rescue. After this operation exhausted available Italian funds, the EU frontier agency Frontex took on the task. However, both operations were marred by lack of funds, as some EU member nations objected, based on fears that the operation would encourage even more people to make the dangerous crossing and lead to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. In 2015, the EU decided to launch a new border-control operation for the Mediterranean in order to more effectively deal with the problem.
Despite that, and despite the major lessening of Mediterranean traffic from North Africa as better ways of reaching Europe were found, overall numbers of migrants have continued to increase massively. The route of current preference is through Turkey into Greece by boat, and from there the overland journey into southeast Europe. For many, the preferred destination is Germany, especially after Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that her country would effectively have an open-door policy, accepting everyone who wanted to come. Unsurprisingly, the flow of migrants dramatically quickened as the news spread; it represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fresh start and a more prosperous future.
Getting an accurate grip on numbers can be confusing and challenging as the crisis remains fast moving, but latest figures at the time of writing suggest that 821,000 migrants arrived through Greece in 2015, nearly all by boat. A further 150,000 arrived in Italy, also by boat, while over 30,000 traveled overland from Turkey via Bulgaria. In the main, they come from war-ravaged, failed societies where competent and consensual government has collapsed to be replaced by the bomb and the bullet, and where hatred and enmity thrive on an epic scale.
The progression of the so-called Arab Spring across North Africa, beginning with Tunisia in December 2010, then through Libya, Egypt, Yemen, the Gulf States and then into Syria, led to extensive internal conflict and in some cases governmental collapse in each of these countries. What began as protests against poverty and rising food prices in Algeria, against autocratic rule in Libya (leading to the demise of Colonel Gadhafi) and in Egypt with the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, soon became a struggle for the Islamic soul, and initiated a series of crises across these nations.
The continuing meltdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as African conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria, have also contributed to the migration situation. However, the events in Syria have unleashed the greatest numbers of migrants.
What began as a civil uprising in 2011 soon became an armed rebellion, and then turned to outright civil war. In 2013, jihadi groups formed the extreme Sunni Islamic State (IS) and established an Islamist caliphate in northern Syria stretching into Iraq. This greatly added to the violence, repression and to people's fears. In 2015, overall violence increased as Turkey joined the aerial fight against Assad, and Russia intervened with air power to prop up Assad against both IS and the growing Free Syrian Army coalition. What had begun as a major U.S.-led military coalition of aerial bombing in Iraq soon expanded to include Syria in an attempt to degrade and destroy the barbaric Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq, avoiding so far the need to put "boots on the ground."
By the end of 2015, some 250,000 Syrians had died in the war. By some estimates, as many as 9 million Syrians had been displaced from their homes, with 4 million having left the country—2 million to Turkey; more than a million to Lebanon and 630,000 in Jordanian refugee camps. It is from this catastrophic reality that people are fleeing to Europe for a fresh start to their lives.
All this has the potential to transform Europe in many ways, some rather obvious, and some that are harder to predict. Clearly, however, the migrant crisis threatens the very survival of the EU in its current form.
Following Chancellor Merkel's compassionate example, Germany has been recast as more caring, more welcoming, more self-confident and strong and this has had a positive effect on other EU countries. Positive or not, however, the strains on housing, social services, education and employment availability are showing, and will only grow much worse. The crisis is attracting increasing levels of criticism for being overly soft on migrants. Chancellor Merkel is playing with fire and has had to toughen up her policies. If things take a turn for the worse, as may well happen, the German electorate may turn against her.
The EU, and Germany, will have to radically slow down the migrant flow before the EU comes apart at the seams. Initially, all Syrian migrants were automatically classified as refugees deserving of being granted asylum, but this may well change as European nations react to being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees. Far tougher and speedier policies are being introduced, registering, sorting and settling migrants, and tightening social benefits. "Economic" migrants seeking greater wealth rather than refuge, especially those coming from largely peaceful areas, are increasingly being refused asylum status and sent elsewhere. Migrants who flout the law, as several hundred did on New Year's Eve, with robbery and sexual attacks in several German cities, will not be tolerated.
What we are starting to see implemented are far stronger measures to strengthen the EU's external borders. If the almost sacrosanct free movement of peoples across Europe is to be preserved (viz. the Schengen Agreement of a passport-free, borderless area shared by 26 European nations), there must be secure external borders. If borders cannot be made secure, migrants will continue to pour in and threaten national stability, which could lead to the EU tearing itself apart. We have already seen temporary suspension of the Schengen Agreement, with national border fences being erected, and tighter national border controls established. Britain (an island, and non-member of Schengen), for example, has almost completely blocked migrants coming from France via Calais and the Channel Tunnel, while accepting migrants it chooses directly from refugee camps in and around Syria.
The EU wants to establish a centralized migrant quota system whereby the number of migrants is more fairly shared among member countries, but this has met with much opposition. How the EU deals with this thorny issue will determine whether the EU survives in its current form or not. The challenge of financing the migrant crisis equitably is another hot issue, with responses widely varying between member nations.
Most migrants entering the EU are Muslims by religion. The addition of potentially one to three million more Muslims within the area of the EU holds enormous political, social and security consequences. Most Muslims, of course, are law-abiding and responsible people, who are hard working and make upright citizens. Even so, they will take time to assimilate and adjust to living in the EU. However, a small minority may hold more extreme views. A great lesson of the appalling Paris atrocity was that some terrorists had entered Europe masquerading as migrants. Is Europe unwittingly stoking the fires of future terrorist outrages? This possibility no doubt keeps some officials awake at night, and will require utmost vigilance.
Yet another urgent political priority is how the EU can address the fundamental problems in the migrants' home countries that kicked off the migration crisis in the first place. This requires enormous vision, sound thinking and may involve substantial economic and even military assistance where necessary. Expect to see more EU—and more German—initiatives in this area in the months ahead.
In his September 2015 State of the Union Address, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made farsighted and wide-ranging comments about the future direction and performance of the EU. He called for more politics, more Europe and more Union. He called for much more reform, faster progress on many fronts, and better management—particularly of the migrant crisis. Measures for a stronger single currency, a more competitive economy, a stronger presence in the world, and a fair deal for the UK were all highlighted. Widely anticipated, but being held under wraps until 2017, are as yet little-publicized EU plans for a major treaty provision defining an inner core of nations happy with the idea of a federal Europe, and an outer fringe of nations with a looser arrangement. Europe is changing fast and the migrant crisis has begun to act as a major catalyst for such change.
The UK, which is extremely sensitive to the issue of immigration, will hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to continue as part of the EU. Britain's putative departure would have an enormous impact on the EU as well as the UK itself. A British exit (sometimes called a "Brexit") would likely intensify Scottish Nationalist calls to leave the UK and go it alone, yet remain within the EU.
In this environment, the very survival of the EU in its current form is threatened from multiple sides. In particular, a strong Germany will provide stiff opposition to any policies that destabilize the union and that punish the EU's strongest nation in order to subsidize the weak. Given a sufficient crisis, a "core" group of the current EU nations could readily separate itself and become a powerful European nationalist force, shifting to the political right in reaction against external economic and religious forces seen as alien to Europe's historical roots.
From a scriptural perspective, all this speaks to the approaching end of an age: a time of "wars and commotions" (Luke 21:9), a time of growing "distress of nations" (v. 25). The European migrant crisis is a direct result of wars—of humanity's inability to sort out its affairs peaceably. Yet this is part of an even wider picture of global malaise and distress. According to the UN, at the end of 2015 there were 60 million forcibly displaced people worldwide—the highest level since World War II! Signs are that things are growing progressively worse. We are not wholly there yet, but the Bible predicts a time when the world will arrive at its time of supreme crisis, from which only the returning Jesus Christ will deliver us alive (Matthew 24:21–22).
Mankind's efforts at self-governance have proven themselves flawed at best, disastrous at worst. Despite the siren song of moral relativism, let it be said: some governments are better than others. But what is God's perspective on government? What every nation and the entire world needs is effective godly government based on the laws of God! This would bring lasting peace, prosperity, contentment and true happiness. We can be thankful that such government is coming! God is already setting into motion the preparations for that government.
Consider that when Jesus Christ returns to this earth, an entirely new chapter of global governance will quickly emerge. "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end" (Isaiah 9:6–7). Revelation 11:15 tells us that one day true Christians will joyously say, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever!" Pray for that kingdom to come. And do your part to prepare. To learn more about this glorious time in the not-so-distant future, read our informative and inspiring free booklet, The World Ahead: What Will It Be Like?
Make no mistake. You and I might wish it were otherwise, but according to Bible prophecy, we are approaching a grand climax to the history of the world. God Himself lays out the terminal progression of events that will inexorably lead to the end of this age. Though most who call themselves Christian remain unaware, this is the message that Jesus Christ preached so strongly while He was on the earth and the message that He has tasked His followers with proclaiming. Jesus called it the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15). It is a profound message of hope for a distinctly better world than the one we occupy right now—a world without wars, violence, hatred and enmity. It will be a world of right government, where peace will prevail and people will not feel compelled to flee their countries and seek refuge elsewhere—in short, a world where the great problems Europe is facing today will no longer exist. Thank God that His Kingdom will come soon, before mankind brings itself to the brink of destruction—and beyond!