350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Migrants walk through a field to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni on 29 August. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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A child of a migrant family creeps under the barbed fence near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on 28 August. Photo: Attila Kisbendek/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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An Iraqi boy slips through a narrow opening inside a camp used for temporary detention of migrants shortly after they crossed the Macedonian border from Greece 3 September in Gevgelija, Macedonia. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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A young girl and boy cry as police block a group of migrants trying to cross the Macedonian-Greek border near the town of Gevgelija on 21 August. Macedonia said on August 20 that it had declared a 'state of emergency' on its southern border with Greece. Photo: Robert Atanasovski/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Syrian migrants paddle their dinghy to the shores of the Greek island of Kos on 17 August after their small engine broke down as they motored across the sea from Turkey. Photo: Louisa Goulimaki/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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A migrant jumps of a small dinghy after arriving to the shores of the Greek island of Kos from Turkey on 18 August. Photo: Louisa Goulmaki/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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A refrigerated container containing the bodies of 49 migrants who died of asphyxiation in the hold a boat transporting migrants that sunk in the Mediterranean is unloaded from the Norwegian military ship Siem Pilot after its arrival in the port of Catania on 17 August. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP PHOTO

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Migrant children demonstrate with their placards in their transit zone of Western (Nyugati) railway station in Budapest on 31 August. Photo: Attila Kisbendek/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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A migrant with a baby tries to pass a fence near to the town of Idomeni, on the Greece-Macedonia border on 22 August. Photo: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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A migrant family runs after crossing a border line near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on 28 August. Photo: Attila Kisbendek/AFP

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria press against each other while attempting to receive bread and water being distributed by a humanitarian group outside a Serbian processing facility 4 September in Preshevo, Serbia. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Migrants board trains in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on 3 September in Budapest, Hungary. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border on 4 September in Macedonia. After stopping at a Serbian processing facility for migrants only, most people will continue on foot for the next 6 miles into the Serbian town of Preshevo. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

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Syrian refugees and migrants along a railway line as they try to cross from Serbia into Hungary near Horgos on 1 September. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP

REFUGEES

350,000 and counting: migrant crisis has put the idea of EU at stake

Priyata Brajabasi @PriyataB

Recent images of a drowned Syrian child washed up on the shores of Turkey's Bodrum beach has outraged the world and highlighted the magnitude of the European refugee crisis.

The heartbreaking stories of mass deaths of refugees - from the 800 people feared drowned when their boat capsized in the Libyan waters south of the Italian island of Lampedusa in April, the 71 fleeing Syrians found dead in a truck in Austria last week, the desperate mess at Budapest train station a few days ago, to the drowned Syrian child - the magnitude of the human catastrophe is all too apparent. In the on-going migrant crisis in Europe, upwards of 2,500 people have lost their lives up to now.

The magnitude

This is the biggest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War. Another influx took place in the 1990s following the break-up of Yugoslavia.

There are two streams of refugees pouring into Europe - from West Asia and North Africa and from the Balkans - Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia. The former is the result of violent conflicts raging in these regions and the latter is the direct outcome of economic misery and massive unemployment.

One set clearly comprises political refugees, the other consists of economic migrants. The EU countries want to make a distinction between the rights and privileges of the two categories for asylum.

The real number of migrants making dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas or trekking through the Balkans, is difficult to monitor. About 350,000 have been recorded so far this year.

The countries most vulnerable to the migrant pressure are those on the Southern part of the European Union - Greece and Italy, for example. Given the precarious state of the economy in these countries, they might not be able to bear the burden of refugees.

In Greece, about 23,000 migrants entered last week alone, mainly making the journey to islands in the Aegean including Kos and Lesbos in flimsy rubber boats.

Procedures

The EU law states that people must apply for asylum in their first country of arrival in Europe and wait for their application to be granted before they can legally travel onwards through the Schengen zone - a passport-free travel area.

However, this law is being given the go by in the Southern countries of the EU. Once the migrants land there, they are allowed free passage because of the Schengen arrangement to the rest of Europe in search of asylum.

The Schengen convention is one of the cornerstones of modern Europe. It abolished border checks inside the EU, getting rid of visas, boosting commerce, tourism and the hopes of citizens to move across Europe.

More than 660,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2014. This year, the number has already crossed half a million. Germany is by far dealing with the most refugees. According to one estimate, Germany expects to register up to 800,000 asylum-seekers in 2015.

Germany's generosity

The influx of migrants has led to the rise of xenophobia in Europe, demands for stricter border controls within the EU and greater electoral support for extreme right-wing anti-immigrant political parties. These developments threaten the very idea of a unified Europe built on the promise of "never again" allowing the mass exodus of refugees as in the Second World War.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged European leaders to recognise the values on which the concept of EU was conceived and said, "If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed." She has unilaterally extended asylum to "all" Syrian refugees and advised other European nations to pitch in.

Not everyone has shown such generosity.

"The problem is not a European problem," Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said on Thursday. "The problem is a German problem." He said that his country's job was just to register refugees, not to house them. "Nobody would like to stay in Hungary, neither in Slovakia, Poland, or Estonia. All of them would like to go to Germany." He wants Hungary to be just a staging post for the asylum seekers.

Divided Union

There is clearly some bickering over how to spread the load of refugees more evenly. The immediate aim seems to be to take some of the pressure off the countries where the migrants arrive first (such as Italy, Greece and Hungary), by sharing the economic burden of housing the refugees and the processing costs of asylum seekers.

After that, Germany and Sweden want a mandatory quota system for settling refugees, sharing the burden across the EU.

So far, there doesn't seem to be a consensus on these objectives.

However, Merkel has argued, "If it's not possible to achieve a fair allocation of refugees within Europe, then some people will want to put Schengen on the agenda. ..We want a fair allocation of refugees and then we won't have to discuss Schengen." Hungary and other eastern European countries don't want a quota of refugees imposed on them.

Britain has granted asylum to around 5,000 Syrians who managed to reach British shores since the war began four years ago, but Prime Minister David Cameron has also opposed mandatory EU refugee quotas.

According to Eurostat, Hungary, Sweden, Austria and Germany are taking in the maximum refugee population as of now.

Next week, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to unveil a plan for relocating 120,000 more refugees. But this is just a stopgap arrangement. In the long term, the EU needs a continent-wide solution. On 14 September, there is a meeting of the foreign ministers of the 28 member countries of EU to discuss the crisis.

It remains to be seen how soon European countries can come up with a practical and economically sustainable solution to the refugee crisis they face.

Priyata Brajabasi

Priyata Brajabasi @PriyataB