Vienna, Austria — Lucy Balmanian’s life straddles the crisis overtaking Europe today. Born in Syria, she’s an Armenian Christian who has lived in Vienna for years, speaking impeccable English. So when she watches Austria grapple with the massive influx of foreigners fleeing war and bad economies, she shares both Syria’s pain and Europe’s concerns.
Sitting in an upscale café in Vienna’s First District, Balmanian recalls the last time she visited Damascus, in 2010. “Nobody would imagine that their lives would change so much,” she says, describing how she then felt safe and optimistic about Syria’s future. “Now, Syria is back 100 years. It will be very hard to fix everything, because not only is Syria broken; Syrians’ spirits are broken. . . . Everyone there is faced with this decision: Do we leave, or do we stay and risk losing family members? It is a jump into the void.”
That jump has also left the European Union in a state of limbo. So far this year, more than 522,000 foreigners crossed into Europe by the Mediterranean Sea alone, the majority landing in Italy and Greece, according to the September 29 count by International Organization for Migration. An additional 2,892 perished attempting the voyage.
Many of those who make it safely to Europe’s beaches end up passing through Austria. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week, Austria has been slammed with 100,000 refugees and migrants in the past three months alone — a lot for a country accustomed to 20,000 asylum applications a year.
Alvino-Mario Fantini, editor of the European Conservative, summarized what I heard from many Austrians: “This could deal the European Union a solar-plexus blow that could end in its demise. There are so many issues wrapped up in this crisis. It’s very dangerous.”
It’s not just the high number of newcomers that’s stressing Europe, though this refugee crisis is the largest since World War II. This colossal population shift also carries major implications for Europe’s culture, security, and economic health.
To begin with, even if benefits vary across countries, it’s extremely expensive for European nations to take in refugees.
In Germany — one of the most generous countries, and therefore among the most appealing to newcomers — anyone granted asylum gets the same benefits as citizens do, including “social welfare, child benefits, child-raising benefits, integration allowances and language courses as well as other forms of integration assistance,” according to the Ministry of Interior.
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War refugees should receive help from Europeans, says Barbara Kolm, president of the Hayek Institut and director of the Austrian Economics Center. But a sizable number of Europeans are less eager to foot the bill for other migrants, including many from Africa and the Balkans, who are not fleeing immediate peril but are seeking to improve their economic wellbeing.
“All of the European sovereign nations are in a sovereign debt crisis,” Kolm says. “They all have a huge debt problem. How will you pay for all these services you give away for free? . . . This is redistribution on an international level.”
#share#Europe’s rigid bureaucracies further complicate the matter, Kolm says. One friend wanted to use his own private funds to provide dinner for refugees — but the government told him no, it didn’t pass regulatory muster, Kolm recalls. Some families have been forbidden to host refugees because their homes would fall into commercial-zoning categories, she says. And perhaps most outrageous, some bureaucrats, she adds, have fretted whether the doors of private homes were too narrow for disabled refugees, disqualifying volunteers who want to offer help on their own dime. Consequently the costs are covered by taxpayers, instead of by charitable volunteers who stand ready to help.
On top of such ridiculousness, Europe’s newcomers, armed with smartphones and social-media savvy, have proven more nimble than the staid bureaucratic systems struggling to manage them. When one route closes, word spreads worldwide in less than an hour. Technology connects them to smugglers, those who have successfully made the journey, and family stuck back home.
It’s not only Europe’s bureaucratic systems that are at risk. Some fret that this population shift will fundamentally alter Europe’s cultural makeup.
It’s not only Europe’s bureaucratic systems that are at risk, either. Some fret that this population shift will fundamentally alter Europe’s cultural makeup. If fewer immigrants seeped in, it would be harder for them to avoid assimilation, some Austrians I spoke to said. In such large numbers, it’s easier for immigrants to reject integration and form their own, sheltered communities.
Further complicating the matter, these significant population changes are happening fast, says Andreas Unterberger, a prominent Austrian blogger and the former editor-in-chief of the newspapers Die Presse and Wiener Zeitung.
“In one generation, this is quite a demographic and social change, especially when [so many] belong to a different religion,” Unterberger tells me. “This was a shock for Austria. A lot of people like me are worried not because things on the streets are different but because this has a lot of social, economic, and cultural changes — especially for the situation of women, gays, and lesbians.”
Moreover, many Austrians I spoke to — even some heavily involved in volunteer efforts to help refugees — conceded the validity of some security concerns.
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Take, for instance, Christof Zellenberg, chair of the Europa Institute. He doesn’t buy the claims that newcomers are primarily motivated by welfare benefits, he says, and they’re not here to spread Islam. He says he’s heard innumerable accounts from refugees about the dangers they’re leaving behind and the myriad perils of the odyssey to Europe, guided by criminal smugglers. On the contrary, he says, many tell him of their gratitude toward Europeans who help them; they’re especially awestruck by the generosity of European Christians.
Regardless, Zellenberg says, even his refugee friends have warned him that radicals and criminals have made the trek to Europe, blending in with peaceful asylum-seekers.
#related#Balmanian, the Syrian-Armenian Christian, says she also worries about the security implications of this enormous influx of foreigners. She knows enough about radicals’ brutality against fellow Muslims, she says, and she fears what they’d do to non-Muslims. The extremists remind her of orcs from Lord of the Rings: “They don’t follow anything, she says, “just their instinct to kill.”
All of these concerns combined have revealed some critical shortcomings within the European Union, says Rainhard Kloucek, the secretary general of the Paneuropa movement. “We did not solve any problems in the past,” Kloucek says. “We put them under an umbrella.”
Other Austrians echoed the same sentiment, citing the EU’s failure to adequately address everything from the financial crises to the conflict in Ukraine. But the refugee crisis has laid bare many of the EU’s biggest shortcomings — and, dauntingly, there’s no end in sight.
“Now,” Kloucek says, “we’ve got to face the fact that nobody holds a solution in Europe.”