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opinion | John Shattuck

Lift Central Europe’s historical amnesia

Migrants attempted to scramble under fencing from Serbia into Hungary.Getty Images


Thousands of refugees fleeing the horrors of war in Syria huddle in a train station in Budapest. This is not a new picture in Central Europe. During and long after World War II, millions in the region have sought to escape from oppression and genocide — from Soviet tanks in 1956 and 1968, and from brutal conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Why have Hungary and other European countries forgotten that many of their own citizens were once refugees?

After the Holocaust, a system of international law was developed to protect refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution, outside the country of his nationality, who is unable to, or owing to such a fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The people fleeing to Europe from war-torn countries are not migrants seeking economic advantage, but refugees from violence and repression. If they have a “well-founded fear of persecution,” they must be granted political asylum.

But history in 2015 has fallen victim to politics and bureaucracy, stripping the refugees of their humanity. The European Union has made asylum-seeking a confusing process, a patchwork of conflicting laws across the 28 member states, with a requirement that the country in which the refugees first arrive determine their status. EU border states are often the countries least willing or able to do so. Asylum claims are unevenly distributed across the EU and infrequently granted at the border.

More dangerous than the legal morass that refugees face is the relentless political hostility they encounter. Stimulated by economic crisis and the weakness of EU institutions, far-right political parties across Europe fan the flames of xenophobic nationalism and influence the political agenda. In Hungary and other EU countries, anti-immigrant legislation has created new barriers to political asylum. Right-wing rhetoric dehumanizes the asylum-seekers. Security officials confront refugees in an explosive atmosphere, provoked by antimigrant gangs.


Desperation has made the refugees easy prey for criminal human traffickers, like those responsible for the drowning of thousands of people in flimsy boats, or the suffocation of 71 men, women, and children in a locked truck found on an Austrian autobahn.

At a grass-roots level, courageous Europeans are responding to the crisis by organizing humanitarian assistance in their countries. In Hungary, volunteers, including faculty and students from my university, are helping groups like Migration Aid provide the stranded refugees with food, clothing, shelter, information, and, perhaps most important, compassion. Others are calling on their governments to enforce international law and assure the fair adjudication and distribution of asylum cases across EU countries.


Beyond these individual actions, however, a broad political response is needed to push back the xenophobic politics fueling the crisis. The EU must simplify its asylum procedures, require its member states to take refugees in numbers proportionate to their populations, and provide massive resettlement assistance to national authorities.

The German government has shown signs of an enlightened approach to the crisis that can lead the way in Europe. The historical amnesia must be lifted. Beyond Europe, the world needs to intensify efforts to end the wars in Syria and other places from which the refugees are fleeing. Having played a central role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have an obligation to help those who are trying to escape. The Gulf states — including Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Russia — bear responsibility for exacerbating the conflict in Syria.

The ghosts of a Europe torn apart by violence and repression in the 20th century must be confronted anew. The images of families trapped in trucks, trains, and camps, and the drowned bodies of children washing ashore should galvanize leaders to act. The European Union was created to assure that the refugee catastrophes of the last century would not be repeated in this one. Today’s crisis is a test of that founding principle.


John Shattuck is president and rector of Central European University in Budapest.


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