BERLIN – Until a few weeks ago, Europeans believed they lived in a kind of sanctuary, insulated from the world’s current conflicts. Certainly, the news and images of drowned migrants were dreadful; but the tragedy occurring south of Italy, Greece, and Malta, seemed a long way off.
Syria’s brutal civil war, which has been raging for years, seemed even farther away. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deployed poison gas and later barrel bombs filled with nails and metal fragments against his rebellious population. And those who escaped Assad’s henchmen found themselves confronted by the terror of the Islamic State. Hundreds of thousands were killed, and millions of Syrians have fled, with most living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey for years, in appalling conditions and with no hope of improvement.
So, sometime this summer, when the last glimmer of hope of a return to Syria disappeared and an alternative to Assad and the Islamic State no longer seemed realistic, these people started heading toward Europe, which seemed to promise a future of peace, freedom, and security. The refugees came via Turkey, Greece, and the Balkan states, or across the Mediterranean to escape similar chaos in Eritrea, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.
In August, thousands of refugees became stranded at Budapest’s Keleti train station for days on end when Hungary’s vexed and incompetent government deliberately allowed the situation to escalate. Eventually, thousands of men, women, and children – and even old and disabled people – started to make their way on foot toward the Austrian border. At this point Europe, witnessing an exodus of biblical proportions, could no longer ignore the challenge and the consequences of the crises in its neighboring region. Europe was now directly confronted with the harsh realities from which it had appeared to be a sanctuary.