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Christoph Hasselbach / cdSeptember 13, 2013

Europeans have reacted with horror to the Syrian civil war, but that doesn't mean every EU country will open its doors equally wide to asylum seekers. Should the EU force them to?

Refugees stand outside a makeshift emergency shelter camp in a desert setting. (Photo: Mohamad AL Anasweh)
Image: DW

For Europe, the comparison is embarrassing: roughly two million Syrians have fled as a result of the civil war, taking refuge in emergency shelters in nearby Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Europe is now taking in approximately 10,000 refugees as part of a UN special program - but only reluctantly after desperate appeals rang out from Syria's neighbors and from the UN's refugee agency UNHCR.

About 5,000 of those refugees will find shelter in Germany. They come in addition to 15,000 Syrians in Germany who have already applied for political asylum. Sweden is being relatively generous: Syrians already living in Sweden are now being granted permanent asylum.

Europe's contribution to the Syrian refugee issue has largely been financial so far: Syria's neighbors have received roughly 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion) from individual EU member states and collective EU funds. Yet many EU countries are still firmly resisting the UNHCR's appeals.

Doers and do-nothings

How exactly to address the refugee crisis is a question that has been discussed heatedly in the EU parliament.

A blonde-haired caucasian woman smiles at the camera in a professional photograph. (Photo: Andreas Gebert / dpa)
Nadja Hirsch wants the EU to intervene to help Syria's refugeesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Nadja Hirsch, of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE), told DW that the EU should launch "a European admission program." Her parliamentary group, she said, would prefer "that it's not just 10 countries taking 90 percent of those seeking asylum," as it is at the moment, but that asylum applications were spread across the EU, based on population and economic strength.

Hirsch says Germany, where she's a member of the government coalition Free Democratic Party, should raise its asylum threshold and consider including family reunification rights that would allow dislocated Syrians to bring family members to Germany.

As for other large EU countries such as France and Great Britain, Hirsch is disappointed. Paris and London plan to take on just 2,000 refugees. "One could clearly, clearly expect more" from those two countries, she said.

Free will or EU determinism?

Monika Hohlmeier, a colleague of Hirsch's at the EU parliament in Strasbourg, has a different point of view - interesting in itself given that her party, the Christian Socialist Union, governs in coalition with Hirsch's Free Democrats in Berlin.

Hohlmeier would like to apply the breaks to further arrivals from Syria. "We're not going to be able to settle such a gruesome civil war in a country as large as Syria through [asylum] admissions," she told DW. "That is just simply not possible."

Though she nevertheless supports Germany's one-off quota of 5,000 refugees, she sees little to gain through an EU-piloted allocation of Syrian refugees. The current system, she says, is working.

In a photograph shot diagonally, the head of a caucasian woman wearing eyeglasses and a business suit looks at the crowd in front of a red background. (Photo: Marcus Brandt / dpa)
A defender of member states' right to determine asylum policy: Monika HohlmeierImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The British are taking some in, the Swedish, the Germans, the Danish," Hohlmeier said. Poorer EU member states, she added, are taking fewer refugees. But she views it as "sensible that the countries in a position to take things into their own hands are actually doing so."

Where the EU should apply pressure, however, is on Italy and Greece, she says - compelling them to "finally create an orderly asylum system so that refugees there can find housing and aren't forwarded on" - to Germany, for example, or other EU countries.

'A small city every year'

But will Europe ever willingly - or even cheerfully - open its doors to those in need? Hirsch admits that little should be expected of politicians.

"The truth is that member states just don't want to concern themselves with the refugee issue," she said. "It's not a topic you can really score points with domestically."

Popular resistance is often strong, a fact attested to by the rise in right-wing, xenophobic parties in many countries, like the Front National in France, the UK Independence Party in Britain, or the Jobbik party in Hungary. Broad resistance to immigration stems from the fear that religious extremists come with refugees from Islamic countries.

That's why some Germans have proposed that Germany choose predominantly Christian Syrians for asylum. Hohlmeier rejects that idea, however, saying Europe would be shutting itself off.

"When I look at Sweden, when I look at Denmark, when I also look at the efforts of Germany, then de facto, it's a small city that's being taken in every single year," she said.

While Hirsch does not want to send a signal that any and all are welcome to come to Europe, she does believe that most Syrians want only to escape immediate danger before returning to their homeland - as soon as they can live there in peace once again.