Flashpoint Europe: The Refugee Crisis and the Fate of the Union

It’s been a rough year for European unity, and it’s not getting any better. The sudden flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is straining the unity of European Project more than any crisis in recent memory. The member states are divided and unable to agree on a common solution. Militarized borders are being reopened, refugee camps are being hastily erected, and armies are mobilizing, all echoing nightmares of an Old Europe and a time long thought to be in the past. The EU is at a pivotal moment: a crossroads which may determine the fate of the entire European project.

The refugee crisis has amplified the serious disagreements amongst Europeans about the roles of national sovereignty and cultural identity in the future of the European Union. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 200,000 refugees have arrived in Europe just in 2015, with over a million total asylum seekers estimated to be residing in the EU by the end of the year. With most of the refugees fleeing the embattled nations of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, there is a palpable fear in Europe that the influx of such a large number of Muslims will result in a spread of radicalism and a weakening of perceived national identities, spurred by the spread of homegrown terrorism already on the rise on the continent.

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not.

There are two sides that have taken diametrically opposed moral stances on the issue: One side,  comprised mostly of the EU-founding member nations of Western Europe, are citing humanitarian moral obligations and wish to see a pan-European solution to absorb the refugees and distribute them fairly throughout Europe. The second, comprised of the newer Eastern European members of the EU, are resisting allowing migrants to remain in their countries. These states, located on the periphery of the EU, are concerned about the political and economic shock that would come should the refugees stay, and are fearful of the perceived threat to their respective national identities if they absorb thousands of Arab Muslims.

Emergence of a Crisis

This summer, Italy cancelled the European Commission-funded Operation Mare Nostrum, an extensive maritime operation to provide safety for refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East. Without Italian ships dedicated to their rescue, many refugees are avoiding the perils of traveling on makeshift boats run by smugglers in favor of joining the already innumerable masses of Syrians and Iraqis escaping into Europe by the longer land route through Turkey. As a result, the western Balkans are receiving an ever increasing number of refugees as the Hungarian-Serbian border was seen as the main entry point through which they can travel to the more prosperous regions of the EU.

Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com
Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com

Hungary has since made clear its severest objections to the presence of refugees within its borders and has loudly criticized fellow EU members for disregarding their own rules regarding asylum seekers. The Dublin Regulation requires the first EU country in which a refugee enters to register them for asylum and to provide humanitarian assistance. This arrangement leaves Greece and Italy, the main points of entry by land and sea respectively, to provide these essential services to the bulk of the refugees. Italy is already hosting over 170,000 mostly North African refugees, and the vast majority of those traveling into the EU via Turkey should have remained in Greece. Greece however, has been overwhelmed and unable to support them. The European periphery, plagued already by high unemployment, unstable economies, and troubled governments, is in a precarious position and needs immediate relief from the rest of Europe even without the overwhelming presence of so many refugees.

The uncontrollable movement of refugees through the poorer regions of Europe has called into question the very notion of a border-less EU. The Schengen Area provides border checks only upon entry into member states, and allows free travel without passports between signatory states. In response to the deluge of migrants, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and the Netherlands have re-instituted border controls, with various other European nations considering similar actions. Hungary not only built a wall along the Serbian border, but is also considering (or already erecting) a fence on borders with EU members Croatia and Romania. As European states build walls between themselves, the idea of a border-less Europe is quite literally disappearing.

The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Experiment
The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Union.

Disunity in Action

The refugee crisis has reignited the debates about what it means to be European. While the more prosperous Western European states have been receiving large numbers of Muslim and Asian immigrants for decades, the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe have not. France and Germany, for example, have been the destinations of millions of migrants that have been assimilated to their respective cultures to varying degrees (although not without difficulty). The Eastern European members of the EU, however, are still nearly homogeneous, each comprised almost entirely of self-identified white Christian Europeans with no significant recent history of non-European migration.

The different national perceptions of identity politics between West and East is the crux of the problem. On 3 September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly labelled the refugees a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture… this is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity… is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?”  The prime minister sees multicultural France, with its large North African population, and Germany with its sizable Kurdish and Turkish minorities, as a warning to his fellow Eastern Europeans about what could happen if the refugees were allowed to stay. “We don’t want to be like them” he almost seems to say.

While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com
While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not. The EU has been slow to come to a consensus about how to handle the refugee crisis, resulting in member states taking action into their own hands, rather than relying on the cumbersome EU political process. After months of indecision, on 22 September the EU voted to institute a quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. Framing the issue as a matter of national sovereignty, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania voted against the plan. As of 24 September, however, only Slovakia has refused to comply outright, threatening to sue the EU in court. Slovak prime minster Robert Fico was defiant, “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.”

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past.

Eastern Europe is by no means united in response to the crisis. Croatia, which opened its borders to migrants on 16 September in response to Hungary’s completion of its fence along the Serbian border, closed them just two days later. In an almost schizophrenic reaction, Croatia began busing migrants to the (as of yet) unfenced Hungarian border. Responding to this action, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto stated, “Instead of honestly making provision for the immigrants, it sent them straight to Hungary. What kind of European solidarity is this?” Szijjarto captured the sentiment of disunity and made perhaps the most poignant comment regarding the issue, “Rather than respecting the laws in place in the E.U., they are encouraging the masses to break the law, because illegally crossing a border is breaking the law.” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović bluntly replied, “We forced them (Hungary) by sending people up there, and we’ll keep doing it”. Croatia seems content with letting migrants in, as long as it can pass them off to Hungary. Unity indeed.

Crisis = Opportunity

This is the defining moment for the European Project. The refugee crisis could be the wake-up call Europe needs to recommit to the ideals of the European Union, else it could be the driving force behind its dissolution. Western Europeans need to take care to ensure the substantial inclusion of a very nervous and frustrated East, concerned that in any major decision, national sovereignty will simply be pushed aside by another round of majority voting in which a unified West will always win. This is not a sustainable state for the future of the continent.

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past buried just barely beneath the surface: a Europe divided against itself. Europeans must seize this moment to forge a real union or they will soon find the idea of a singular Europe relegated to a footnote of history. It is in these moments of doubt and discord that Europeans must remember one simple fact: that Europe will always be its best as one, rather than divided against itself.

NickAvilaLT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer serving in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy.

Malaysia on the Brink

Malaysia is at a political crossroads. In what appears to be a conflict between the scion of a dynastic political order and the powerful personality of one of the country’s founding fathers, Malaysians ponder a frightfully uncertain political future. The setting is an ongoing corruption scandal involving quasi-governmental development firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, that reaches all the way to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. In a story alleging appalling arrogance and complexity, Najib is accused of pocketing $700 million USD in funds siphoned away from 1MDB.[1] Son of the country’s respected second Prime Minister, and President of the ruling coalition’s United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Najib’s lineage gives him unique importance as a link between the country’s present and its political past. Such shocking accusations against him are particularly wrenching for Malaysia’s Malay (Muslim) community but what’s less obvious to casual observers is that they may actually threaten political stability in this peaceful Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia’s Real Malay Dilemma

The appalling scandal appears to be the result of a dispute between Najib and Mahathir Mohamad, longtime UMNO strongman and former Prime Minister. Both are important figures, but admiring Malays regard Mahathir with near religious devotion, a source of great political power that he routinely uses. His political whims still shape Malaysian politics and though he’s been out of office since 2003, his influence is ever-present. Malaysians largely credit Mahathir’s leadership with their country’s emergence from colonialism as a modern and wealthy democracy. A conflict between these leaders puts Malaysians in a schizophrenic quandary because at one time, Mahathir was Najib’s sponsor.

If Najib survives as Prime Minister, the perception of corruption in the system may sour the disillusioned Malaysian electorate to the point that they finally abandon UMNO and the rest of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).  The last two elections were extremely close for BN and notwithstanding the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy (yes, sodomy), his opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) holds together despite its enormous ideological fractures.  Facing abandonment by its Malay constituency, UMNO may be forced to make a deal with the Islamic party, PAS. Like Islamic parties elsewhere, PAS is seen as a less corrupt alternative, though its periodic insistence on implementing Sharia and Hudud laws makes it abhorrent to Malaysia’s sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities as well as its more worldly Malay communities.

An UMNO-PAS deal would solidify communal stresses into geographic blocks, something of a security nightmare for Malaysia’s leadership which has traditionally depended upon the diversity of its neighborhoods to deny safe-haven to would be insurgents. More Islamization and more power for Malay-majority northern states would push minority Chinese and Indians away from BN in favor of Pakatan. This would position minority communities in Penang and Selengor firmly against rural Malay communities in Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan.  This creates for the first time a very distinct political geographic divide within the country that will very negatively affect its stability.

Malaysia Racial Distribution
The Geographic Divide. An UMNO-PAS deal could divide Peninsular Malaysia into political-racial voting blocks; a geographic separation for the first time in the country’s history.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Malaysia

Mahathir Waning

If Mahathir emerges victorious, there will be massive turnover at the pinnacle of UMNO resulting in many second tier leaders rising to the top. The current Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yasin will likely take the top job with Hishamuddin Hussein (son of another former Prime Minister) as Muhyiddin’s deputy…But this will be a pyrrhic victory for Mahathir.  He’s 90 years old and finding it increasingly hard to continue wielding power from his “retirement” villa.  His son and daughter aren’t proving to be quite the political pit bulls that he is and perhaps most importantly, Malaysians are tiring of his antics.  As one Malaysian colleague put it, they want to honor his accomplishments, not continue to be ruled by proxy.  Eager to avoid exposing his hand in Najib’s impending downfall, Mahathir has allowed Muhyiddin to portray himself as the anti-Najib and build an independent power base. Ultimately, Muhyiddin will finish the job Najib began of freeing Malaysia from Mahathir’s influence and though the country will remain ruled by the party of its founding fathers, UMNO will be greatly diminished and without Mahathir for the first time in a generation.

One way or the other, UMNO is facing a survival decision for the first time in its sixty-nine year history: get rid of Najib or sideline Mahathir. It is a decision UMNO is not really prepared to make and while most view this as a conflict between two political stalwarts, it is actually a more significant symptom of real democratic change within Malaysia. Poor management of the transition may destabilize Malaysia itself so let’s hope they get it right.

[1] He now claims this was a $700 million election contribution from Saudi Arabia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Sulu Arms Market: Globalized Gunrunning Since 1521

In March 2013 a Malaysian Air Force F-18 initiated an assault on a tiny East Malaysian village near the city of Lahad Datu. Its target was the final stronghold of the Royal Sulu Army, armed henchmen loyal to the Sultanate of Sulu, a defunct political entity that at one time spanned the borders of the modern Philippines and Malaysia. In the smoking aftermath of the final battle with the group, 80 people lay dead (including 10 Malaysian soldiers and policemen), over 700 were in custody, and police confiscated a surprising assortment of powerful weapons and ammunition.

Portrayed as misguided terrorists by Malaysian leaders, the ethnic Tausug invaders that confounded Malaysian authorities for over a month armed themselves with assault rifles and ammunition from an illicit arms market that thrives in the poorly controlled border areas of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Although Malaysia dealt decisively with the Royal Sulu Army in 2013, the arms market that supplied them is part of the history and culture of the area and remains a security problem for at least five member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Sulu Arms Market, described in the 2011 book by the same name, is not a market in the physical sense, rather it is an economy of guns where firearms and ammunition are the currency of a thriving international trade in violence. Its 500-year history of competition and conflict is older than most, yet the Sulu Arms Market is quite common in that it is both a source and a destination for smuggled guns. Due to the richness and politically fractured characteristics of the tri-border area, the Sulu Arms Market is intertwined with piracy, terrorism, and the traffic of other illicit commodities. At various points since the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in 1521, European colonialists, Moro (Philippine Muslim) independence groups, Communists, Islamic militants, and criminal gangs all played a major part in the market’s development making it a truly globalized enterprise.

Smuggling routes in the approximate area of the Royal Hashemite Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, a defunct political entity. A number of factors have contributed to both abundance of and demand for weapons that are easily trafficked into and out of the Sulu Arms Market. Source: https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/
Smuggling routes in the approximate area of the Royal Hashemite Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, a defunct political entity. A number of factors have contributed to both abundance of and demand for weapons that are easily trafficked into and out of the Sulu Arms Market. Source: https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/

The Players

While the Sulu Arms Market has its origins in colonial struggles between Spain, England, Germany, and the Netherlands its modern foundation was established in the political chaos of Southeast Asia following the Second World War. Communist guerillas across Southeast Asia, trained and equipped by the Allies during the War, turned against their post-war governments and became the primary recipients of arms shipments from abroad. As the Cold War set in, these groups drew direct support from communist China, the Soviet Union, and eventually Vietnam and North Korea. Added to the massive volume of guns remaining from the fighting in the Philippines, this Communist supply spilled over to similar movements throughout Asia including the Khmer Rouge, the Pathet Lao, the communist parties of Indonesia and Thailand, as well as Nepalese and Indian groups.

The Moros also rearmed after the Second World War. Organized initially as a secular nationalist movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) waged guerilla warfare against Manila for control of historically Muslim southern islands. Led by an ethnically Tausug leftist agitator and Sulu nationalist named Nur Misuari, the MNLF received political support and clandestine logistics (including arms) from Malaysia.[1] It was not long before Misuari developed direct ties with a number of powerful external sponsors, including Libya’s Muammar Ghadaffi and Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan, both of whom sponsored Islamic causes around the world. MNLF’s secular approach began to fall apart however in the 1980s when a number of its officers established a religiously inspired splinter group: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF brought jihad to the southern Philippines and with it, Islamist arms sources. Powerful new sponsors, inflated by victory over the Soviets, found the religious MILF more worthy of support than the secular MNLF. As Misuari and the MNLF pursued a secular agenda in peace talks with Manila, jihadi suppliers like Al Qaeda shifted their support (mostly in arms and training) to the MILF and Abu Sayyaf Group, another Islamist Moro faction. The MILF’s connection to these jihadi groups was critical to finance the import of weapons from Sabah during the 1990s. Guns poured into Mindanao from every corner of the globe via well-known smuggling routes through the Sulu archipelago. In 1992, the scale of black arms shipments to the Moros attracted suppliers from Afghanistan, Colombia, China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, North Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia (Sabah); with transit points in Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Myanmar. As a result of this influx of weapons, the MILF was secure enough to continue fighting independently when Misuari’s MNLF reached a peace agreement with Manila in 1996. With as many as 12,000 men under arms, the MILF sat atop an enormous black arms trade and controlled roughly 10 per cent of Mindanao and large parts of the Sulu archipelago. Control of this territory allowed large arms shipments to become routine and with violence at a low ebb, the Sulu Arms Market once again became a source of guns for the rest of Asia.

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/sulu-guerrilla-tactics-wont-work-in-sabah-says-analyst
Violent conflict between Malaysian forces and the Royal Sulu Army around Lahad Datu, Malaysia in 2013 provided proof that a market for illegal arms exists in the Sulu Archipelago. Image Source: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com

Sensing opportunity, Asia’s criminals soon became significant players in the Sulu Arms Market. At the lowest end of the scale are the “ant traders”; Sulu or Sabah natives that benefit from access to both sides of the border. Their opportunistic, few-guns-at-a-time operations thrive in border areas where one country has a legal market and the other does not. As a result, ant trading accounts for much of the arms and ammunition transiting between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

At the other end of the scale are transnational organized crime gangs from Japan, China, and Taiwan. Strict and well-enforced gun laws in northeast Asia make high quality handcrafted Filipino counterfeits called paltiks very popular among these gangsters. In an effort to control this dangerous cottage industry, the Philippine government created licensed manufacturers in Cebu with the idea of luring paltik craftsmen into legitimate employment in state factories. Not surprisingly, this move created ideal conditions for parts-smuggling that feeds the very paltik industry it was designed to destroy.

The criminality of arms trading is less clear when it involves wealthy and influential Filipinos. They are primarily arms consumers, stockpiling enormous arsenals that offer them increased prestige and protects them from weak gun laws. When these politicians and businessmen also identify themselves as either leftist, Moro or Christian, the lines between criminality, politics, and terrorism become extremely blurred as we saw in the case of the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009.

Sulu as a Source

The rise and fall of the Royal Sulu Army demonstrates that the Sulu Arms Market is real. It persists despite a multitude of countermeasures against it by governments both in and out of the region. It is a security problem of unmeasured proportions and its deadly products flow increasingly outward as violence reaches a low ebb. Moro weapons have made their way into the hands of separatists and militias in Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, East Timor, and the Malukus. But insurgent guns are not the only ones supplying the demand. Legally produced rifles, ammunition, and machine guns also end up in the black market through intentional overproduction, diversion, theft or loss. Known paltik manufacturing operations in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines reinforce the supply from legal sources. Lastly, leakage from regional military and police sources is famously commonplace. Pilferage of stocks of obsolete weaponry continues to occur as both the Philippines and Malaysia replaced their standard infantry rifles with 45,000 M-16 rifles from the United States in 2009.

It is not hard to imagine that as violence reaches historic lows in Mindanao due to MILF-Manila peace efforts, cash-strapped armorers in those countries will ignore the long-term profit potential of black arms exports. If the governments of the region fail to keep a close eye on the Sulu Arms Market (or perhaps even if they do), peace in Mindanao could come at the cost of the southern Philippines evolving once again into a for-profit illicit gun store for Asia.

[1] Though Nur Misuari served Kuala Lumpur’s interests in 1969, he was widely seen as provoking the Royal Sulu Army’s invasion of Sabah in 2013.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

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