European Union struggles to find unified response to migrant crisis

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good evening and thanks for joining us.

European leaders are trying to unite behind a plan to cope with their ongoing surge of migrants and refugees arriving mainly from the Middle East and Africa.

More than 430,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea for Europe this year, most pushing toward northern and western Europe.

On Monday, the 28-nation European Union will hold an emergency summit in Brussels, Belgium, to try to agree on how many asylum seekers each country will accept.

The NewsHour's William Brangham has been reporting all week from Hungary, he is now in Vienna, Austria and I spoke to him earlier today.

Among the European nations, Hungary has been the most critical of Europe's broader response to the refugees' arrival.

You've been there in Hungary all week, so what are the Hungarians arguing ought to be done with the thousands of people coming to their door?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Hungary is trying to do everything it possibly can to shut that door. Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban has been very critical of the way the Europeans have responded to this migrant crisis.

He's arguing that for his country and for Europe as a whole, this is about them defending what he calls the "Christian identity" against this largely-Muslim group of refugees coming to Europe.

He has done more than any other European nation to do everything he can to stop those people from coming.

He's building a fence along its southern border with Serbia, he's deployed the military to come out and start to guard that border.

And he's pressed for new laws and abilities for the new government to arrest people who are coming in.

So at this meeting on Monday in Brussels, the Hungarians and the Hungarian position is going to be one of the biggest thorns in the side of the EU ministers who are trying to get some kind of consensus here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The EU is proposing a quota system where different nations would accept different numbers of refugees depending on their size, their economic strength.

How are these different member nations responding to this idea, and what are the remaining challenges?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Right now it's really not looking good. Just yesterday, the EU tried to get several Central European nations to agree on a tentative agreement with regards to this quota plan, and that was rejected.

The tricky part about of all this, is that the numbers just keep getting bigger and bigger.

The EU right now is haggling over this issue, it's trying to settle 160,000 refugees over the next two years, but earlier this week the UN put out an estimate that we are going to see at least 850,000 people coming in over this year and next year.

So the numbers just keep snowballing and there's actually some concern that as these numbers grow bigger and bigger that that growing number could even undermine some of the goodwill that exists in some of the friendlier nations, so-called friendlier nations like Sweden and Germany.

If they see increasing numbers of people coming to their borders, they might start to get cold feet about this whole idea.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why they are coming, why they are taking this risk on this journey, why now after years of war?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Quite simply, it's the Syrian Civil War.

The majority of people we've met were Syrians, and they said they left their country because of the violence that has been tearing their country apart for the last five years.

We met a father earlier this week, who told me a story about his four-year-old daughter. He was traveling with his four-year-old and a three-year-old.

He said that his four-year-old daughter is now reluctant to let him walk out the door anytime because she is not sure if he is going to come back in.

I think if you're a father –  if you are any parent – and the war all around you has gotten so pervasive that your four-year-old is afraid to let you go out the door to work in the morning, I think most parents could agree that that's a pretty good reason to leave your life behind and try to find a better life somewhere else.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Put these numbers in perspective for us. People have been fleeing Syria since the civil war there started four-and-half years ago.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It's true. The Syrian refugee crisis is not a new thing, it's been going on as long as the civil war in Syria has been going on, which is almost 2011 now.

The thing that is new, is where the refugees are going. For years these refugees simply poured into the bordering Arab states: Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

The numbers there are pretty staggering, it is estimated that three to four million people have now fled Syria and gone into those nations.

You look at places like the Zatari refugee camp in Jordan, it's now become one of the biggest cities in that entire country.

So while the numbers coming to Europe are large, they really pale in comparison to what these smaller, bordering nations of Syria have been taking in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: NewsHour's William Brangham joining us from Austria. Thanks so much. 

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks Hari.