It was supposed to be a light-hearted cocktail party celebrating the Munich Security Conference’s (MSC) special newspaper edition, The Security Times. On the evening of his signature conference, MSC chair Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger swung in to encourage the role of the press in covering security issues, champagne glasses sang, and journalists stuffed into black suits tried to mingle with European policymakers in the awkward, breathless way that style commentators follow movie stars on the red carpet at the Oscars.

But what happened next was anything but light-hearted, and set the tone for the three-day conference to come. Luxembourg’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Jean Asselborn, had just finished an optimistic speech on a vision for European cooperation when Dr. Theo Sommer, former chief editor and editor of German weekly Die Zeit, asked Serbian Foreign Affairs Minister Ivica Dačić if Europe should be concerned that the refugee flow through the Balkans would cause another war. Minister Dačić turned to the European leadership in the room and said his country would not be the catalyst, but it would also refuse to be subjected to the incompetence of the EU, which has been unable to close its borders to the refugee influx. He would not stand by and have the refugees locked in his country. Just days after that confrontation, Serbia has now closed its doors to any refugee who has not been registered on the Greece-Macedonia border. This followed a protocol reached February 18 between Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, and Austrian police chiefs which would only allow refugees through from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq and who would not be given asylum seeker status, but merely allowed to transit through their countries.

During the three-day conference, there was no shortage of nationalist muscle-flexing and anti-terrorist rhetoric, this year not just from ministers from the Middle East or Russia, but from members of the European Union itself. Numbers were on full display, and these black and white figures served to cement a consensus on nothing but a new isolationism, leaving each country, once of a Union, to fight for itself. The European Union of free trade, borderless travel, and humanitarian cooperation is having an identity crisis.

From Syria alone, there are currently 4.7 million registered refugees according to a report released by the UNHCR last week.[1] Of those, 2.18 million are registered in Turkey, which already closed its border to Syria the week of the conference; 1.08 million are registered in Lebanon; 1.2 million total refugees arrived since the beginning of 2015 in Germany.[2] There were 1.2 million claims for asylum in the EU in 2015 and 1,800 refugees claimed asylum for every 100,000 of the Hungarian population, with an average of 255 per 100,000 population across Europe.[3] One could almost hear the border gates clang shut as minister after minister recited the numbers for his or her country. Faceless, overwhelming, dangerous. This was the outlook on the refugee situation from the podium in the Bayerischer Hof.

In the hushed ancient chapel of the Karmelitenkirche across the street from the Bayerischer Hof on the second day of the conference, those numbers gained names. Vian Dakhil, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and Representative of the minority Yazidi community, shared emotionally about when the Islamic State came to the Yazidi town of Sinjar in northern Iraq on August 3, 2014, the men were separated from the women, and married women were separated from the girls in her village. Four-hundred to 500 girls were kidnapped as slaves and raped. Thousands of children ages four to ten years old were separated from their mothers and taken to Mosul to learn how to use weapons. Parents were asked to pay $1,000-$2,000 to get their daughters back, she reported. Men were lined up and slaughtered, she said.

Ms. Dakhil, who has reported to the United Nations on what she calls the genocide of her people, said the main assignment for the European Union in her country would not just be rebuilding the infrastructure. “It’s not just about rebuilding a house,” Ms. Dakhil told the conference. “How can we rebuild the human, and the trust?” she asked.

The solution needs to happen on two levels, Auxiliary Bishop H.E. Elias Toumeh of Syria said. “Our first request is to stop the war,” he said, describing how the Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population in Syria, survives through kidnappings, water shortages, and lack of shelter.

The second solution is to help the affected population locally, in their towns, he said. “I want to correct the idea of refugees” that is being spoken about at the conference, he said. “They would rather stay at home. They are coming for peace, not for money. Let’s help them through strategic projects in their land. If you want to help Christians, help them inside their village. Set up long-term sustainable projects,” he pleaded.

Asked if his outlook on the future for his country was bleak, he responded: “I’m not afraid for the future of Christians in Syria. I’m afraid for a Syria without Christianity.”

While Russia continued bombing the Syrian town of Aleppo following a ceasefire announced on the eve of the conference, causing almost 40,000 new refugees at the border with Turkey, a new Russian-U.S. ceasefire to begin Saturday, February 27, may be the last hope to stop the violence if all Syrian parties of the International Syrian Support Group sign off.

On the last day of the conference, Senator John McCain challenged foreign ministers and heads of state from across Europe, North America, and the Middle East to not let fear dictate the unraveling of global cooperation: “The world order that we built, our dearest inheritance, which we tended to and shored up every year here at Munich, is coming apart. It is not inevitable that this happen. It is not occurring because we lack power, or influence, or options to employ. No, this comes down, ultimately, to our judgment and our resolve. And in this vital respect, my friends, we cannot change course soon enough.”

For every Vian Dakhil or Bishop Toumeh in search of protection from genocide, there is a minister with black and white figures building walls to fortress his country. More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the destruction of border controls across Europe, is the continent ready to push brick and mortar between allies? European populations must be protected from terrorists and from economic instability, but must it be at the cost of mass humanity slaughter? The walls between countries that have been built of stone and barbed wire in the last two weeks are not just keeping potential terrorists and ravaged populations out; they are keeping their own populations, their own dreams of a broader union, in. Is this the Europe of their choosing?

Dr. Sarah Lohmann is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS.  She teaches human rights and security policy at the Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich.


[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Syrian Regional Refugee Response,” 17 February 2016,

[2] “Anti Refugee Tensions Escalate,” Handelsblatt Global Edition, 22 February 2016. This number is higher than the total number (675,982) accepted by the United States over the last 10 years, according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

[3] “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts,” BBC News, 18 February 2016,