Boat, land, foot. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies and souls desperate to cross the Mediterranean Sea in Europe. They faced a reception that ranged from open arms to shotguns. In 2015, Europe received 1,005,504 refugees, generating a crisis as European countries struggled to cope with the influx. What actions did the EU actually take?
September 2015: The EU is forced into action
The EU could not decide how best to deal with the arrival of refugees and their subsequent resettlement. Tensions rose over the disproportionate responsibilities of some countries – Greece, Italy, and Hungary were faced with far more migrants arriving by boat and land. The EU, its institutions, and its member states have specific legal obligations to individuals on its territory and at its land and sea borders. As a result, in September 2015 EU ministers voted by a majority to relocate 120,000 refugees across the EU. This decision was reached following months of negotiations to overcome the reluctance of different governments. However, for now the plan only applies to 66,000 who are in Italy and Greece. The remaining 54,000 were to be moved from Hungary, but now this number will be held “in reserve”, until the governments decide where they should go. The UK, a powerful player in Europe, has opted out of a quota system. Yet we can be hopeful about the fact that 1,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme directly from countries neighboring Syria. A clear sign of progress is the agreement that the UK will accept up to 20,000 refugees from Syria over the next five years.
Mismanagement of refugee communities
During Autumn 2015, the European Commission launched inquiries against many of its member states that failed to adhere to common rules for granting protection and providing decent conditions for asylum seekers, such as housing, food, and health care. In fact, the European Commission launched 74 infringement proceedings against 23 of 28 member states for failure to correctly implement EU asylum laws. In the current surge of arrivals, those reaching Europe are just a fraction of the world’s refugees. According to UNHCR figures, developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees.
The EU has dedicated resources to tackling smuggling networks, and implementing border controls by rapidly deporting individuals who do not have a right to remain in the EU. However, there is a real risk that these attempts to stem the flow of migration to the EU will fail to address the human rights abuses and hardships that cause migration. Whilst border enforcement may be effective in the short term, it could cause greater difficulties if the struggles of those who are leaving their countries are not considered. This method of dealing with the crisis may lead to violations of the rights to leave one’s own country and seek asylum. EU governments must ensure they also provide safe and orderly alternatives for people seeking international protection. The provision of more safe and legal ways for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees to reach EU territory without having to risk their lives or use criminal networks could reduce the use of dangerous migration avenues. Migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights must be upheld while governments fight against illegal trafficking and smuggling.
Throwing money at the problem
Despite efforts to increase the focus on migrants and asylum seekers inside the EU, the focus of many EU governments now appears to have changed. Regrettably, their efforts now center on preventing or discouraging people from attempting to reach EU territory. The EU has pledged 1 billion euros to world food programs to help reduce the flow of arriving refugees. These funds will be directed to host countries such Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to manage their significant refugee communities.
A very significant aspect of the European Union’s approach to the crisis has been agreements between countries that refugees must cross in order to reach Europe. A notable example of this is a deal between the EU and Turkey, in which the EU will pay an “initial” sum of €3bn towards the cost of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, of which there are over 2 million. The European Commission argues the money is for Syrian refugees in the care of Turkey rather than the Turkish government. Deals with countries outside of the EU carry certain risks in terms of protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. For example, Turkey does not have an asylum system for non-European refugees, which sadly many vulnerable individuals in danger of being returned to an unsafe country of origin. Any respect for the rights of asylum seekers and migrants at EU borders and on EU territory should also extend to countries such as Turkey.
Clearly, in dealing with a refugee crisis of such an unprecedented scale, the response needs to correspond to the European Union’s abilities, legal responsibilities, and values. While the crisis continues to develop, the EU must all do more to help displaced individuals with nowhere else to go. Most importantly, we must remember the importance of human compassion and consideration when dealing with the refugee crisis.
Written by Nazenin Kucukcan
This article is part of a Journal series, ‘Refugee Crisis’