22nd Mar 2018


Time for Plan C on the refugee crisis

  • Plan C could actually make living conditions for refugees in countries neighbouring Syria more bearable. (Photo: UNHCR)

The influx of refugees via the Western Balkans route is keeping Europe on its toes. The ramifications have sent shock waves across the EU as leaders scramble to find an adequate response.

At the same time, Russia's military intervention in Syria makes a political settlement to end the violent conflict in the region increasingly elusive.

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  • EU leaders scramble to find an adequate response to the refugee crisis. (Photo: Consillium)

The EU's adaptation to the current situation has been twofold. Plan A deals with the refugees already inside the EU and aims at spreading the burden across all member states.

The relocation mechanism adopted at a divisive Justice and Home Affairs Council in September - against the votes of Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary - seeks to distribute 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece across the EU. This came on top of another 40,000 agreed earlier the same month.

While expressly of a "temporary and exceptional" nature, this move can also be viewed as a trial for a more permanent redistribution mechanism across the EU.

Most member states are acutely reluctant to put the plan into action. Moreover, refugees are unwilling to relocate to states other than clear favourites such as Germany or Sweden.

Ironically, the very Eastern European countries outvoted in the Council are held in particularly low regard among refugees, largely due to lower living standards and linguistic barriers.

A similar approach was adopted at a meeting of select leaders in the European Commission's Berlaymont building on October 25. It was agreed that 50,000 new places should be set up along the Western Balkan route. Leaving aside the obvious question of where exactly these places will be, this would shift the burden on member and non-member states in the Southeast.

Plan B

Plan B aims to improve the protection of Europe's external borders to shift the burden beyond these borders and prevent the situation from deteriorating further – at least from a purely European perspective.

The European Council in mid-October decided to ramp up Frontex and reach out to Turkey at a time when President Erdogan found himself increasingly isolated for his handling of the Syrian crisis.

Erdogan, stressing Turkey’s indispensable role in solving this problem for Europe, bumped up the price: €3 billion in new aid; an easing of visa restrictions for Turkish citizens; and the revitalisation of Turkey's EU accession negotiations at a time when Turkey’s human rights record is under increased scrutiny are all on his wish list.

Considering Turkey’s crucial position, the EU will, in all likelihood, eventually accept most of these demands. But whether Turkey can stem the flow of refugees is another matter.

The Bulgarian example is revealing. Sofia erected an EU-sponsored razor-wire fence to seal its land border with Turkey. This was designed to stop refugees, often children, from trudging long distances and direct them towards official checkpoints.

Rather than solving the problem, the fence merely diverted it. While keeping refugees out of Bulgaria, they are now flowing into Greece and the Western Balkans in massive numbers to avoid being registered at one of Bulgaria’s checkpoints.

Children are still trudging long distances but now clear the Dinarides rather than the Balkan mountains to cross into EU territory.

Bulgaria’s land border can be monitored relatively efficiently. But refugees entering Europe via Greece come in boats set for the Eastern Aegean islands.

Unless Europe plans to build razor-wire fences on the high seas, the Bulgarian example can hardly be followed. Similarly, guarding Turkey’s entire western coastline is next to impossible.

Plan C

With plan A (relocation) and B (border protection) offering only limited chances of success, other alternatives should be mooted. Plan C could actually make living conditions for refugees in countries neighbouring Syria more bearable.

In fact, although much less heard of let alone reported about, traces of this strategy can be found in the EU's pledge to increase financial support to organisations active in the region – such as the UN Refugee Agency or the World Food Programme.

Unfortunately, pledges have mostly remained just that – good intentions.

Moreover, covering only basic needs is hardly going to convince refugees of staying where they are now. A wider array of social activities will need to be made available, at a time when refugee camps take on town-like features and an end to the conflict in the Middle East is not in sight.

What can the EU do besides providing crucial funding to organisations? Surprisingly, matching Europe’s financial stakes with manpower by massively expanding programmes such as the European Voluntary Service or EU Aid volunteers is so far entirely missing in the debate.

We should share our best resource – our Erasmus generation – with affected countries and give our youngsters the opportunity to help not only in the EU – which they already do – but also abroad where the situation is similarly pressing.

Volunteers could provide crucial services such as organising activities for children, acting as teachers in makeshift schools, or quite simply by helping out families and the elderly with all things necessary to survive in these camps. Many would be surprised how hospitable the Islamic culture is to foreigners.

There are at least two positive side effects for Europe. Firstly, the youngsters posted to camps for some months will affect public opinion on their return. Already while abroad, they would use social media to update friends about the poor conditions in these camps and provide a more nuanced picture of what drives entire families towards Europe.

Secondly, this strategy could complement other initiatives like the Youth Guarantee to lower still alarming youth unemployment rates in member states. Where students living in dormitories participate, this may even clear some space for refugees.

Besides material considerations, the experience is bound to change individuals by broadening their horizons through non-formal education.

While it cannot be ruled out that staying at such camps is not without risks for volunteers, youngsters develop incredible powers of initiative when faced with the plight of other people.

We should let them make their contribution to overcome the refugee crisis by addressing its root causes rather than its symptoms.

Markus Gastinger is alumnus of the European University Institute in Florence and member of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). He spent a month as a volunteer in a Palestinian refugee camp. Follow him on Twitter @markusgastinger

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