Wednesday

16th Jun 2021

Opinion

If not Europe, who will help the refugees?

  • With no end in sight, there are signs that Europe’s heart is hardening (Photo: iom.int)

If Europe fails to marshal an effective response to the refugee crisis, the damage to Europe and international refugee protection will be irreparable.

In 1945, there were more than 11 million refugees and displaced people in Europe and the continent’s infrastructure was in ruins. When it comes to forced migration in Europe, the challenges of the past dwarf those of the present.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

But no reasonable person can deny that today’s refugee crisis is a huge political challenge for the EU and its member states. Almost 800,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe by sea this year, more than 200,000 in October alone.

With no end in sight, there are signs that Europe’s heart is hardening.

Sweden, among the most generous EU states in responding to the crisis, has asked for help from other EU governments, saying it cannot accept further asylum seekers. Some in Germany’s ruling coalition are making similar arguments.

In theory, most EU governments recognise that an effective response requires collective action. But despite two more summits this week - Valletta, with African leaders, and an EU summit afterward - European governments have too often acted in their own narrow, short-term political interests even if it undermines the common effort, and exacerbates the crisis.

Our research has documented the human consequences of the failure of EU governments to marshal an effective response: people trapped at borders in freezing cold and mud in the Western Balkans; people shivering on beaches in Greece; people drowning in the Aegean Sea.

Not unmanageable

The numbers are not unmanageable.

But the failure to manage the situation, and the localised points of crisis, amplified by politicians’ fearmongering and media sensationalism, risks scaring European voters into demanding tough responses to deal with the chaos, even if those responses are ineffective and deepen the unfolding humanitarian disaster.

If EU governments don’t get a firm grip on things soon, the siren calls of those who advocate an Australia-style approach will grow.

That’s the seductive but dangerous idea that if only “we” could keep “them” away from our shores and process them somewhere else, then “someone else” could offer protection to those who need it and we’d get off the hook.

It ignores the fact that most countries to which asylum seekers would be diverted lack the capacity to fairly process or humanely host them - and the horrific abuses the Australian system has actually produced.

Outsourcing asylum has long been a dream for some European policy makers and the current push in that direction is already visible in the first draft of the EU-Turkey Action Plan, which talked of Turkey preventing refugees from reaching Europe.

It’s also visible in preparations for the Valletta summit, which some EU governments hope will persuade African countries to take on greater responsibility for border control and readmission.

The EU’s main approach is to see that fewer people arrive, and that those who do will be easier to deport.

Elements

Elements of what would constitute a more effective response from EU governments are clear:

Better coordination of emergency assistance.

Assistance with asylum pre-screening for countries at the front line.

An effective common asylum system.

A permanent system to relocate asylum seekers and equitably share responsibility across EU states.

Safe and legal routes to reach Europe.

Measures to integrate refugees into society.

Intensified diplomatic efforts to end the conflicts and human rights abuses that drive much of the current flows.

Not easy

No one should pretend this will be easy.

Relocation will likely mean that some refugees will have to live in European countries that are not their first preference or where they are not welcome.

Coordination requires setting aside narrow national interests, pooling sovereignty, and working collectively. Creating a common asylum system will take the stick of legal action against recalcitrant governments as well as the carrots of aid and technical assistance.

Effective diplomatic action to improve human rights means not setting aside human rights concerns for the sake of short-term migration control expediency, as Brussels seems willing to do with Ankara.

But the alternative would make a mockery of the ideal of a European Union, which is founded on respect for human rights, by denying protection to those who need it.

It also risks undermining the UN’s Refugee Convention itself.

Why should countries in the global south, who already host the majority of the world’s refugees, keep their borders open, when the world’s richest trading bloc does not?

Benjamin Ward is deputy director, Europe and Central Asia division, at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Merkel's party displays unity on refugees

Ahead of Thursday's difficult talks with her coalition partner on transit zones, Angela Merkel's own party union displays unity on the refugee crisis.

Analysis

Orban 'vindicated' by EU refugee crisis

Hungary's Viktor Orban feels vindicated by a shift to the right in EU migration politics, but more populism and razor-wire fences could pose "a challenge" for the Union.

EU must treat homeless as rights-holders, not criminals

The gap between EU resources available on the one hand, and the persistence of poverty and homelessness on the other hand, is what makes these figures more than an embarrassment: it raises them to the level of a human-rights crisis.

Biden in Brussels - what's in the 'in-tray'?

As president Joe Biden, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel meet today, more than seven years have passed since the last opportunity for leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to engage face-to-face.

News in Brief

  1. China calls Nato statement 'slander'
  2. Israel bombs Gaza after Hamas responds to far-right march
  3. Kosovo and Serbia resume EU-brokered talks
  4. IKEA fined €1m for spying on French employees
  5. Markets snap up €20bn of new EU recovery bonds
  6. German court to test European Defence Fund legality
  7. Climate crisis may hit Europe's coffee and chocolate imports
  8. EU top court affirms national data watchdogs' power

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen more active in violent extremist circles than first assumed
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance

Latest News

  1. EU and US make peace on trade before Russia summit
  2. Hungary passes anti-LGBTIQ bill ahead of 2022 election
  3. Prisoners, homeless, migrants, 'overlooked' in EU vaccine race
  4. EU must treat homeless as rights-holders, not criminals
  5. China officially joins Russia as a danger to Nato
  6. German Greens face reality check amid CDU gains
  7. EU Parliament wants Europe to take lead on sea-rescues
  8. MEPs urged to end gas-funding, fix cross-border projects rules

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us