Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Opinion

EU leaders must show conscience on refugees

  • Miliband is a former UK foreign secretary who was, in 2010, also tipped as a potential EU foreign policy chief (Photo: Chatham House)

One hundred and forty thousand desperate people have already crossed the Aegean Sea in flimsy boats to Europe this year. Thirty five thousand of them are trapped in Greece, in limbo, with no way forward or back.

Thirteen thousand people are in tents on the Greece-Macedonia border, in pouring rain. A further 2,000 are stranded in Serbia. Fourteen people were killed by a train while sleeping, exhausted, on a railway track in Macedonia. Two people froze to death crossing the mountains in Bulgaria.

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  • International Rescue Committee vehicles (in yellow) in Chad in 2011 (Photo: ec - Audiovisual Service)

These are the numbers that define Europe’s refugee crisis. On top of the million people who arrived last year they represent a challenge to Europe’s compassion and competence. 

It is clear what European leaders want to achieve in Brussels this week. They want Syria’s neighbouring countries - Turkey but also Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq - to continue holding the majority of refugees from Syria.

They want to create incentives for refugees to stay in these countries. They want to undercut the smugglers who profit from refugees’ desperation to get to Europe, and who have only benefited from border closures to date.

These are reasonable goals. European governments have recognised that they need to help pay for these goals and help to organise them.

But if this is what they want, the proposed ‘one in, one out’ system between Greece and Turkey is not the silver bullet. It may in fact create a perverse incentive for more not fewer refugees, aided by smugglers, to attempt the dangerous journey across the Aegean.

If the number of refugees the EU accepts is based on how many survive the journey and are then returned to Turkey, and if Turkey understandably wants the EU to take more refugees, then what is the incentive for Turkey to stop refugees making the journey?

International law is also clear. Laws on asylum say that anyone fleeing conflict and persecution has the right to claim asylum and to have their claim considered on an individual basis, regardless of country of origin, date of arrival and many other criteria.

Forcibly removing people from Europe en masse, and with different treatment for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, does not fulfil this basic legal obligation.

It is also not clear what happens to those who are returned to Turkey. It would not be acceptable for them to be sent onwards to war torn countries of origin where they may not be safe.

The rights of refugees, and the responsibilities of states to support them, were hard-won gains after World War II. The distinction between refugees fleeing for their lives and economic immigrants seeking a better life is important and worth preserving. It speaks to fundamental issues of fairness and responsibility and it can be policed. 

As long as the war in Syria continues, and as long as Syria’s neighbours do not have sufficient support to host refugees, desperate people with no other options will keep coming to Europe.

But while the refugees face impossible choices, European leaders do not. There are four things they can do.

Sea rescues

First, stop so many people drowning by ensuring that all agencies involved in sea operations have adequate training and support to rescue boats in distress, and to humanely receive refugees who have made traumatic journeys.

This includes all agencies abiding by their legal obligations to take boats in distress to the nearest safe port, whether it is in Turkey or in Greece, which Nato needs to clarify.

At least 400 people have already perished in the sea this year and the EU must ensure that this is stopped.  

Safe passage

Second, press ahead with schemes to ensure safe, legal and orderly passage for refugees fleeing to Europe. Voluntary admissions programmes, humanitarian visas and resettlement schemes directly from outside Europe are the only humane option for vulnerable people fleeing Syria and seeking safety within Europe.

This is not a pipe dream: There are viable options and EU proposals. The US, Canada and Italy have already made such schemes work.

Relocations

Third, strengthen mechanisms for relocation of refugees within Europe, to ease the situation in Greece (and Germany).

We know the Dutch Presidency has been working hard at this. Ireland, Norway, Italy are stepping up to the mark and showing leadership, offering to take their fair share and help the EU towards the 160,000 relocations agreed.

We are encouraged by the actions of these countries and hope to see others step up.   

EU money

Fourth, disburse the €700m pledged by the European Commission on 2 March quickly and effectively, to help meet the humanitarian needs of those who will not be able to leave Greece quickly.

Assessments by the International Rescue Committee last week have found urgent protection and sanitation needs on the Greek-Macedonian border, not least for women and for children, many of whom have no adult relatives with them.

No-one is saying there should be blanket entry to Europe. Those who don’t qualify for asylum, having had their claims heard fairly and the safety of their countries of origin established, should not stay in Europe.

The real choice facing European leaders is not whether people continue to flee to Europe or are stopped by borders. It is whether they allow inhumane, disorderly and illegal arrivals of refugees to continue, or succeed in agreeing a humane, orderly and legal alternative.  

Two years ago Pope Francis lamented the “globalisation of indifference”. This week Europe’s leaders can show that globalisation has a conscience, and a competent one at that. 

David Miliband is former UK foreign secretary and now president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, an international charity based in New York

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