Refugee crisis uncovers past shortfalls

Syriische und irakische Geflüchtete ereichen Skala Sykamias auf der Insel Lesbos

The EU needs a proper strategy that allows migrants a legal form of access. The current situation of the camps in and around the EU is unacceptable. The issue of clarifying immigration regulations for the EU must not be put off any longer.

In September 2015, I travelled to Budapest in an attempt to understand what was happening at the Keleti railway station. Ten months later, I went to the border between Hungary and Serbia to gain an insight into the situation facing refugees there. Topped off with NATO barbed wire, the border fence around the “transit zones” has been set back, creating a narrow strip of no man’s land between Hungary and Serbia where new groups of refugees become stranded every day. Initially denied admittance, they wait for days, even weeks, until they are allowed to pass through the heavy metal turnstiles and enter Hungary. Only thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organisations are they sporadically provided with food and drink. There are no toilets or running water. The people are housed in small tents, in improvised shelters made of sheeting and tarpaulin hanging on the border fence or even the entry zones to the EU. The circumstances facing people in the no-man’s land between Hungary and Serbia reflect the hardship and chaos found in many areas of Europe.

Past shortcomings a critical factor

The situation shows our urgent need for a common European refugee policy. It is the consequence of the complacency and ignorance of past years. Today’s failure illustrates past shortcomings for which the EU Member States are collectively responsible. The Dublin System served to push the refugee problem to the outer peripheries of the EU. It states that the nation where the asylum seeker is known to have entered the EU must perform the procedure for granting rights of asylum. For many years, this has left the countries on the EU’s external borders to their own devices, above all the countries bordering the Mediterranean (Italy and Greece). No common ideas of political asylum or an overdue understanding of immigration regulations were pursued. And even when the causes of people fleeing our own backyard in the south of the Mediterranean Sea escalated, the EU, including Germany, hoped to get away with suppressing the issue.

The only chance of finding suitable responses to the challenge is for Europeans to develop common policies. According to the UNHCR, 60 million people were fleeing their countries at the beginning of 2015, with no sign of this abating. This figure alone shows that individual states are incapable of providing the required help to an adequate degree. Yet, the causes of the refugee crisis should be afforded much greater attention – be it in committing to ending the war in Syria, in development cooperation, a different EU agriculture strategy or in international climate protection.

The disgraceful situation along the EU’s external borders could, for the most part, be resolved if the pleas of the United Nations were taken seriously. Generous, European resettlement quotas, i.e. direct acceptance from the refugee camps (e.g. around Syria) would be a decisive and necessary step. We need to enable more refugees to gain legal and safe access to the EU. Directly accepting the most vulnerable refugees would give them and Europe’s societies greater reliability. The United Nations has called upon the rich states across the globe to take in 500,000 refugees from Syria alone over the next two years. During the last Syria conference, the UNHCR only received pledges to accommodate less than 100,000 people.

Agreeing quotas – a difficult task

The debate in Brussels surrounding a change to the Dublin Regulation has begun.  There is, however, as regards the willingness of Member States to give assurances on taking in more than their regulated quota, still no sign of any country showing a generous measure of acceptance. I would appeal for Member States to embark on a united European quota system in which they agree to take in a corresponding number of refugees and thus prevent concentration in a handful of countries. Each Member State’s fair contribution should be calculated using a variety of factors, including population size and economic performance. We should not stop campaigning throughout the EU to encourage acceptance of more generous quotas that could be backed up with aid from EU coffers.  Even though there is resistance in a few Member States, I still believe it is meaningful for some to press ahead.

The deadlock within the EU and the shamefully small pledge given to the UNHCR give rise to the next question: what will we do for those that cannot be accommodated within the quotas and do not officially seek asylum? We need to improve in a significant way the conditions in the camps where people are seeking refuge from war and displacement. Europe’s stinginess towards the World Food Programme and the UN must be replaced with generous and reliable sums of money.

The EU needs a proper migrant programme

The conventional understanding of aid and provision must be extended to include concepts that are taken seriously and provide short to mid-term prospects. UNHCR experience, along with reports from Turkey and Lebanon, indicate the direction of change. Many of those that have moved out of refugee camps around Syria and Turkey to Europe have reported that it is not solely a question of earning their daily bread that took them on their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean or their tiring odyssey via the Balkans. These people are also suffering from unemployment, lack of educational opportunities for their children and hopelessness. People fleeing their country do no need camps but cities that provide them with mid-term prospects. Not so long ago, this sounded like a remote idea but now it has become a desperate need (see the article by Ulrike Guérot and Robert Manesse).

To ensure that Schengen, (area of open borders between 26 EU members) and the free movement of people and goods can withstand this crisis, an answer must be found to the long-since suppressed question concerning the EU’s external borders. An EU border regime must establish a common system operating within the rule of law that also guarantees the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers. An example as to how this should not work can be seen in Hungary and Greece where these standards have not been observed.

Turkey’s role – a balancing act for the EU

Turkey has increasingly taken centre stage in the refugee crisis. Many people seeking refuge have no option but to pass through Turkey. As a result, the EU has no way of bypassing Turkey – regardless of the justified criticism directed at President Erdogan. A dangerous and irresponsible move would be to allow the deal with Turkey to become a core element of the European response to the refugee challenge. The EU is already in the throes of being confronted with the fact that an increasing number of human rights violations against refugees are being reported from Turkey. The deal with Turkey does not release the EU from its obligations to make Turkey respect human rights. The shifting of responsibility to Italy and Greece that has gone on for years must not be extended to Turkey. The EU-Turkey deal must not replace an independent EU strategy promulgating generous quotas as a legal form of access, improved aid on the ground, the decisive combating of the push factors and a united approach to and dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the EU. The issue of clarifying immigration regulations for the EU must not be put off any longer.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".