Can Europe rise to the refugee challenge?


Just six months ago, there were some signs that Europe might be developing a more effective and humane response to the refugee emergency affecting the continent.

Shocked by the drowning of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, a wave of sympathy was extended to those seeking asylum in the European Union (EU) as demonstrated by the ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners that were unfurled by spectators at major league soccer matches. Germany and Sweden took a brave stand on the refugee issue, providing what amounted to an open door to people escaping from persecution and armed conflict in Syria and other countries.

Having failed to anticipate the scale of the influx, the EU rushed to find appropriate responses to the emergency, including the establishment of relocation and resettlement programs that would distribute refugees more evenly across the continent. Countries in other parts of the world, including the United States, expressed a willingness to expand their refugee quotas. 

NGOs and human rights organizations came forward with constructive proposals for the creation of safe and legal channels to Europe, thereby averting the need for refugees to travel by sea in overcrowded and flimsy boats. With the winter months approaching, it was assumed that the number of people arriving by sea would decline substantially, allowing Europe to focus on the plight of those who had already completed their journey. 

The EU’s relocation and resettlement programs have achieved almost nothing. Instead of acting in concert, member states have been squabbling about the reintroduction of border controls and engaging in tit-for-tat measures designed to exclude refugees. 

In fact, almost none of these expectations have materialized.

Since Alan’s untimely death, European countries have been rushing to erect fences that will prevent the arrival and onward movement of refugees. New arrivals, including large numbers of women, children and older people, have found themselves trapped at borders, obliged to sleep in the open air as temperatures plummeted.

The EU’s relocation and resettlement programs have achieved almost nothing. Instead of acting in concert, member states have been squabbling about the reintroduction of border controls and engaging in tit-for-tat measures designed to exclude refugees. After an endless round of summit meetings, almost the only things they have been able to agree upon is the establishment of a secretive military operation to prevent refugees from crossing the Mediterranean and an aid package to Turkey that is intended to confine refugees to that country.
 
Public opinion appears to be turning against the refugees, a trend reinforced by recent reports that some have allegedly committed acts of sexual violence. And despite an increasingly cold reception – epitomized by Denmark’s recent decision to deprive new arrivals of their valuables and personal possessions – refugees continue to arrive in significant numbers. 

In this very gloomy context, we should celebrate the fact that action is still being taken to preserve the principles of asylum and refugee protection. 

In that respect, particular reference must be made to the thousands of volunteers who have flocked to assist refugees in locations such as the Greek island of Lesvos and the ‘jungle camp’ in Calais, France. Heroic efforts have also been made by organizations such as MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) and MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) both of whom have been engaged in the demanding task of rescuing refugees at sea and collecting the bodies of those that fail to survive the journey.

In this very gloomy context, we should celebrate the fact that action is still being taken to preserve the principles of asylum and refugee protection. 

And we should not give up on governments. Greece and Italy, for example, have not received the recognition they deserve in acting as the first port of call for many of the one million refugees who have made their way to Europe over the past year. Canada has also set a tremendous example to the EU, admitting no fewer than 10,000 Syrian refugees through an organized resettlement program in an eight-week period between November 2015 and January 2016. 

Can Europe still rise to the refugee challenge, despite the disappointments of the past six months? The continent has the potential to do so. 

The EU is the most prosperous regional grouping of states in the world. It continues to play a central role in the international refugee protection regime and is formally committed to a wide range of human rights and asylum instruments. The EU has an important influence on nearby states in the Mediterranean and North African regions, and has the capacity to support expanded humanitarian and development efforts in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have borne the brunt of the Syrian refugee emergency.

In the words of Filippo Grandi, the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees and a European himself, “while the influx to Europe has finally focused the attention of the world on the Syria crisis and the epic levels of human suffering it produces, the biggest burden by far is shouldered by communities and governments in the region.”