Europe’s Elephant in the Room

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Chris Herman, Editorial Intern

The Syrian refugee crisis is one thing EU states would rather not deal with, but as more refugees are making their way into Europe, the problem is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

After three years, the civil war in Syria has been responsible for the creation of nearly 3 million refugees, making it one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. As refugees flee Syria in droves, they find themselves in camps in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Yet the conditions in these refugee camps are unacceptable as they become increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced. The EU is arguably in the best position of any region to accommodate refugees from Syria, but the response to the crisis by the EU and its member states has been inconsistent and dysfunctional.

Nonetheless, Syrians are migrating into Europe by the tens of thousands, by land and in makeshift boats in hope of finding a more secure future there. But for the refugees who survive the passage into Europe, their journey is far from over as they find themselves in the hands of an asylum system that struggles to decide what it wants to do with refugees and how it is going to do it.

As Syria’s neighbors surpass their saturation points for accommodating refugees, the sentiment from the international community and the European Commission alike has increasingly been that it is Europe’s responsibility to accommodate more refugees. UNHCR has requested that Europe provide accommodation for 100,000 Syrians in 2015 and 2016. The European Commission has been confident that the EU is capable of accommodating those demands and more with collaborative participation among all of its member states.

However, the attitude of the states is typically less than enthusiastic. In the eyes of many Europeans, foreigners crossing into their countries by the thousands presents yet another illegal immigration problem that must be stopped, regardless of the circumstances behind it. The EU and its member states have already contributed a combined total of around $2.8 billion in humanitarian aid to the crisis in Syria and its spillover into surrounding states. But as Europe encourages Syria’s neighbors—who already host more than 2.9 million Syrians, to keep their borders open—most EU states have been steadfast in their reluctance to do the same.

The European Commission has tried to convince the EU’s 28 member states to accept refugees from Syria, including an offer to pay €6,000 per refugee to offset costs, with limited results. Germany and Sweden have vowed to accept thousands of refugees and already account for the largest rates of resettlement for Syrians; 56 percent of new Syrian asylum applications have been received in those two states alone. Other states have vowed to accept Syrian refugees in far more limited numbers, such as 500 in France and 250 in the Netherlands. Meanwhile other countries including the UK, the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria in the EU, have expressed that they have no desire to accept any.

Even still, Syrians migrating on their own into Europe present a more difficult problem for European asylum systems. The reason for this is an EU policy signed in 2003 called the Dublin Regulation, which mandates that the first country in which an asylum case is lodged is the country that becomes permanently responsible for evaluating the asylum case for that refugee. This was originally intended to prevent abuse of the asylum system by all parties by preventing refugees from lodging asylum applications in multiple states and by preventing states from passing refugees around without granting asylum.

However, for years, the Dublin Regulation has been heavily criticized for its actual impact in the face of refugee crises. Entities including the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights have called for its reform from as early as 2008 on the grounds that it is operating under the false assumption that the asylum systems of individual EU states can provide equally high standards of protection, which only serves to victimize refugees and certain European states. This reality has been made ever apparent during the Syrian crisis, as the Dublin Regulation has trapped the bulk of refugees in EU border countries like Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria who are not adequately equipped to handle the unprecedented influx of asylum seekers.

As a result, refugees who first set foot in these countries are presented with a difficult conundrum. They can either lodge their application in a country where they may face unacceptable treatment and will likely never be granted proper asylum, or they can attempt to venture illegally across several more international borders to a better-equipped country like Sweden at the risk of being caught and pushed out of the EU entirely. If the EU wants to help refugees out of the border states and into the countries that are equipped to handle them, then it must find a way to restructure the policy environment to make it possible.

Meanwhile, as refugees continue to accumulate in EU border states, unable to leave, Europe struggles to mitigate the loss of life of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Following the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013 that resulted in the death of 260 migrants from Africa, the Italian navy implemented a program called Mare Nostrum, in which naval vessels patrol the Strait of Sicily in order to intercept migrant boats and help them safely to Italy. But in June, the Italian navy discovered a small fishing boat full of nearly 600 migrants, thirty of whom had already perished on the journey across the Mediterranean, which has fueled ongoing criticism of Mare Nostrum, with critics arguing that the program serves only to encourage more migrants to make the dangerous crossing. Supporters of Mare Nostrum insist that the program can be effective at saving lives but that the rest of the EU needs to contribute resources and foot their share of the €9 million per month operating cost. As the burden of Mare Nostrum becomes too much for Italy to bear, there is a strong possibility of the program being handed over to the EU’s small border protection agency, Frontex, in which case member state contributions may be the only thing left to keep the program afloat.

If one thing is certain, it is that an inconsistent approach does not go very far towards solving a challenge as large and persistent as the Syrian refugee crisis. As Syria’s neighbors continue to overflow with refugees, more and more of them will inevitably make their way into Europe, and only a well-coordinated response can make that process as easy as possible for Europe and refugees alike. The current status of EU immigration policy in regards to the Syrian refugee crisis raises important questions about whose responsibility it is to care for the millions of people with nowhere to turn but the international community and how to divide that responsibility fairly and effectively. For the millions of refugees whose safety and future are still uncertain as they await asylum and resettlement, the answers to those questions cannot come soon enough.

Photo: Save the Children/Hedinn Halldorsson (cc).