Europe’s refugee crisis: Chronicle of a death foretold

08 September 2015

The forces driving refugees towards the EU will not disappear in the foreseeable future. Europe needs a comprehensive long-term strategy to improve the political and security situation in its neighbourhood. And whatever else it does, it needs to take urgent steps to accommodate and integrate refugees already in Europe. The European Commission is on the right track and the member-states should follow its lead.

The response of European leaders to the scale and urgency of the refugee crisis has been inadequate. Stronger fences have not stopped migrants at Calais from regularly disrupting train services to the UK; or those in Serbia from walking along train tracks into Hungary. People still climb on board rickety boats along the Turkish and Libyan coasts. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, has suggested that the Schengen agreement could be suspended, allowing EU member-states to reimpose border controls between them – but that would only leave even greater numbers of refugees stuck in ‘frontline’ EU states like Greece.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, has said that the solution lies in stabilising countries of origin and “trying to make sure there are worthwhile jobs and stronger economies there”. Of course. But nobody suggests that such a goal is achievable in the foreseeable future in Syria (now the source of the largest contingent of refugees) or Libya (a transit state mired in civil war that cannot prevent people-smuggling). Huge numbers of refugees will continue to head for Europe as long as the conflicts and chaos they are fleeing endure.


Europe is doing very little to try to stabilise not only Syria and Libya, but also Eritrea and Afghanistan, which are also sources of significant numbers of refugees (though in recent years it has expended much blood and treasure in the last of those countries). The EU’s efforts have been focused on supporting the moribund UN-led peace process in Libya, and on helping Syria’s neighbours to shelter refugees.

In Syria, neither the EU nor its member-states have been willing either to compel the warring parties to stop fighting or to create incentives for them to do so. Russia has stepped up its support for President Bashar al-Assad, to the extent of sending some Russian forces. The Islamic State terrorist organisation, despite being on the receiving end of airstrikes by the US, some EU countries and several Gulf states, continues to control much territory and attract many recruits. A rare glimmer of hope is that the nuclear deal with Iran might make Tehran a more co-operative partner in seeking a solution. But even in the unlikely event of a Syrian peace deal, it is doubtful that refugees will return home quickly.

The EU is a major donor in Afghanistan, particularly in supporting institution-building. But since the EU is involved neither in improving security nor in promoting a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, it can do little to stem the flow of refugees. Eritrea, a poor country with an appalling human rights record, will remain a source of refugees and economic migrants. Its government is unco-operative and the EU has few levers to pull. And in Libya, where there is no effective government, the EU is dependent on UN-led efforts to find a political solution. Even if the UN was able to put Libya back together again, there would still be some time before the country had a government capable of controlling porous borders and cracking down on people-smuggling.

So the flows of people will continue. How should the EU respond? Europe is a large donor to programmes that seek to keep refugees close to their countries of origin (and has provided more than €3.9 billion for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, in particular). But those inside the camps face unpleasant living conditions and meagre hopes of being accepted as an asylum seeker. This encourages them to seek a better life in Europe. The EU needs to step up its efforts to improve standards in these camps, support refugees in the region and enable them to resettle elsewhere. The EU may be able to persuade some other countries in the Middle East to take Syrian refugees (most have taken very few), but many more will still want to come to Europe.

The European Commission is now proposing a scheme for relocating 160,000 refugees already within the EU (in May it had already proposed a system of quotas for 40,000 refugees). This would be the first step towards a more permanent relocation system, and a far-reaching reform of the Dublin regulation, the system governing the management of asylum claims in Europe. Under the Dublin system, asylum seekers must apply in the first EU member-state they enter.

Among the most vocal critics of the Commission’s initial proposal for quotas were Spain and the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). The UK has been clear that it will not take part, and it is not legally obliged to, since it has the right to opt-out of EU measures related to Justice and Home Affairs (including asylum). But, even though the Commission is seeking to quadruple the number of refugees that it wants distributed among the member-states, public opinion in several member-states has shifted in its favour over the past week. Some governments are softening their opposition to quotas. For his part, David Cameron has announced that the UK will take 20,000 Syrians from camps near Syria over the next four years, but none of those already in the EU. Given that the Commission’s plans have strong backing from Germany and France, there may well be enough support among governments for them to pass.

The EU has 500 million inhabitants so should not find it unmanageable to settle 160,000 refugees. But countries that have a strong record of integrating immigrants, and of cultural and religious tolerance, will be more effective in absorbing refugees than those that have experienced less immigration. The EU therefore needs its richer and more ethnically and culturally diverse member-states to do the heavy-lifting. Germany already is, but France and the UK must pull their weight, too. These are countries with very substantial immigrant populations from outside the EU, which also have the social infrastructure needed to integrate sizable numbers of refugees.


This is not to say that other member-states, notably the Central Europeans, should reject refugees. But with the exception of Poland they are small countries that could not accommodate huge numbers. In any case, only if the EU’s wealthier and more open societies pull their weight will they have the moral authority to cajole the Central European member-states to do more.

Beyond relocation and integration, the EU must also take action to prevent asylum-seekers travelling to Europe. An ‘open doors’ policy for asylum-seekers would be irresponsible, encouraging people to risk their lives with people-smugglers. That is why member-states (and the European Parliament) should agree, in the shortest possible time, to a common list of countries of origin that are ‘safe’, so that no asylum should be granted to their nationals. The Commission’s proposal will include such a list, which would have a deterrent effect – and help to ease the procedures when reviewing claims.

A functioning asylum system should also ensure that those not qualifying as refugees are effectively returned to their countries of origin. That is why the Commission’s proposal will also focus on improving the EU’s poorly-functioning return system. The EU needs to make sure that the readmission agreements with neighbouring countries that are already in place are enforced, while pushing ahead with negotiations on new deals with other relevant countries. The EU should also provide more funds and equipment both for its frontline member-states, and for the countries where refugees come from and travel through. This should include development aid to improve living conditions in source countries, as well as experts and technology to strengthen the key borders.

People fleeing conflicts or political persecution should expect their asylum claims to be reviewed within a reasonable period of time, under fair and humane conditions. The EU should create safe processing centres in countries closer to the refugees’ countries of origin: this would reduce both the need for improvised refugee camps on European soil, and the incentives for refugees to risk their lives by trying to reach Europe. In the Middle East, the most obvious candidate would be Turkey: a bridge between Europe and Asia, it already hosts 1.6 million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Legally, the EU can only set up a processing centre in Turkey if Ankara agrees to become a full member of the UN’s Geneva convention on the status of refugees. Currently, although a signatory, Turkey maintains a territorial exception that specifies it will only accept refugees from European countries. In return for Turkey agreeing to host the centres, the EU could expedite the talks on visa liberalisation, and offer financial support. In North Africa the EU should be ready – as soon as a viable government is installed – to set up safe processing centres in Libya.

The EU must also rethink the mandate of Frontex, the EU Borders Agency. Frontex can currently deploy Rapid Border Action Teams (RABITs) to help a member-state that is under exceptional pressure, as is currently the case for Hungary and the UK. If the EU wants to prevent Schengen from falling apart, it should reinforce the control over, and the management of, its external border, rather than rely on ad-hoc co-operation during crises. A permanent European Border Guard, with a strong mandate and budget, would ease the burden on the member-states struggling to cope with refugees, and would help to stop human traffickers.

Europe’s response to the refugee crisis has been painfully slow, but the Commission is now giving some sensible pointers on the way forward. Nothing that the EU’s institutions and governments can do in the near future will stop flows into the continent. The member-states will have to work out a fair system for processing and resettling asylum-seekers. But in the longer run a more pro-active EU foreign and development policy can help to reduce the incentives for people to travel to Europe.

Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow, Ian Bond is director of foreign policy and Simon Tilford is deputy director at the Centre for European Reform.