In recent years, the European Union’s goal of an ever closer union has come under increasing strain; the possibility of a GREXIT challenged the economic stability of the single-currency bloc, recent terrorist attacks have raised uncomfortable questions about national security, and the refugee crisis is placing enormous pressure on the existing rules and infrastructure. Yet, of these issues, none is more pressing and immediate than the refugee crisis.
The toll of the crisis, whether measured in money or lives, is staggering, and instead of collaborating to find a lasting solution that protects the rights and wellbeing of refugees, many EU governments have focused their efforts at preventing people from making the journey to Europe. In a desperate bid to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, Turkey and the EU struck a deal. Earlier this month, the first part of this deal came into effect, with boats carrying refugees deported from Greece arriving in Turkey.
On 18 March 2016, the European Union struck a deal with Turkey that aimed to address the overwhelming number of refugees flowing from Turkey to the Greek Islands. While the specifics of the agreement are complex, its essence is simple: refugees arriving illegally in Greece from Turkey will be returned, with a cap of 72,000 refugees. In exchange, Turkey will get a package of incentives, including the promise of visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens, increased resettlement of refugees in Turkey, and the distribution of €3 billion in aid. The deal has been roundly criticized by human rights groups, which cite the legal and ethical responsibilities that countries have to refugees. Assuming that the deal was made to comply with existing international laws – it is hard to imagine that the EU would expend this much political capital to forge a deal that cannot stand up in court – that still leaves the ethical obligations these states have to refugees.
In the wake of this deal, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have decided to suspend their operations in Greece’s refugee “hotspots.” Citing the deal, Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF Head of Mission in Greece, said: “We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.” This agreement does not actually seek to deal with the root problems of the crisis, nor does it come closer to finding a long-term solution. It merely pushes the problem outside Europe, and sends a clear message to refugees: do not come to Europe.
The refugee crisis is not a recent phenomenon. It is, however, new to Europe and the West. For the past five years, Syria has been mired in a civil war, which began with the Arab Spring protests. These pro-democracy protests have led to the toppling of several dictators in the region, but in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad tried to crush the protests using armed force. Violence escalated, and the country descended into civil war. According to the UN, since the beginning of the conflict, over 250,000 Syrians have been killed, and a further 10.3 million have been displaced; forced to either leave their homes in search of safety elsewhere in Syria, or flee the country entirely. This is not to say that Syrians are the only group of displaced people seeking refuge in Europe; there are also significant numbers of Afghans and Iraqis hoping to claim asylum as well. However, Syrians are by far the largest group, and make up nearly a third of all refugee applications in Europe. And while Europe may be struggling to cope with the number of refugees, more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees are in just five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. These countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, and their resources have been stretched incredibly thin; Turkey hosts 2.5 million Syrians, more than any other country in the world, and one-in-five people in Lebanon are refugees.
Aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which hosts nearly 80,000 refugees
Though this crisis has often been called a migrant crisis, it is important to note that many of those fleeing to Europe are refugees, not migrants. This distinction is critical; migrants choose to leave their homes in search of better education or employment opportunities, whereas refugees are persons fleeing from armed conflict or persecution. To quote the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): “these are people for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.” Ever since the 1951 Refugee Convention, certain rights have been afforded to individuals recognized as refugees; of utmost primacy is the guarantee of safety upon repatriation. Using refugees and migrants as interchangeable terms can have drastic consequences for those seeking asylum. If a migrant arrives illegally in the European Union, they can be turned around and sent back to their home. If a refugee arrives illegally, the country has a responsibility to ensure their wellbeing; they have rights that nearly every country on Earth has agreed to uphold for the past 65 years. In short, European countries have no obligation to refugees, until they arrive in Europe. However, once those refugees do arrive, they have certain rights that those countries are obligated to uphold. Thus, European countries benefit from making the journey as difficult as possible, and many EU countries have actively avoided policies that would make the trip less dangerous. In its attempt to stem the flow of refugees, Europe’s moral compass has been tainted.
The overall response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate. European countries have offered resettlement places for less than 5% of the total refugee population. However, the continent is not alone in its failure. The Gulf nations including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have not offered a single resettlement place to refugees, nor have other developed countries like Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. In the US, the debate over refugees has grown increasingly racist and xenophobic. To find a thorough solution to the refugee crisis, its root causes must be addressed. This entails providing financial and humanitarian aid to countries shouldering the greatest burden of this crisis, offering safe harbor for those fleeing from conflict and persecution, and ultimately bringing an end to the violence and conflicts that have forced so many from their homes. It is a mistake to think that those solutions can be found by pushing the problem beyond the border. Only a united European front can bring an end to the crisis. Now is the time to reaffirm the values upon which the EU was built, and work towards a solution based on solidarity and humanity.
If you would like to help, please consider donating to the UN Refugee Agency.