Breaching the walls of Fortress Europe


Picture of Jan Egeland
Jan Egeland

Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

Faced with the greatest human displacement crisis in the history of the European Union, leaders must now accept greater international sharing of responsibility. We have to welcome more refugees and resettle them in Europe, and we must also dramatically increase our humanitarian aid.

Europe is facing just one facet of a worldwide crisis. Every two seconds, a person was forced last year to flee from conflict and persecution. The total number of people displaced is now close to 60m, the largest figure since the aftermath of World War II and the 1947 partition of India.

The refugees and migrants camping around the French port of Calais, and the people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Greece or Italy, are just the tip of the iceberg. In a world ravaged by conflicts, we must now expect a growing number of people to take increasingly desperate measures in bids to get themselves and their families to safety. Only a small percentage of them will head towards Europe, yet many Europeans believe we are at risk of being overwhelmed. The facts are as follows: Europe is today housing only about 6% of the world’s refugees and displaced people. It is Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Kenya that are shouldering the main burdens of the global displacement crisis. Yes, the number of refugees has increased in Europe, but Turkey alone received more refugees last year than the whole of Europe combined.

If Europe responds to increased migration by increasing border controls or building walls like Hungary, we will just be sweeping the problem under the carpet

In their attempts to control immigration, European countries are tightening their border restrictions and making it more difficult for people displaced by war and conflict to apply for asylum. But Europe cannot hide from global realities by building higher walls and increasing its border controls. We will only end up pushing desperate people to take increasingly dangerous routes as their path to safety.

During the first seven months of this year, more than 180,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, a sharp increase on last year. The majority fled war-torn countries and thus have a right to protection under the Refugee Convention. By summer 2015, some 2,000 people died in their attempts to reach Europe.

Media coverage in Calais has vividly portrayed the same desperation as migrants and refugees try to cross into Britain. The UK government has responded by funding more guards at the Eurotunnel terminal there to stop the few thousand that Prime Minister David Cameron has described as a “swarm of people”.

If Europe responds to increased migration by cracking down on migrant smuggling networks, increasing border controls, or building walls like Hungary, we will just be sweeping the problem under the carpet. These people are not fleeing because there exist ruthless people smugglers – the smugglers are there because there is a demand from vulnerable people who have given up all hope of a better life by remaining where they are.

The civil conflict in Syria is the single most important driver behind the increase in global displacement figures. Syrians also constitute the largest group crossing the Mediterranean. Yet only 6% of all Syrian refugees have been able to seek asylum in Europe – the vast majority of refugees are being forced to seek protection in neighbouring countries to Syria.

Those countries in the region are now reeling under the pressure of more than four million Syrian refugees. With only 30% of the regional refugee response plan funded, many people are not being given the support they need. The living conditions of these millions of Syrian refugees are worsening, with families living in destitution, often without access to medical care and whose children are deprived of education.

We in Europe urgently need to increase our humanitarian assistance – not only to Syria and its neighbours but also to the many other countries in acute crisis

The patience and dignity of the Syrian families coping with this situation is impressive, but an increasing number of people are losing all hope. Unless more support is given to these refugees and their host communities, many more will find themselves forced to choose between returning to Syria’s crossfire or to face the perils of the journey to Europe. We in Europe urgently need to increase our humanitarian assistance – not only to Syria and its neighbours but also to the many other countries in acute crisis. Providing hope and opportunity, and education and livelihoods is also the best way for Europe to promote stability and prevent disaffected youths from turning to extremist groups.

There will in any case be many who cannot, even with humanitarian assistance, find the protection they need. The UNHCR warns that about 10% of refugees from Syria look to be particularly vulnerable and in need of resettlement outside the region – they number widows with children, stateless Palestinians and individuals facing persecution.

These are the people who should be welcomed to Europe. But currently only Germany has offered a substantial number of resettlement places for the most vulnerable refugees. There seems to be a race to the bottom among Europe’s leadership, with politicians apparently saying “how can we get short-lived popularity with our own public and avoid taking in refugees we know need our protection?” Here in Norway, a recent campaign by humanitarian organisations has convinced Norwegian parliamentarians to double the number of refugees to be welcomed, and it’s clear that other countries could do the same.

The EU’s discussion about sharing responsibility for refugees coming to Europe must break free of its paralysis and offer many more people a legal way to enter the European continent without risking their lives at sea. At present, though, the refugees and migrants who make it to Europe are met with a reception system that’s in crisis. It has become impossible to ignore the spectacle of the Greek islands, where European holidaymakers are sunbathing on the beaches while refugees and migrants are seeking shelter in overcrowded camps and reception centres. Aid and emergency workers have been witnessing devastating scenes as exhausted refugees struggle to continue their journey north from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia. These relatively poor countries badly need EU support to strengthen their reception systems if they are to tackle the crisis.

The need is for a more energetic and coherent European effort to address the root causes of today’s displacement crisis

More than anything else, a peace settlement in Syria would reduce the refugee push factor. The need is for a more energetic and coherent European effort to address the root causes of today’s displacement crisis. The wish of most of the world’s displaced people is to return home, so when new peace talks are under way in Geneva, Europe must do what it can to make it more attractive for the parties at the bargaining table to settle and more unattractive to continue fighting.

In several of the conflicts raging around the world, both regional and global powers still add fuel to the flames by providing the warring parties with weapons and money. Europe’s leaders must therefore work to get Iran and Russia to sit down with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. to help UN mediators rather than allow them to be undermined.

Back in the 1990s, when conflict exploded in the Balkans, European leaders demonstrated their willingness and their commitment to helping the region and to resettling refugees in their countries. Today, that sort of European leadership is missing. Too many European politicians and their voters apparently wish to hide behind higher walls. It is high time for Europe to step up to this latest and greatest challenge.

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