Don’t panic, Europe, this is not a refugee ‘crisis’


Picture of Kenneth Roth
Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth is Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

The arrival by sea of one million migrants and asylum-seekers in 2015 created a crisis for the European Union, but it was largely political, not one of capacity. As an economic matter, the EU’s wealthy member states can absorb people representing a mere 0.2% of its population of 500 million. Even if they had all settled in Germany, they would still constitute a not-impossible 1.2% of the population – significantly less than in Turkey, where Syrian refugees alone are already 3% of the population, or Lebanon, where they are 25%.

But the feeling that Europe had lost control of its borders – and that millions more arrivals may be waiting in the wings – fuelled a political upheaval. Schengen – the borderless movement of people among many EU countries – was at risk; the far right was rising; people feared for their culture, their jobs and as terrorism mounted – even if home-grown from old immigrant communities rather than today’s refugees – their safety.

The sense that something had to be done led to the EU’s deal with Turkey, which seems to have curtailed the flow of migrants across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Some elements of that deal are laudable, such as the potential €6bn promised to Turkey to improve conditions for the Syrian refugees now hosted by that country. Some seem unlikely, such as the promised resumption of accession talks for Turkey at a point when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undermining democratic checks on executive power, flouting the Copenhagen criteria that govern accession.

Some aspects, though, are downright illegal. European law recognises the right of people fleeing persecution to seek asylum. Once migrants arrive in the EU – and economic crisis aside, Greece is still a full EU member – they have the right to seek asylum and have that claim fairly assessed. The EU is using sleight of hand to evade that law. It says it will hear each asylum claim individually for migrants who cross the Aegean, but it plans to reject almost all of them on the grounds that the asylum-seeker arrived directly from a ‘safe’ third country, Turkey. Asylum law indeed permits claims to be ruled inadmissible if the claimant could have found safety in another country en route, but the proposition that Turkey is such a haven is pure fiction.

The feeling that Europe had lost control of its borders fuelled a political upheaval

To begin with, Turkey is granting temporary protection to well over two million Syrian refugees by discretion rather than as a right. This is because Turkey ratified the Refugee Convention and its protocol in a way that protects only Europeans. That limited acceptance of its legal obligations is part of why Turkey has blocked tens of thousands more Syrians from fleeing to Turkey. Even beyond the Refugee Convention, international customary law prohibits such ‘refoulement’, but Turkey is flouting it.

As for its discretionary generosity, Turkey has extended that only to Syrian refugees – roughly half of those who had been crossing the Aegean to Greece. Most of the remainder have been refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Turkey grants them protection only if they will be resettled to another country, which few are. In addition, with Erdogan having resumed violent and ugly military operations against Kurdish insurgents, and as he seeks to silence dissenters and critical journalists, Turkey may soon once again be generating its own refugees.

Moreover, part of the definition of a ‘safe’ third country under asylum law is that refugees can make a reasonable life there. But a large number of even the Syrian refugees in Turkey are struggling to find jobs, housing, medical care and schools for their children.

For every Syrian returned from Greece to Turkey, the EU has promised to resettle a different Syrian refugee currently in Turkey. Resettlement is to be encouraged, but it should not be used as a quid pro quo to violate the rights of asylum-seekers in Greece and elsewhere in the EU to have their claims heard. And it provides no solace for the Iraqi and Afghan refugees hiding in Turkey, whose exclusion from the resettlement deal leaves them even more vulnerable.

There is another choice. If one accepts that the chaos at its borders is a greater threat to Europe today than the number of refugees entering Europe, there is a way to restore order, reduce the number of boats crossing to Greece and still respect the rights of asylum-seekers. It has three essential elements.

Chaos at its borders is a greater threat to Europe today than the number of refugees

First, much greater attention must be paid to stopping the atrocities that are driving the refugee flight. Horrible as the barbarities have been by Daesh, most Syrians are fleeing the Assad government’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in parts of the country held by the armed opposition. Bashar al-Assad’s aim has been to depopulate those areas and punish rebel sympathisers. When Russia was also bombing north-western Syria to support Damascus, the exodus accelerated. The ‘cessation of hostilities’ has curtailed the killing, but it is fragile, and in any case allows Syrian attacks, indiscriminate as they have been, to continue against territory held by Daesh and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. And the attacks have indeed continued, most prominently in heavily-populated areas around Damascus and Aleppo, causing more refugees to take flight. Russia and Iran, without whose support the Assad government would long have collapsed, are the key to ending such war crimes. There have been other interests at stake with Moscow (Ukraine) and Tehran (the nuclear deal). But ending Assad’s indiscriminate warfare, as well as lifting his sieges of civilians and releasing his political prisoners, should now be at the top of the list. That requires sustained public pressure on these influential Assad allies.

Second, investment is needed to make life bearable for refugees in the countries in which they first arrive. Many refugees prefer to stay close to home in the hope they can return someday, but they will stay in countries of first refuge only if they feel protected there and can envision a life of safety and dignity for their families. The EU’s promise of €6bn to Turkey is a step in the right direction for providing jobs, schools and medical care for the refugees there, but things are even worse for the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. More must be done to improve conditions in these countries of first arrival so refugees will be convinced not to move on to Europe.

Third, for refugees of any nationality who still want to reach Europe, opportunities should be provided for resettlement directly from countries of first refuge such as Turkey. A procedure to evaluate refugee status in Turkey would do a better job of screening out economic migrants and security threats than is possible in the midst of the chaos we have seen in Greece. It would offer refugees a route to safety without risking their lives on rickety boats. And if the numbers accepted for resettlement are large enough, and the procedures fair and expeditious, it could convince refugees to wait for resettlement rather than taking their chances at sea.

But the EU’s performance so far has not been auspicious. EU members had by mid-April resettled only 5,677 refugees under a plan to take in 22,500 by 2017, and have been unwilling to distribute among themselves the 50,000 asylum-seekers currently languishing in squalid camps in Greece. The EU agreed last September to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece, but fewer than 1,000 had been transferred from Greece as of 17th May.

The EU is using sleight of hand to evade the right to seek asylum and have that claim fairly assessed

Only an unconditional, larger-scale resettlement programme would represent a credible alternative to dangerous routes and reliance on smugglers by refugees and asylum-seekers. If one accepts that the chaos is a greater political threat to Europe than the numbers themselves, that could become a spur to greater generosity. And while fair distribution among all EU members is preferable, a handful of EU members acting alone could still make a big difference. Moreover, a robust EU resettlement programme would enable Europe to appeal to other nations to do their part. Once refugees arrive in the EU, they are Europe’s responsibility. But while they are still in countries of first refugee, the EU can ask the United States, Australia, Brazil, the Gulf states and others to do more to help. Any country that recognises its security interest in the continued political viability of the EU should respond generously.

This three-part programme could substantially reduce the flow of boats across the Aegean. Of course, it won’t necessarily stop attempts at the voyage by economic migrants, since they’d presumably be screened out of a resettlement programme, or asylum-seekers who are unable or unwilling to wait. But a less chaotic flood of arrivals would make it easier for the EU to assess their claims fairly and efficiently. Most important, this approach would be legal. It would not depend on the fiction that Turkey is safe for forcibly returning asylum-seekers. Rather, it would use voluntary incentives to curb the flow of asylum-seekers while fully respecting their rights.

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