A little over a year ago the European refugee crisis was addressed with two distinct measures -- namely, the EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkan route.
So where do we stand today? How would we grade those policies' effectiveness and what are the consequences to the flow of immigrants into the Balkan region, and into Europe at large?
European governments are backtracking on all their commitments and this has to stop. For Amnesty International this is the bottom line, I would say. Neither the EU-Turkey deal nor the closure ‘by declaration’ of the Balkans route has led to improving the situation of refugees and migrants in the region.
This crisis in Europe is political, and is about the power struggles between individual governments seeking to minimize their participation in sharing responsibility. Hungary is the most egregious example, but quite a few European states are up there.
The refugee crisis rages on, it is just displaced – and deliberately externalized – to countries which are unable to cope with it on their own. So you have thousands of people stuck in Serbia for example, a country surrounded by several EU countries. The humanitarian situation there has been serious for over a year now. Or you have Greece with tens of thousands of asylum-seekers stuck in inadequate camps. Or thousands of people at risk of death across the Mediterranean. And as we speak, rescue organizations and volunteers are smeared instead of being supported.
European governments are not doing enough – to put it mildly – to enable refugees and migrants to continue their disrupted lives in dignity and rights.
Each country is a case of its own and issues are multifaceted. But this is a manageable crisis in Europe. We believe we need to rebuild popular pressure on governments from below to resuscitate the necessary political will.
Not surprisingly, I completely agree with Todor.
The human toll of political squabbling, mismanagement, and abdication of responsibilities and basic decency is clear. The EU-Turkey deal was fatally flawed to begin with, based on the incorrect assessment that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers, and the apparent willingness to saddle Greece with a totally disproportionate share of responsibility. The Balkan route has not been closed entirely; border enforcement measures have only made the journey more costly and risky, and have trapped people in Balkan countries wholly unequipped and unwilling to provide even the most basic reception conditions.
Human Rights Watch does not minimize the very real challenges posed by the arrival of large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers, both on national governments and local communities. Countries of the EU can meet these challenges; what’s missing is the political will, steadfast commitment to respecting everyone’s rights, and proactive, positive communication with the European public about what is at stake.
Judith and Todor are very right, there seems to be a complete lack of political will and commitment by the EU and its Member States to uphold the fundamental rights of migrants, refugees and actors providing humanitarian assistance first and foremost.
What we are seeing today is a morally corrupt and legally flawed race to the bottom when it comes to procedural and reception standards for asylum seekers, with criminalisation of migration and humanitarian assistance worryingly on the rise.
In Italy, saving lives at sea is being criminalised while the failure to do so takes years of painfully slow investigations before the victims can find justice, as in the case of the 268 migrants, including 60 children, who tragically lost their lives off the coasts of Lampedusa on 11 October 2013 (http://video.espresso.repub...).
In Greece, children are detained "for their own safety" and, after entry into force of the EU-Turkey deal, the systematic and automatic detention of migrants has worryingly become the norm. Fatma, a young girl from Algeria, has been detained in Kos for 6 months. She is the only girl in the detention centre. On hunger strike for the past five days, Fatma is no longer leaving the container where she is detained: "Moria has killed my hopes. I cry, but I know that my tears will not leave this place" - she told the European Parliament delegation of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee visiting Greece this week.
Denying the fact that migration is not a temporary phenomenon that will come to an end, EU leaders are increasingly recurring to informal cooperation with third countries based on the “model” of the EU-Turkey cooperation, such as the Joint Way Forward with Afghanistan or the agreement with Mali, mainly to avoid the proper democratic scrutiny which the sensitive nature and human dimension of such agreements would certainly require. These agreements are concluded in the form of non-binding “statements”, as such are not challengeable before European courts and are not subject to the scrutiny of the European Parliament, yet paradoxically implemented by the European Commission.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, very rightly foresees that “it will take a whole generation to undo the damage presently done to the democratic functioning of European and national institutions, to the perception abroad of the principles of European foreign policies and to the understanding of mobility and diversity as assets to be celebrated and not threats to be feared“.
As long as EU leaders deliberately refuse to establish unconditional, safe and legal routes to Europe through high scale resettlement programmes for refugees, the issuing of family and humanitarian visas and the creation of other avenues, including for migrant workers in low-wage sectors and family reunification, I am afraid that human suffering will keep increasing and Europe will soon find itself irreparably distant from its founding values.
I think it might be helpful to term the European refugee crisis more narrowly as the EU refugee crisis. Because it was the underlying crisis of the EU itself, that turned the refugee and migrants issue - in itself a serious policy challenge for Europe and globally, let there be no doubt - into a full-fledged crisis in 2015. The crisis was fully avoidable - had the EU in 2015 secured sufficient funding for the UNHCR's humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, had it voluntarily resettled a few hundred thousand Syrians from these three countries, there would have been no crisis. But the EU was incapable of any such preventive policy because of the nature of its common asylum policy. While the EU has established a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), implicitly recognizing the impossibility to handle the refugee and migration issue within the EU on a national level, there's never been any agreement on joint European responsibility as the necessary precondition for a common EU policy.
As a consequence, CEAS traditionally functioned only as a semi-formal joint asylum system, based on a certain level of manipulation of its legal basis, and member states' legal obligations. And a certain amount of human rights violations in the treatment of asylum seekers. Because such a 'system' was always depending on keeping the number of asylum seekers that reach the EU limited, as it would not survive the influx of a higher, extraordinary number of refugees and migrants.
That's exactly what happened in the refugee crisis - the system broke down, had to break down and all of its structural problems came to the forefront. What's worse, the EU's crisis management recipe thanks to which it survived multiple challenges over the last decade amidst deep unresolved structural problems and a lack of political leadership - reactive German leadership and a coalition of willing member states - during the winter of 2015-16 hit a wall.
At the beginning of 2016, thus Germany more or less remained as the sole crisis manager and recipient country, while all other countries from the entry onto the Balkan route northwards had turned themselves into transit countries. At the same time, German Chancellor Merkel's traditional managerial approach to politics allowed Mr. Orban and others within the EU to turn the dispute over the crisis policy into a sort of clash of political philosophies, instead of what was at its core - the question of joint responsibility for the EU and EU policy.
The combined measures of the EU-Turkey deal and the official Balkan route closure were thus the only logical 'solution' for European leaders afraid for a decade to openly address the EU's structural problems and deficiencies - short-term measures, aimed at short-term relief, circumventing the core issue of member states' disunity and lack of policy vision and strategy. The 'solution' to the crisis thus naturally had to be based on the outsourcing of the challenge - to Turkey, Greece, and increasingly Serbia - and the well-known manipulation with the EU's legal basis. In a way, on the return to the pre-crisis anti-system of EU asylum policy. Only that in order to put the genie back into the bottle, manipulation within the EU's internal rules and legislation had to be elevated to a higher, previously unseen level.
In that respect, I disagree with you, Judith - basing the EU-Turkey deal on declaring Turkey to be a safe third country was not the consequence of a wrong legal assessment in Brussels and member state capitals - but of a legal stunt.
The consequences of the two March 2016 measures are multifold: Regarding the EU's internal policy, political leaders have dramatically escalated their self-destructive policy approach of avoiding, to openly address the EU's structural problems out of fear for the existence of the Union, thereby undermining the core values of the EU, democracy and the rule of law. Regarding effects on refugees and migrants - on the Balkans, in Greece, Turkey, the wider Mediterranean and on politics and society in these regions, I'll leave that to the further debate.
You all seem to be saying that this "crisis" actually need not be a crisis at all. That the EU member states, as well as the neighboring nations, have the means to absorb the refugee community but they are unwilling to do so, and the EU has been unable to enforce its own internal policies on its own members.
And yet, here we are concerned with how bad the problem will get before it improves. So where is that change going to come from? Is there a dialogue within the upper level of government/s that will produce an actionable solution? Is it hopeless? (Tell me it's not hopeless.)
My view is that there is no simple solution to moving the political decision-makers in the ‘right’ direction. This is a complex network of problems and actors and accordingly, civil society needs to offer complex alternatives and act at various levels at the same time. At the basic level we need to get back to a stage where there is a consensus that saving lives is imperative. It is not the case currently, as you can see every day in the Mediterranean and so requires urgent and loud action from all sides.
And at the same time, more elaborate actions must also be taken to advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants locally and regionally. At Amnesty we are trying to diversify the ways that individuals can engage in this regard. So not only are we asking our supporters to put pressure on their governments, MPs or MEPs, we are also asking them to make the extra personal efforts that this humanitarian situation requires, through private sponsorship, community-based work, local campaigning, help with integration. There are so many ways to engage and to empower recently arrived people.
More practical, everyday acts also increase tolerance and respect, and show a good example. Of course you cannot create the critical mass that will be able to pressure for change in national and EU policies overnight. It is a long way back to the solidarity and responsibility we want to see in Europe. To respond, it is not hopeless though – we firmly believe in people’s power to create change from below through small individual actions.
I agree with Todor that there is no reason for resignation,
The problem is not that there is no dialogue among EU and EU member states' officials. The problem is that in the absence of any agreement on the joint responsibility and management of the reception of asylum seekers within the EU, a new policy of lowest common denominator has emerged since last year, falsely labeled as "protection of the EU's external borders." Yet in fact this policy is aimed at keeping as many asylum seekers away from the EU as possible.
It is thus of utmost importance to counter the official EU narrative and to engage with policy-makers on the serious mid- and long term damage this short sighted policy will do, both to the EU internally and to its international role.
DPC has just finalized a report we produced for the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation to be published in the coming days, that is trying to exactly do that by looking into the fate of the Balkan route since March 2016 and how the policy of the states along the route interrelates to the wider EU policy. You can clearly see that every and each measure undertaken by the EU to close the Balkan route and the wider Eastern Mediterranean route is happening in a grey legal, non-transparent area - in fact it is mostly dark black. And at the same time is not really functioning the way foreseen. The EU-Turkey deal in only functioning in one respect - in keeping refugees and migrants away from crossing the Aegean in large numbers.
The safe third country concept is failing in Greece to return most of those on the island back to Turkey, due to the Greek asylum service's refusal to join Brussel's legal stunt and despite serious pressure from the European Commission to undermine the independence of the Greek asylum procedures. The non-Syrian majority of those few hundreds so far returned to Turkey have since "voluntarily" returned to their countries of origin - with no independent access to these procedures but strong indications of returns took place under pressure of the Turkish authorities.
In the Balkans, the route has shifted direction and back to the use of smugglers, has not been really closed. Attempts to seal it off are based on a collective policy of systematic, illegal, often violent pushback of refugees and migrants and the violation of national, international and EU laws and conventions. This policy implemented by the EU member states located on the southern entry and northern exit on the Balkan route - Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia - is not met with consistent public criticism within the EU and the initiation of infringement procedures - clearly pointing to a new tacit agreement among EU member states governments, that has replaced the liberal-illiberal divide of the time of the European refugee crisis. Such a new tacit policy consent not only undermines a European Union founded in the rule of law. It also forces countries on the Balkan route not yet members of the EU - Macedonia, Serbia - to copy their EU neighbors' illegal asylum policy and practise.
In the Western Balkans you can clearly identify the collateral damage this EU asylum policy is inflicting in its neighborhood. Not only does it undermine the Union's own efforts to strengthen the rule of law through its enlargement policy and and discourage pro-European political and civil society actors. It also encourages autocratic tendencies unfolding in recent years in this politically unstable region that continues to pose a potential security threat to the EU. In Macedonia, support for the former autocratic leader Gruevsk by such high-level EU politicians as Austria's foreign Minister Kurz, in return for the March 2016 closure of the Macedonian-Greek border (illegal by Macedonian law), almost led to civil war this month.
We've focused mostly on the internal friction within the continent, and it's already been mentioned in some of the replies already, but how does the sheer number of refugees compare to previous years? Is there a significant uptick coming out of the conflict in Syria? How necessary will it be to assist in resolving the situation there (and elsewhere) in order to relieve the migration tension in Europe?
You are right Ari, looking at numbers of refugees displaced globally might actually be useful to get things back into perspective by clarifying the scale of the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe and prove that this is simply a crisis of political will, as numbers of refugees fleeing to Europe are entirely manageable.
An estimated 65 million people are currently forcibly displaced worldwide, of them, more than 21 million are refugees, with 53% of them originating from only three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia and mostly displaced to Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
As the war in Syria continues, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011. Now, in the sixth year of war, 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country, with more than 7 million people internally displaced. We should not forget that, among those escaping the conflict, the majority have not sought safety in Europe, but in neighbouring countries. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq are currently hosting more than 5 million Syrian refugees, while less than 1 million have fled to Europe - but not all have been granted refugee status and currently face deportation to Turkey under the deal concluded between the EU and Turkey in March 2016.
A human-rights based cooperation with third countries would surely help to address the situation. However, in its Communication on establishing a new Partnership Framework with third countries under the European Agenda on Migration, the European Commission has set a framework for the EU's cooperation with third countries which makes development and trade cooperation conditional on third countries' cooperation in preventing migration to Europe, enhancing the rate of returns to countries of origin and transit, and creating incentives for countries of origin to manage and control migration in a security-centred approach. This is a clear abdication of responsibility by the European Union. Failing to focus on the importance of unleashing the potential of migration for development, the concept of Partnership Framework cooperation with third countries establishes an extremely dysfunctional common foreign policy entirely based on the illegitimate redirection of funds, originally destined to development cooperation, to conditional practices of forced return and prevention of irregular movements. The massively flawed agreement with Turkey is essentially becoming a template for the EU's approach to asylum and migration and the outsourcing of the EU's responsibilities to countries where basic protection of human rights is not guaranteed is becoming the norm.
I am afraid that, in the absence of strong political leadership aimed at completely turning the tide by providing humanitarian support to reduce human suffering, ensuring access to international protection, access to justice and access to basic services for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, the situation will not change in the near future and Europe will only contribute to increased human suffering instead of relief.
Well, when it comes to the question of resolving the Syrian war, I am not very hopeful - carefully spoken. While during the Obama administration any solution to the Syrian crisis suffered from the lack of political will in Washington (and Europe) to seriously engage, under Trump we are now even lacking the intellectual capacity.
Maria is totally right in laying out the figures that relativize the size of the European refugee crisis. But I’m not sure the numbers are of great help on the policy advocacy side. European governments have used the same numbers to argue for the need to separate those in need for international protection from those not entitled to any form of protection, the so-called “economic migrants.” They’ve argued assistance to refugees should prioritize helping them to stay near their countries of origin instead of them coming to Europe. All reasonable arguments, but as Maria has also shown on the example of the EU’s distortion of its developmental aid policy, this narrative is contradicted by the EU’s real political performance, and thus merely serves as a cover up.
The real problem is the EU’s lack of internal political will and capacity to seriously, strategically deal with a structural political problem. That’s why since March 2016, we have seen efforts by the EU to arrange a deal with the non-existing Libyan government, but no engagement in the Libyan state-failure nor any progress towards a coordinated European immigration policy that would ease the pressure of economic migration.
Regarding supporting refugees near their home countries – well, it may be worth comparing with the last refugee crisis Europe hit during the 1990s Balkan wars. I well remember how when the Bosnian war broke out, the only policy measure the German Kohl government’s took was – to introduce visas for Bosnian citizens in order to prevent them from coming to Germany. Yet back then, Bosnians could still reach the neighboring countries. Since the end of the recent European refugee crisis, Syrians in Syria basically find themselves locked up in their war-torn country, as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have de facto closed their borders with the neighboring country. This is a unique, deeply sad case in history. And it will ultimately backfire – for the EU, Europe and the West as a whole.
Tackling the root causes of forced migration has to be a key plank in EU policies. That means not only seeking resolutions to numerous conflicts creating refugee flows (Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, to name just a few) but also addressing the whole range of human rights abuses that make life in home countries—and countries of first asylum or migration—untenable. And to be clear, I am referring here not only to civil and political rights abuses that come to mind when we talk about asylum seekers and refugees. I am also including social, economic, and cultural rights violations. Many of those risking their lives in the central Mediterranean will not qualify for international protection, though many could arguably qualify for humanitarian leave to stay, either due to hardships back home or abuse experienced along their migration journey. Others started out their journeys as trafficking victims, while still others became victims of trafficking along the way. (The neat divisions traced in international and European law between migrants, asylum seekers and refugees don’t hold up very well in the light of day. A Syrian refugee also wants a decent job and education for her children; the young man from Guinea hoping for greater economic opportunities also craves more freedoms and a life lived in safety.)
Conflict resolution, improving the lives of migrants and refugees in neighboring countries, a human-rights based foreign policy – all vital, all regularly included in EU programs and press releases. As has been noted, however, the reality is quite different. The EU aid and foreign policy has pivoted decisively towards migration control objectives rather than improving respect for human rights. The Partnership Framework for relations with third countries represents a clear articulation of the EU’s goal, significantly re-energized over the past 18 months, to intensify migration cooperation with countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia with the objectives of preventing irregular migratory flows to Europe and facilitating the removal of rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants from EU territory.
In any event, improving conditions and freedoms in origin and transit countries are very long-term goals. In the meantime, EU countries need to show genuine leadership in the global displacement crisis and get serious about measures to minimize the need for dangerous migration journeys. That means refugee resettlement commensurate with EU capacity and global needs; support for the UN refugee agency UNHCR to expand its capacity to process resettlement; innovative programs for private sponsorship, employment and education visas for refugees; expanding, rather than limiting, family reunification options; increased use of humanitarian visas; and expanded legal migration opportunities for workers at all skill levels. It also means ensuring robust search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
No amount of safe and legal channels will reduce irregular migration to zero. People will continue to come, with or without life jackets but definitely with rights. Those rights cannot be sacrificed in the name of deterrence. Everyone should be treated decently, receive necessary care, and have access to information and legal advice about every procedure affecting their rights and liberties, whether they are applying for asylum, may have humanitarian or other grounds to remain in an EU country, or have been detained pending deportation.
As a human rights activist, I base my work on the belief that positive change is possible. That has become increasingly difficult as we see EU governments close Europe’s doors to refugees and make life harder for those already here. But I still have to believe that EU countries can adopt responsible and compassionate policies.
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