The need for a unified EU response to the ongoing refugee crisis

The displacement of millions mainly due to the ongoing Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS have left Europe facing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. A united European response is essential if the values and, indeed, the existence of the European project are to be sustained. This author believes that the current issue of refugees should be detangled from the wider immigration debate and that a coherent response must be found to give asylum to those fleeing persecution.

A plethora of countervailing issues, including how to best implement a humanitarian response, the implications of international law, national security and a rising anti-immigration sentiment across the continent have coalesced to the effect that a common response from the EU member states has not been forthcoming. Ultimately, the lack of European unity and decisiveness has lead to a disturbing deepening of the crisis.

A common European policy has arguably been delayed by a lack of agreement on what the crisis represents. As a bloc of over half a billion citizens, Europe has the resources to provide relief and a safe haven for these refugees, yet the response thus far has been one of incoherence and incompetence.

The Schengen Agreement, which abolished border controls across the majority of the EU, enables the freedom of movement, greatly benefiting the European economy. However, the ongoing crisis has exposed an inadequate system of governance, with Hungary having unilaterally built a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia, leading to accusations of Hungary ‘flouting the common values of Europe’. Further, Slovakia has stated that they will only accept Christian refugees. Germany has unilaterally suspended the Dublin Protocol, under which migrants are assessed for refugee status in their country of entry to the EU. These actions are not constructive because each unilateral move hinders the provision of an EU-wide policy solution to tackle this crisis.

Under international law, migrants have a number of rights which must be honoured by the EU to ensure the continued legitimacy of international law. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14 states that ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. Therefore, the moral response to the crisis should be a motivating factor in accepting refugees. This has been led by Germany, with Angela Merkel commendably promising to accept 800,000 refugees this year. However, this response must be tempered with a sense of realism.

There are numerous factors which must be considered. Some experts are advocating a course of action where each member state accepts a certain number of refugees simply based on the size of the population or of the economy. However, this solution ignores not only complex geopolitical realities, but other crucial economic and financial dynamics. The new policy should consider the capacity of the individual member states’ economy to absorb migrants, their prior financial contributions to the refugee crisis and their status regarding the Schengen Agreement.

Ultimately, the current solution of utilising refugee camps, a policy popular since 1974, is not working. A refugee camp makes its occupants dependant on outside aid and the lack of autonomy prevents any economic activity occurring. This is grossly inefficient and refugee camps should be no more than the most temporary of solutions. The less altruistic motives for accepting refugees must also be considered. With an ageing and soon to be shrinking labour force, the EU has much to gain from an influx of refugees, with many refugees bringing valuable skills with them. Yet, in order for a EU-wide solution to be found, it must be carefully considered which countries have the capacity and need for extra workers and how best to fairly distribute the benefits and burdens of such a move.

For an efficient EU-wide policy, all member states must step up to their responsibility, including our own. The UK should accept a greater yet limited number of refugees. A rich heritage of accepting refugees dating back to the Second World War with the recently deceased Sir Nicholas Winton, the chief architect of the Kinder-Transport, must be continued if the UK is to stay true to its values. Granting migrants rights under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is not only a moral imperative but could also benefit the UK as a whole.

Finally, an efficient policy to combat the refugee crisis must look at the long-term prospects of the nearly four million Syrian refugees who are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.  A strategy of making a post-conflict return to Syria viable should focus on equipping refugees with the education and skills to rebuild a shattered Syria. Such a policy is arguably a humanitarian imperative and is in the long-term interests of the EU member states.

George Kestel

Law, 3rd Year, King’s College London

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