The refugee crisis: A crisis of policy rather than refugees

The LSE Student Union United Nations Society invited me to give a talk on the refugee crisis in Europe today. Here’s a condensed version of what I had to say.

Europe is a turbulent continent located in a turbulent region of the world.

Throughout its history is has been a centre for large-scale movements of people, generated by warfare, political tension, the collapse of states, not to mention the mundane issue of the desire for better opportunities in times of economic hardship.

And during the 20th century it has seen refugee or migration crises – call them what you will – occurring every 25 to 30 years.

Examples include the mass movement of ethnic Greeks from Anatolia and the Black Sea following the defeat of the army of the Republic of Pontus in 1923 which brought one and a half million people into modern-day Greece.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945 Europe had a population of refugee and displaced people which has been estimated at somewhere between 10 to 40 million people.

In the 1990s the various wars that followed on from the collapse of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia created a refugee situation in which 3.5 million people came within the mandate of the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Many more incidents of refugee flight could be added to this brief sketch. The essential point is that the configuration of Europe as a cluster of national states jostling each other for the ‘living room’ they claim they need, together with the frequent periods of political instability that rip across the continent mark Europe out as a place where refugee movements occur on a generational basis and need to be anticipated in policy planning.

The shifting of the regional politics of Europe to the wider context of its place immediately adjacent to the troubled Middle East and North African regions, themselves linked to corridors of people-movement that stretch out to central Asia in one direction and the Horn and East Africa in another has further, and quite predictably exposed Europe to more pressure from refugee movements. 

The role of the European Union

It could be argued that the EU at least attempted to anticipate the pressures it would periodically have to face from refugee movements in the region.  The policy-makers looking at this issue had to confront the fact that, whilst all member states were signed up to the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, there were wide differences between the states as to how their obligations under these instruments should be met.

The absence of even the most basic agreement between member states contributed to the phenomenon which came, misleadingly, to be called ‘asylum shopping’. This was supposed to describe a situation in which asylum seekers shunned the opportunity to seek protection in one country in the hope that by reaching another they might have a better chance of recognition.

With this in mind the EU authorities set out to harmonise all areas of the asylum process where difference in treatment might drive the preferences of the person seeking refugee protection.  A country which left applicants to fend for themselves in destitute conditions would be avoided whilst others which paid an allowance and provided accommodation whilst the application was processed would be favoured.  A national system which made frequent use of detention for asylum seekers, confining them to prison-like conditions for long periods would be less popular that one which permitted a higher degree of liberty within the territory of the state.

A final component to this deal was the agreement known as the Dublin Convention.  This set out the rule that a person seeking asylum in the European Union had to lodge this application in the first country in which they arrived.  They would remain in that country until such time as their application was finally decided.  In the event it was refused that determination would be upheld in any subsequent country the asylum-seeker might move to.  On being detected the asylum seeker travelling across Europe would be returned to the first country of entry with the expectation that the authorities there would expel them from the EU.  

Flaws in the system

The system put in place generated a sense that real progress was being made in Europe towards the adoption of common policies that were robust and capable of managing the stresses that the Union could expect to face in future years.

In reality it contained a number of key flaws which were more-or-less disguised for a number of years, but which quickly revealed themselves when the entire system came under sustained pressure under the conditions of a generational refugee crisis.

These flaws were:

  • Divergences in reception, procedural and qualification practices were never entirely eliminated from the approaches taken by national authorities. 
  • The Dublin agreement did not properly take into account other factors which influenced peoples’ decisions about which country they sought asylum in, such as knowledge of the language of the destination countries or the existence of networks of family and co-nationals who would provide help and assistance.
  • The ‘first country to enter’ rule meant that the EU countries closest to the refugee flows had to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of new applications. The absence of effective ‘burden-sharing’ agreements with the countries that came under reception pressures brought about conditions of intense congestion in countries like Italy and Greece.

Loss of faith in the human rights approach

There was a further dimension to the refugee crisis which had its roots in viewpoints which began to take root amongst some national politicians during an earlier phase of the crisis.  Around the turn of the millennium there was an increasing loss of faith in the value of the human rights approach to the management of refugee crisis amongst many national politicians.

The human rights component of policy emerged after the war and was embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which included the first formulation of the right to asylum.  The asylum provisions were elaborated into the 1951 Refugee Convention.  This provided the mandate for the UN High Commission for Refugees for a protection function which currently covers 31 million people. 

The effect of the convention had been to endow individual asylum seekers with certain rights which they were entitled to assert against the signatory state in which they were present, restraining those authorities from returning people in need of protection from being returned to a territory in which they were likely to be persecuted.

By the late 1990s a position had emerged in some countries which began to argue that the recent practice of humanitarian intervention had rendered the protection of individual refugees outside their home regions no longer necessary.  Destination countries felt entitled to disrupt refugee flows far beyond their frontiers as part of a process of making access to the right to asylum much more difficult. Within this scheme actions which prevented asylum seekers from reaching places of safety in Europe were justified on the grounds that vast efforts were being expended in securing havens closer to their countries of source. 

As is now well known, the humanitarian interventions of the last decade comprehensively failed in their stated aim of obtaining security and human rights for people in their countries of origin.  Many have argued that the net effect has been a worsening of the situation, with even larger swathes of territory being de-stabilised and rendered unsafe for vulnerable populations.  The capacity of countries adjacent to the source regions to host refugees has become debased over time as the failure to find long-term solutions has meant that temporary crises have merged to produce a permanent state of refugee crisis with hardship rolling across all the flows and settlements of people who are in need of protection.

The current phase:   battering against the walls

Unsurprisingly refugee movements tend to be made up of determined people who continue to hope for a better life.  Their presence in large numbers, currently concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean, has created a reservoir of human misery that can no longer be contained in that region. The failure of Europe to come up with an adequate strategy for managing the real refugee crisis has meant an intensification of activities that probe and undermine the fortress that the authorities have attempted to establish.

These difficulties are compounded by Europe’s disunited state.  Politicians are pushed and pulled between currents of public opinion which fluctuate between demands for even harsher action and liberal humanitarian sympathy for the plight of desperate people.  Whilst the dominant trend appears to be a hardening of right wing nationalist responses, contrary tendencies win out on some battles along the way, with the German Chancellor’s decision back in August 2015 to suspend the application of the Dublin Convention and declare a willingness to accept a large number of Syrian refugees.  But the absence of a coherent system for managing refugee protection further along the routes of flight has meant that individuals have had to find their own way to German borders, creating a bonanza of opportunities for smugglers, and ramping up the hostility of the less liberal states which lie on the routes to Germany.

Europe, and Europe’s political elites, should have seen it all coming.  Knowledge of the history of their own cultures and their own society should have impressed on their thinking the immutable fact that the business of Europe being Europe means that refugee crisis come on a predictable timescale and schedule. 

Indeed this recognition was present at least amongst the more far-seeing segments who staff the directorates of the European Commission.  An effort was made to set out common policies which would establish in a consistent fashion a capacity to manage refugee crises.  It floundered because the element that was really required to make it work - the willingness of national political leaders to demonstrate solidarity with states in the frontline was never really present.  This is the real reason why have a refugee crisis in Europe today driven not so much by the movement of people as the failure of politicians and political systems.

What is to be done?

The message that needs to echo throughout all this work is that the so-called refugee crisis in Europe today is in reality more a crisis of policy rather than people.  Even at the rate of one million people a year the European Union, a territory with a population of over 500 million, is far from being existentially challenged by the scale of people movement.  Europe has dealt with bigger challenges in it past and can be expected to have to face them again in the future.

We should let ourselves be guided by a human rights approach to meet the challenges of handling the refugee crisis. If it seems to mean a degree of hardship today then we should be encouraged by the knowledge that, once the high-point of inflows has passed, as happened in the case of Greece after 1923 or Europe as a whole after 1945, there has been a surge in the creative energies and prosperity of society as the newcomers have found their way in their new homes and have made their own contributions to its prosperity.

A humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis is not a reckless gamble that risks drawing ever more people in.  It is a society knowing what its own strengths are and having a sense of the social and cultural resources that are at hand to meet the challenges.

The history of Europe says that meet them we must.  Or else we run the risk that unresolved problems will mount in volume, merge with the other challenges in our society, and drag us all away from the potential we have to build a good, inclusive society.   

Other users went on to read: