(2015.12) Failing to Provide Asylum: Why Europe Cannot Manage the Refugee Crisis

Daniel Cardoso and Miguelángel Verde Garrido | Additional research and contributions by Harold Haftsadi | 10th December 2015

The reasons for European Union and European governments’ ineffective management of the refugee crisis have little to do with the extent of the challenge and more with being compromised by institutional and identity crises, the severity of which requires immediate actions alongside a responsible dialogue.


Bengin Ahmad | Flickr

Syrian child displaced in her own country

(Photo credit: Bengin Ahmad | Flickr)

Not Europe’s Most Acute Refugee Crisis Since World War II

There are more displaced people in the world now than there have been since the Second World War. The United Nations calculates that there are around 60 million displaced people, of which 38.2 million are internally-displaced, but without a home, and of which 21.3 million are refugees in other countries and seeking asylum there.

The number of people fleeing war, persecution, and poverty from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and who are seeking safety in Europe, has exponentially increased since 2014. In 2015 alone, more than 600,000 refugees arrived in Europe by boat. Another 3,000 died during the journey or continue to be reported as missing, according to the International Organisation for Migration. For those that made it to Europe, the journey from its southern to northern reaches has been one of multiple dangers, fears, and sacrifices.

Europe’s response to this tragedy has been slow and inadequate, to say the least. In late 2014, rescue operations in the Mediterranean were downsized since some EU member states considered that they had become “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The relocation process of refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU member states has been almost stagnant. In September 2015, EU member states agreed on relocating 160,000 refugees. Embarrassingly, two months later, by the count for November 2015, only 158 refugees had been relocated.

European politicians explain away their ineffective response by arguing that the continent is already stretched to its limits, that Europe is unable to what has been described as the most acute refugee crisis in the continent since World War II (WWII). However, that is simply untrue. Whether intended to mislead public opinion or the result of mediatic oversimplifications, collected data evidences that the number of people who were forced to seek refuge because of the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s was much larger in comparison. Back then, 0.5% of Europe’s population were refugees. History has evidenced that this critical situation was successfully resolved. Nowadays, refugees in Europe represent 0.2% of the population. In other parts of the world, the situation is even more severe: Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan – which have less resources that the EU – have received immense numbers of refugees, while the EU and Europe – with its superior resources – has only sluggishly responded to a situation that is not only proportionally less severe than in these other countries, but also not without precedent in the continent. A reason may be that in the years before the accentuation of the crisis, the EU invested more heavily on security, border patrols, and surveilled fences than on an effective asylum claim system. The observable consequence is that any response to the situation has become more difficult.

United Nations and R. LeMoyne | Flicker

Kosovar refugees, fleeing their homeland, in the Blace area of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

(Photo credit: United Nations and R. LeMoyne | Flicker)

“We Can Do It” – And There Are Several Reasons To Do It

It is worth remembering that Europe played a crucial role in the establishment of the first legal protection regime for refugees. The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, signed in 1951, was based on the experiences and understanding that people lacking the protection of their own states, forced to flee from them because of the threat of persecution and death, should have a right to seek safety in other states. However, nowadays’ Europe struggles to fully comply with the ethical and legal principles that it help establish and vowed to uphold over sixty years ago. The continent fails to effectively protect people who, desperately surviving in extremely vulnerable conditions, are forced to leave their homes, families, and communities behind.

To its credit, the EU has also recently acknowledged that the effective integration of refugees could actually represent an opportunity to boost its economy and revert the demographic problems that some of its member states are facing. There is no doubt that there are numerous challenges when integrating, socially and economically, a large number of refugees, but these same challenges can be some of the solutions for the grave problems that Europe has to resolve. A particular challenge may be responding to the hysterical reactions in Europe and beyond that followed the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, especially those that focus on the continued arrival of refugees. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made the effort to dispel the argument – widespread among xenophobic, racist, and/or discriminatory discourses – that the refugee crisis is unmanageable. She has done so by committing to a policy that is encapsulated by a powerful sentence: “We can do it”.

Never one for many words, the chancellor’s motto is simple, but entirely valid, especially when considering that: this is not the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since WWII; the crisis is more severe in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe; the integration of refugees can provide solutions to existing European problems; and, last but not least, Europe does have an ethical and legal obligation to uphold the refugee regime it helped to establish in 1951. And yet, clarifying these, the question remains: why have the EU and European states’ responses turned out to be so inconsistent, sluggish, and ineffective? Only a responsible dialogue will reveal what immediate actions are required to comply with international law, to protect the rights of refugees, and to move towards a successful social, political, and economic integration.

CAFOD and Ben White | Flickr

Syrian mother and child arrive in Lesbos on a dinghy from Turkey

(Photo credit: CAFOD and Ben White | Flickr)

The Other Two Unspoken Crises In Europe

Were the EU and Europe wish to dialogue responsibly about their inefficiency so far, it must start by recognizing that two other crises remain almost unspoken, and that resolving them is vital to effectively manage the refugee crisis.

The first of these is an institutional crisis, which can be observed in a number of geopolitical dynamics: 1) the inability of Middle Eastern and North African states to respond to the demands made during the Arab Spring; 2) the failure within the EU to consolidate a unified response to the arrival of refugees in the continent; 3) the outsourcing by the EU and several European states of most of their responsibilities to other states (e.g., Turkey) and to civil society organizations.

The second crisis is an identity crisis, also multilayered, since it involves: 1) refugees who are conflicted with the question of how to integrate with the culture of their destination country without turning their back on their own; 2) longstanding residents who want to contribute constructively to social and economic integration and yet face a lack of institutional and governmental support; 3) longstanding residents who succumb to fear and paranoia and are unwilling to accept others, employing both discursive and physical violence to prevent them from arriving or, when they already have, to drive them away.

The second and third layers of this identity crisis require that we carefully evaluate what is the state of European values nowadays. Recent events have shown us that there is an ongoing clash between the respect for human rights and drive toward multi- and interculturalism supported by the majority of Europeans and the Islamophobia, racial discrimination, and chauvinism embraced by far-right wing political parties and movements throughout Europe.

By refusing to recognize these other two crises, the EU and European states limit their effective responses not only to the ongoing refugee crisis, but also to the threat of terrorism as well as the emboldening and expansion of Daesh, and the rise of the political power of post-fascism, ultranationalism, and euroscepticism in Europe. Describing the crisis to be managed merely in terms of the refugees that it involves is problematic for a number of reasons: first, the description suggest that the crisis resides only with the refugee, as the cause of social, political, and economic disruptions; second, the description inflates the nature and size of the influx of refugees into Europe (once more, neither is the situation unprecedented nor is it as severe in Europe as it is in the Middle East and North Africa); third and last, the description oversimplifies the matter, besides lending credence to the argument that it cannot be solved. This description, hence, results in obliterating (either intentionally or not) the other two crises that the EU and European states must confront in order to more effectively provide asylum to those who most require it, but also at managing the economic and social benefits that would accompany the successful social, political, and economic integration of those people that are attempting to find refuge in Europe.

Failure to solve these crises will signify the continued rise of hatred and fear, which always stokes the fires that burn at the heart of far-right politics, and could return Europe to much darker times, long thought gone. Their solution will require noteworthy leadership, strong political will, and a spirit of commitment. The challenges are considerable, but they are certainly far from unsolvable.

The Weekly Bull | Flickr

‘Solidarity with Refugees’ march in London

(Photo credit: The Weekly Bull | Flickr)