EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

  • The ongoing plight of refugees represents a concrete humanitarian emergency and disaster; at present, there is an unparalleled 65.6 million of displaced people, of which 22.5 million are refugees in acute need of international protection.
  • Over the last decade, armed conflict, persecution, human rights abuses and other life-threatening situations engulfing Africa and the Middle East have given birth to an ever-increasing number of forcibly displaced.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, one of the main factors driving the exodus is the Syrian civil war, which bears responsibility for the flight of nearly half of its population of 23 million, most of them remaining displaced within national borders, where they are exposed to the horrors of war and unable to receive vital humanitarian assistance. Six years since the beginning of the conflict, the uncertainty surrounding the ending of violence appears likely to persist, with poor prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough. Similarly, the political turmoil plaguing Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and other troubled regions will continue to fuel the migratory flow as long as the danger of war and oppression is not successfully eradicated.

In the persistent state of crisis, world leaders have an urgent responsibility to address the question with a greater sense of shared responsibility, empathy and solidarity and need to redouble their efforts to tackle the political instabilities triggering migration, while meeting basic humanitarian urgencies in the short run. As things stand, though, very few steps to change the situation have been taken, especially by the world’s most prosperous countries.

Crucially, as many developing states and poorer regions neighbouring conflict zones have come to shelter a disproportionate number of asylum seekers – namely 80% of the total amount – the West is alarmingly split in two over building consensus on sharing the burden in an equitable and non-discriminatory manner.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, the massive flow has had a striking impact on the domestic politics of EU Member States, as it generated new tensions and exacerbated pre-existing ones. Although the European Commission has committed itself to develop a realistic common strategy, based on fair and quantifiable criteria reflecting the capacity of each Member State to receive and integrate refugees, the relocation scheme that was conceived has repeatedly failed to meet its own targets due to a harrowing lack of political will and commitment to following the directives, stemming primarily from the V4 countries.

At a deeper level, the evolving crisis threatens Europe in terms of unity and further integration, as it underlines a profound clash of culture between the young post-Soviet states and the rest of the bloc. The formers’ unacceptably indifferent attitude to basic human values and decency has been accompanied by a strong refusal to relocate refugees from Italy and Greece on the assumption that admission must be a voluntary sovereign decision.

In breach of their legal obligations, the Visegrád Four have therefore showed a perplexing inadequacy in behaving in a positive international way and, most worryingly, have induced others to do the same.

At the meantime, the refugee crisis also brought out several concerns regarding terrorism, which have led to a surge of secessionist tendencies and right-wing populist parties capitalizing on the public’s fears of the unknown. Their hardline narrative consists in the undocumented theory that the presence of foreigners may undermine national public security and even worse, put European identity, culture and civilization under threat.

On the other hand, however, many other European countries, especially the wealthiest nations of Protestant tradition like Germany and Scandinavia, have responded more positively to the moral test posed by the crisis. Nevertheless, in spite of their generous conduct, it is clear that the migratory influx cannot go on being managed in a piecemeal, fragmented way.

In particular, we must be aware that this situation, which is already a humanitarian disaster of extreme proportions, is currently being made worse precisely because of political inability to agree a coordinated global – or at the very least European – response.
Bearing in mind that what our continent is witnessing today is primarily a humanitarian crisis, not a conventional migratory phenomenon, it is therefore critically imperative for the European Union to:

  1. Encourage mutual trust within both Member States and civil society;
  2. Increase the efforts in exploring more ambitious plans for the realization of an equitable and right-based mechanism, embodying shared European values;
  3. Improve reception procedures and structures;
  4. Resettle asylum seekers and safely return those who don’t qualify as such;
  5. Provide successful integration of refugees into the social system;
  6. Promote permanent dialogue with the war-torn regions, with a view to tackle the root causes that are forcing so many people from home and alleviate the strain on the Arab host countries.

 

This is a make-or-break moment in history, when Europe will be defined by how it handles the ongoing emergency situation. If the Union as a whole is unable to find a common asylum strategy, exemplifying the moral imperatives on which it was founded, it will emerge from the crisis seriously weakened. If, however, EU leaders proactively respond to challenge, the EU will no longer be seen as a distant political utopia, but as a powerful crisis-fighting machine.

Camilla Arancio

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