What has been tabled at the EU Council and what is the UK’s role?
Worryingly, a leaked document indicates that the draft ‘conclusions’ from this summit reflect a ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality: a focus on keeping refugees out. The document contains very little on providing safe and legal routes for refugees to reach safety in the EU. While it agrees in principle to an EU-wide resettlement programme for 20,000 people, it remains unclear if this is 20,000 additional places to existing quotas or limits the EU resettlement commitment to 20,000 places in total. The rest of the document mainly focuses on preventing refugees reaching the EU from entering, and facilitating their return to their countries of origin.
To put the 20,000 figure in perspective – that is 20,000 refugees from across the globe, not just those fleeing the Syrian crisis. Last December, a coalition of humanitarian and human rights agencies – including CARE International – called on the international community to offer a safe haven by offering resettlement places for at least 5% of the projected Syrian refugee population by the end of 2015. This would equate to 180,000 refugees. The gap between what Europe is offering and the scale of the population displacement caused by the horrific violence in Syria is massive.
For the UK, our fair share of this 5% would equate to offering safety to up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Until now, the UK has resettled only 187 refugees from Syria since the start of the conflict. A few days ago, the Prime Minister announced that he will “modestly expand” the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the UK by offering “a few hundred more” places. Around 6,000 Syrians have claimed asylum in the UK since the start of the conflict – some will already have been here, others may have risked their lives making perilous journeys to get here. In 2014, Germany received six times more asylum applications than the UK, Sweden received three times more, and Italy and France received double.
An unprecedented global refugee crisis
Today, almost 60 million people are fleeing wars and persecution worldwide – more than ever recorded before. The first six months of this year saw an increase in migrant boat crossings across the Mediterranean by 114% compared to last year – with the majority of those from Syria and Eritrea. (Source: UNHCR)
It is scandalous that some politicians and media in Europe have insinuated that the people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean are all ‘economic migrants’ or that the refugee crisis is Europe’s crisis. They are not and it is not. In Syria alone, over 12 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and almost four million have fled to neighbouring countries. Over the past three years, I have met and worked with many Syrians that fled their homes. Each of these had experienced either horrific violence first-hand or lost loved ones to a cruel war that is now in its fifth year.
A statement launched today by CARE and other NGOs outlines how the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan now equals to all of Denmark moving to the UK. In Lebanon, where one in four people are refugees from Syria, it is the equivalent of the US hosting the entire population of Germany. More support must be channelled to the countries neighbouring Syria. Less than 25% of the regional refugee response plan has been funded until now. A crisis of such epic proportions requires a radical rethink.
Srebrenica: the historical precedent to Europe’s containment policy
There are historical precedents for this in Europe’s response to previous refugee crises. During the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, visa restrictions were imposed on Bosnians across much of western Europe, in effect trapping them within the conflict. Funding to the UN agency responsible for refugees, UNHCR, was increased to provide humanitarian assistance within the region, and a ‘safe haven’ strategy was devised. The public, the media and the displaced Bosnians themselves were led to believe that safe havens implied protection. The weakness of this protection became clear in 1995 when UN peace-keepers looked on as 8,000 Muslim men were massacred in the town of Srebrenica.
François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, has argued forcefully that immigration systems in the wealthy global North have come to “mimic” the criminal justice system by importing criminal categories, mechanisms, institutions, and rationales – but without importing the associated due-process guarantees. Think of the detainment centres like Harmondsworth Detention Centre in the UK, Europe’s biggest, and what this tells us about European or British values and our commitment to human rights. Yet the EU approach to the Syrian crisis means that most Syrian refugees cannot even enter the EU, let alone then seek to claim asylum (or have it denied).
Today, as I type this blog, there are 7.6 million Syrians internally displaced within Syria. Reports have emerged of thousands trapped at the borders unable to cross into neighbouring countries already overwhelmed by the refugee influx. As of February 2015, OCHA officially recognised 11 besieged areas in Syria with approximately 212,000 civilians living in them, and NGOs on the ground claim the numbers are much higher. The most conservative estimates are that over 220,000 people have died inside Syria so far – that is over 26 Srebrenicas.
From containment to a new approach
The implications of the EU’s migration policy will not just be felt by Syrians. Countries hosting large refugee populations in other regions, for example East Africa, are closely watching Europe’s response to the situation in the Mediterranean and drawing lessons for their own approach.
European politicians like to trumpet their commitment to human rights. The EU migration policy will be a test for translating that rhetoric into practice. To protect people fleeing the violence from Syria and refugees fleeing war and persecution in other parts of the world, European leaders must create alternative legal routes to safety. They can do this by committing to many more resettlement places in the EU. Member states should also consider increasing other options like student visas, humanitarian admissions, family reunification places and temporary protection status. The options are there, the question is how and when Europe will find the moral conscience and political will to act on these.