Ten home truths on Europe’s refugee crisis

ECFR experts highlight ten key areas of attention for policy makers dealing with the refugee crisis.

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The ongoing discussion of Europe's leaders on how to handle the refugee crisis in Europe should not only put a spotlight on weaknesses in the European asylum system, and the fragility of freedom of movement across the EU when trust between neighbours breaks down. It should also trigger a renewed political focus on finding adequate foreign policy responses to the origins of the crisis.

But investing diplomatic energy in the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa which are contributing significantly to the recent surge in arrivals in Europe should not mean kneejerk reactions with little chance of long term success.  Europe’s scope to shape events in the region has limits, and lies largely in diplomatic co-operation with regional actors and focusing aid and support on a number of countries which are affected, but not yet consumed by crisis, and have pivotal roles in ensuring that regional instability does not spread further.

Though it is welcome if the refugees arriving on Europe’s doorstep serve as a wake-up call that the regional fire emanating from Syria should not have been allowed to burn for so long, the laudable desire to do something should not be allowed to lead to unhelpful intervention at this point.

There are ten key home truths that Europe’s leaders need to pay attention:

1. Europe needs to step up with strong diplomacy in the search for a solution to the Syria conflict

As the recent nuclear deal with Iran has shown, European leaders are capable of putting in concerted effort, working with unfamiliar partners, and making compromises to achieve their goals.

However, on the Syrian crisis, there has been an insufficient attempt to come to a diplomatic solution. Strong European diplomacy is now likely to mean using multilateral formats which incorporate regional actors – and cooperation with Putin – to talk to Assad’s regime. There is no easy solution to the problem, and there may not be a palatable one, but Europe has to find the best possible one.

2. Europe and the US cannot and should not act alone: regional actors are central to any diplomatic solution

ECFR has pointed out the need to up Europe's diplomatic efforts not just with traditionally less friendly states but also with allies in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia, which has emerged as a key regional actor, including in Syria. Gulf states have emerged as central drivers of developments across the Middle East, deploying serious diplomatic, political, military and economic resources. While partly responding to legitimate concerns, Gulf policies are contributing to the cycle of conflict, state breakdown, terrorism and migratory flows.

3. Europe needs a post-Ukraine crisis strategy towards Russia

As is documented in our Foreign Policy Scorecards of 20132014 and 2015, Europeans haven’t been able to find a way to convince Russia to act the way they wanted it to on Syria from the outset of the conflict. Europe’s relationship with Russia has changed dramatically since its annexation of Crimea.

As Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev argued in ‘The New European Disorder’, Europe has misunderstood post-Soviet Russia, and has to find a new way to co-exist with this powerful neighbour. Our publications on issues as varied as the gas market in Ukraine and Russia’s smart tactics in the UN show how wide Putin’s reach is.  In recent months, reports of Russia’s activities on the ground in Syria have made the adoption of a realistic policy towards Russia all the more urgent.

4. Europe needs to capitalise on the post-nuclear deal dynamics to intensify efforts with Iran to work towards diplomatic solutions to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and to the threat of the Islamic State

The nuclear deal concluded with Iran earlier this year has been an all-too-rare foreign policy success story for European governments. Now, with relations between Iran and European nations thawing there is a real opportunity to engage more closely with Iran on issues of regional security.

As a key regional power invested, to a greater or lesser degree, in many of the conflicts that characterise today’s Middle East, Tehran some many of the keys that might unlock doors to potential diplomatic or political solutions. European policymakers should intensify efforts to explore how far Iranian cooperation can be secured, and at what cost.

5. There needs to be more attention to the Libyan conflict and the enabling role it plays as a transit country

Libyan coastal cities have turned into major hubs for refugees and economic migrants from Syria, Eritrea, and sub-Saharan countries, and, crucially, the trafficking industry which preys upon them. Those who attempt to cross the sea to go to Europe face a dangerous route which has claimed many lives.

At the same time, the situation in the country itself is steadily deteriorating. As our mapping project on Libya’s factions shows, the turmoil in the country has many facets. In order to have an impact on people smuggling, Libya will need both continued European support for UN negotiations for a national ceasefire and new work to support local ceasefires in some of the areas most affected by trafficking, as we argued in August

6. Europe should focus attention and aid on a few key countries not yet consumed by crisis

A post-financial crisis Europe, divided in its priorities, and finding it harder to justify increasing the levels of overseas aid and resources to diplomacy, should focus its attention on the countries where it has influence and which are important for regional stability. 

7. The impact on the Western Balkans should not be ignored

The Western Balkans, the source of the last big refugee flow in Europe in the 1990s, are now the transit area for refugees making their way through Turkey to the EU. For a region that, as we explained in Scorecard 2015, has been deteriorating slowly while promises of EU membership have been put on ice, this could be a dangerously destabilising factor.

8. EU needs more structured diplomacy towards Turkey which takes account of the shifting regional picture.

Due to its size, location, and ties with both the EU and Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is a key country in the fight for regional stability. It was one of the last countries to cut ties with Assad, and one of the first countries to pursue military action within Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have left their country through Turkey with many staying there; hundreds of foreign fighters have joined ISIS and other groups via Turkey. Domestic tensions are running high ahead of the Turkish elections, fuelled by the impact of the refugee crisis, and recent escalation in government- PKK fighting. However, coordinated EU policy toward the country has been lacking, including a serious attempt to find a solution for the conflict between Turkey and the PKK.

9. Europe’s support to countries hosting refugees in the region needs to be increased and coordinated.

Opponents of more European support for the refugee crisis have pointed out that many of the refugees that are now finding their way into Europe have not come straight from war zones, but from relatively safe areas in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. However, these countries have been dealing with incredible pressure on their own stability, hosting very large refugee populations while facing direct threats from a spillover of violence.

It was not realistic for the EU to think that the refugee problem would stay in the region, and it is now not realistic to do nothing to relieve the countries most affected. Some EU states, such as Czech Republic, Greeceand the UK, are pressing for redirection of international aid towards these host countries in the region while others are pushing for prioritisation of intra-European support for the countries hardest hit by inflows. The answer probably lies in a balance of both, but this needs to be coordinated rather than member states all acting independently.

10. Europe must remember its commitment to conflict prevention and management.

Many Europeans feel – rightly, in our view – that further Western military intervention in the Syrian conflict would, in current circumstances, be likely to do more harm than good. But elsewhere on Europe's periphery, notably the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, the UN and African Union are struggling to douse the flames of conflict and badly need more European help.

Most member states have become lukewarm at best about the EU's role as a security provider. But unless Europeans contribute, including militarily, to preserving or restoring stability where they can, they should not be surprised if desperate people try to move to Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Programme coordinator, European Power
Senior Policy Fellow

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