Seven worrying trends in the European refugee crisis

EU leaders could soon come to regret having crossed their fingers and moved the refugee crisis off the urgent pile in their in-tray

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As part of his final UN General Assembly, President Obama hosted a leaders’ summit on refugees. In his speech he termed the global refugee crisis one of ‘the most urgent tests of our time’. But the list of commitments coming out of the summit did not live up to this description. The Bratislava EU summit earlier this month barely touched on refugee issues among the list of priorities to address, and there seems to be a general sense that Europe has more or less weathered the refugee storm that appeared so threatening in 2015.

There is some truth to this – for now. The number of sea crossings to the EU in the first nine months of 2016 was indeed down, at around 300,000, compared to 520,000 in 2015. But despite this there are a number of worrying trends that EU leaders would be foolish to ignore.  

Continuing crises in the neighbourhood

Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq still make up almost 90% of arrivals in Greece. While Syria is in the midst of all-out war, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq could flare up at any time and create a surge of increased refugee flows. The next largest sources for arrivals are Nigeria and Eritrea – both plagued by long term internal conflict and repression. None of these five countries are any closer to stability than they were in 2015, and as long as the EU is surrounded by crises, its leaders are ill advised to mistake any short-term drop in arrivals for a sustained decline in refugee flows.

Increasing proportion of casualties

A UNHCR briefing in September revealed that despite the number of crossings this year being 42% lower, the number of people reported dead or missing (3,211) is only 15% lower than the total number of casualties for the whole of 2015 (3,771). It seems that EU action to destroy smugglers’ boats and patrol popular crossing routes has had some impact on the number of crossings. But the unintended consequence is that those who are continuing to make the journey are now faced with more perilous routes and cheaper, more dangerous vessels.

Changing demographics of refugees

The proportion of unaccompanied children is on the rise, as parents see a lack of prospects for adults in Europe and take the risk that their children at least might be better looked after on arrival. Italy estimates that around 90% of the children arriving in 2016 were unaccompanied. Heartbreakingly, the high numbers of child refugees that go missing from camps and holding centres – Europol estimated that 10,000 had been lost by the beginning of 2016—show that this hope is misplaced.

Little evidence of policy impact

It is unclear to what one should attribute the lower than feared numbers of arrivals this summer. The March 2016 EU-Turkey migration compact is widely thought to be having some impact. But this assumption ignores the role played by the closure of national borders along the Western Balkans in spring 2016, as well as reports that the images of squalid conditions and cold welcomes in Europe has deterred many from making the crossing.

Without some kind of assessment of what is working, there is no evidence to inform future policy. In particular, it is unclear whether the suggestion of replicating the EU-Turkey deal with other partners (prospects include Jordan, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Libya) is a good one.

Fragile solutions

Indeed, it is still unclear whether the EU-Turkey deal will hold. Since the failed military coup in Turkey, President Erdogan has threatened to renege on his side of the deal and ‘turn the tap back on’ if the EU does not honour its commitment of visa liberalisation for Turks with electronic passports. But in the current political environment, with populists stoking anti-immigration fears, it is hard to see how Europeans can easily deliver visa liberalisation. Even in Germany, which championed the EU-Turkey deal, Angela Merkel has suffered significant losses to the AfD in recent regional elections, which many analysts read as a direct result of her ‘refugees welcome’ policy.

Beggar-thy-neighbour attitudes

Amnesty International estimated in a recent report that only 6% of the 66,000 people who were stranded in Greece this time last year have been relocated to permanent homes. 47,000 asylum seekers and refugees are housed in mainland Greece, with a further 12,500 people having arrived since the EU-Turkey deal came into force in March 2016. They are in overcrowded camps, waiting for decisions on their asylum applications. Other than reminding Greece that this is their responsibility to deal with, the other 27 member states have done nothing to resolve this situation.

Lack of political narratives

The lesson of the UK Brexit referendum campaign is that you cannot avoid the issue of immigration – to do so only concedes this space to extreme voices. EU leaders have largely avoided tackling this challenge. The result is that, with no effective political narrative, their policy options are limited to short term ‘firefighting’ measures such as the EU-Turkey deal to try to keep migrants already on the move away from Europe.

A stronger focus on combatting extreme narratives – one that recognises strain on public services but demonstrates the role played by austerity cuts and calls out xenophobia – could create the political space for more far sighted measures such as resettlement and greater investment in crisis management in the neighbourhood which could ultimately impact on the numbers of people needing to make dangerous journeys to Europe in the first place.


These concerns demonstrate that EU leaders could soon come to regret having crossed their fingers and moved the refugee crisis off the urgent pile in their in-tray.  If EU Council President Tusk was right in his remarks to national leaders in Bratislava that the issues that concern EU citizens today are neighbourhood security, protection from terrorism and stable and growing economies, then the deep interlinkages which managing migration has with each of these themes should be reason enough for governments to sustain their engagement with the issue.

But the incentive goes far deeper than this. As committed Europeans look for answers as to what unites the Union in the current moment, in order to develop a stronger response to the divisions that have emerged across the EU, there seems little hope for the future of the project if a humane response from the world’s richest continent to people fleeing war, terror and hardship is not something we can aspire to.

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

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