The Refugee Crisis as a Global Humanitarian Challenge

The ongoing refugee crisis should not be understood as a specifically European problem

The ongoing refugee crisis should not be understood as a specifically European problem. Rather, we should take care to separate the current crisis of mass displacement, from the ongoing internal crisis of the European project. The latter is linked to the refugee crisis, but does not originate from it. This distinction is important to make, because the refugee crisis is a humanitarian challenge that must be collectively owned and collectively solved, whether we are talking about legal frameworks, institutional responses or funding.

By crafting new humanitarian solutions to this crisis, critical contributions can be made to international peace and stability. At a recent ECFR workshop in Beijing, some expressed the view that Europe “deserves” this refugee influx due to its largely uncritical support of US policy in the Middle East, or that the refugee crisis can be reductively understood as an automatic consequence of the same US policy. This view should be challenged. Here China should be seen for what it is: as an indispensable partner for the European Union and an increasingly central player in global humanitarianism. Having the financial and intellectual resources of humanitarian donors like China squarely onboard in this work is also crucial for making the humanitarian sector fit for purpose in the future.

Refugees and the European Political Crisis

Today, the humanitarian response that was so dominant through the latter half of 2015, has given way to some clearly recognisable characteristics of the ongoing European political crisis.  Many European states have been overwhelmed by the scale of the bureaucratic, financial and public order challenges faced in dealing with incoming population flows. Significant funds have been diverted from domestic and foreign policy activities towards providing for, policing and processing refugees and migrants.

This has exacerbated existing tensions relating both to the European economic crisis and the challenges of integrating non-European migrants. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks carried out by the Islamic State group in November 2015, many were quick to make the link between terrorism and the influx of a very mixed flow of refugees and migrants. The uproar that accompanied the sexual violence perpetrated against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve strengthened such ties in public discourse further, but should also be understood in the context of the ongoing struggle to end harassment, domestic violence and rape by Europeans and non-Europeans alike. Moreover, while the surge of right wing political groups is described as a game changer for Europe, the struggle between populism and political elites is a defining feature of post-Cold War Europe.

The Refugee Crisis as a Humanitarian Crisis in Europe

The EU has struggled and largely failed to develop an appropriate humanitarian response to the refugee crisis. The search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum carried out by Italy in 2013 and 2014 was replaced by the smaller Frontex border protection operation Triton in late 2014. By 2015, the escalating number of drowning refugees and migrants began to cause public uproar. There has also been considerable foot dragging and policy failure on resettlement. The European Migration Agenda adopted by the European Commission in May 2015 made no mention of the EU’s 2001 temporary protection directive, which could have been deployed to provide protection for Syrian refugees. It is indicative of the EU’s policy failure that the agenda did include a costly scheme for emergency intra-EU relocation of refugees, which by January 2016 had succeeded in resettling 272 out of an intended 160,000 refugees.

The image of Aylan Kurdi, the small Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach in early September, changed everything, if only for a while:  the politicians and the public opened their arms, their hearts and the public purse. The ensuing mass movement of refugees and migrants across Europe met with relatively little restraint and resistance, but by the end of 2015, even the humanitarian superpowers of Europe, Germany and Sweden, declared that they were “full”, with Sweden imposing border controls. While European countries feel they are getting little help from other countries, it is important to remember that Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon continue to carry the heaviest burdens by far. 

Despite continuing difficulties, 2015 will also leave us with indelible testaments to humanitarian solidarity. In many ways, 2015 will go down in history as the year that the Post-War German redemption tale came to a close, with Angel Merkel’s now iconic exclamation: “Wir schaffen das” (we can do it). Importantly for Europe, the refugee crisis has also resulted in a mass mobilisation of not just established civil society actors, but of Europeans of all nationalities and ages: ordinary citizens have invented apps and online maps, engaged in clothing and food drives, fundraised, engaged with municipalities, the local police, the government and the media – many for the first time. As Europeans, we should be excited about this legacy.

Takeaways on Common Challenges for 2016 and beyond

The integrity of the international refugee regime is under threat and the demise of this system would come at the cost of international stability. This is not the time to go back to the drafting board. Hence, the international community should support the application of the refugee convention and urgently begin to share the financial burden of paying for both UNHCR and the costs of hosting refugee populations more equitably. Other tasks also need to be dealt with collectively and imminently by the international community: while legal protection should only be given to recognised refugees, developed and developing countries must recognise that other pathways to legal status are needed – otherwise masses of people will be left without papers. Moreover, while the current crisis has convinced many that new approaches to European border management are needed, there should be no establishment of permanent asylum processing camps in Turkey or North Africa. This experiment, that would in all likelihood be inhumane, expensive and ineffective, would likely engender new security threats.

The international community – including China – is left with a set of humanitarian challenges that can only be solved through collaboration: only together can we figure out what adequate preparedness for and responses to tomorrow’s refugee flows look like.

Kristin Sandvik is Centre Director for the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies

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


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