This paper examines the progress made along the month of September on the refugee crisis affecting Europe. Despite the fact that 65 million people are displaced worldwide, of which one-third are refugees, the majority of political declarations and summits concerning the refugee crisis both at the European and international level constitute missed opportunities and are devoid of genuine and concrete propositions.
In spite of the recent EU-Turkey deal and the aggressive border control policy of Visegrad and Balkan states that result in the decrease of the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, still 7,000 refugees and migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea in the last two years. In addition, there are currently 100,000 migrants stuck in the entry countries of Greece and Italy. Displacement of population worldwide is at its highest level ever achieved. UNHCR Global Trends report finds 65.3 million people, half of which are children, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict, persecution and poverty in 2015.
In the last two years, the arrival of 1.5 million asylum seekers in European states resulted in greater anti-migration sentiment over EU populations and exacerbated nationalist and xenophobic movements, as well as populist discourses. Even in Nordic states, which have been at the forefront of welcoming refugees and host among the largest number of asylum seekers, there are increasing discontentment and demand for greater border controls. While EU governments agreed in 2015 to resettle 22,500 refugees in two years, only 7,272 people had been resettled by June 2016 due to the political character of the issue and flourishing nationalist sentiments (ECRE, 2016). The never-ending conflict in Syria is the largest driver of this refugee crisis: Syria is the world’s biggest producer of both internally displaced people (7.6 million) and refugees (3.88 million at the end of 2014). The recent worrying development in Aleppo call for greater cooperation and action both at the international and European level.
Actions at the EU level
The start of this academic year has been marked by crucial international summits and conferences and especially began with the G20, which took place in Hangzhou September 4th to 5th. Presidents Juncker and Tusk on the behalf of the EU, emphasised the need for the G20 to play an increasing role in tackling the international refugee crisis by developing a comprehensive global response and share the responsibility (Juncker, Tusk, 2016). In the Summit, the EU urged G20 leaders to support the United Nations’ action and emphasised the need for increasing humanitarian and development assistance, as well as reaching an agreement on resettlement of refugees worldwide.
Indeed, following the G20, on September 8th, the EU announced its Emergency Social Safety Net plan for Turkey and called the European community to greater collective response to the refugee crisis. The Plan for Turkey aims at benefiting one million refugees present in Turkey to meet their basic needs by providing monthly cash transfer through an electronic debit card (see European Commission, 2016). This plan of €350 million will be primarily financed by the EU and its Member States under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey (which was itself raised from €1 billion to €2.1 billion by the European Commission), thus constituting the largest humanitarian aid project financed by the EU. The plan is part of the wider effort of the EU to raise its development assistance and humanitarian aid for the refugee crisis. Indeed, constitutive of the EU budget to the refugee crisis, €500 million have been allocated to the Trust Fund for Syria, €1 billion to the Facility for Refugees in Turkey and €1.8 billion to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa that aims at addressing the root causes of migration (see: European Commission, 2016). Additionally, Member States agreed on an additional €3 billion for 2016 in order to help Syrian population present in neighbouring countries in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
The beginning of this academic year was also marked by the Bratislava informal Summit, which promised to overcome the challenges raised by the Brexit and enhance cooperation on the migration crisis. The Summit however made little advancement on the migration crisis and was even characterized by commentators to represent the ‘beginning of the end’ and a critical point of the EU. Indeed, European leaders’ views appeared to diverge greatly, especially on questions of migration. Matteo Renzi argued that Europe was at risk without a political change on migration and even stated after the conference: “We are doing our bit on migrants and we are ready to do so alone if necessary” (Euronews, 2016). The French President, Francois Hollande focused on border security and EU’s external borders and called for greater control of ‘irregular migration’ (Politico, 2016). Disagreements were especially visible among the Visegrad group concerning the migration crisis, who repeatedly refused to accept refugees under EU quotas. Bratislava Summit illustrated that agreeing on sharing the responsibility and the cost of hosting refugees remained a controversial and unresolved issue.
In his annual State of the Union speech on September 14th, Juncker repeatedly stated the need for more solidarity with refugees and called EU Member States to also demonstrate their solidarity and accept shared responsibility. Juncker argued solidarity cannot be imposed or forced, and that solidarity “must come from the heart” and has nothing to do with European Law. He also insisted Europe emerged and formed along migration and immigration waves.
In his speech, Juncker called for shared responsibility between EU Members and demanded states to resettle certain numbers of migrants according to their country size, population and economic situation. Also, Juncker importantly stated in his speech that EU funds could not be used to build fences and walls. Such statements respond to the recent controversy on the building of a wall of four-meter high in Calais to prevent migrants and refugees from the Jungle to enter British coasts. It further responded to criticisms concerning the coming €108 million EU-Bulgaria Deal for border protection. Juncker insisted the funds delivered will be used for the delivery of equipment and vehicles for border police, and not for building up fences and walls across the border.
This statement also pointed to the existing tensions between the EU and Eastern states such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic openly oppose the quotas for resettlement demanded by the EU. The Hungarian referendum on October 2nd concerning quotas for resettlement, which was nevertheless turned down, concerned the demand of the EU to resettle only 1,294 migrants (Faiola, 2016). Despite the rejection of the referendum, the fate of refugees and migrants in Hungary and the ones attempting to cross the country remains worrying. Indeed, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Obran who has build a wall across Hungary’s border, recently compared migration to “poison” and argued “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk”, while he is now recruiting thousands ‘border hunters’ (see: Faiola, 2016).
The concept of ‘flexible solidarity’ has been used many times by President Juncker in his State of the Union speech, who argued solidarity has to ‘come from the heart, that it has to be voluntary’. He was in the aftermath of his speech highly criticized for using the formula, especially as commentators saw in the concept of flexibility a gateway term for Balkan states to continue their migration policies. Indeed, whether flexible solidarity could be an efficient strategy to solve the migration crisis is highly questionable. Crisp (2016) indeed argues that “flexible solidarity” illustrated the indecision of the EU and meant Member States would be able to refuse the quotas imposed by the EU on hosting refugees within their borders and “pick and choose when to stand together”. Despite Juncker’s response to criticism on ‘flexible solidarity’ arguing applicable community law was not optional, the speech appeared in line with the demand of Visegrad states (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic; Slovakia), who block movements of migrants within their borders. As Crisp (2016) argues, language matters when mentioning the fate of refugees, and the term ‘flexible solidarity’ paves the way for Visegrad countries freestyling.
The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants
The first UN Summit focusing exclusively on migration was held on September 19th and 20th in New York. 193 worldwide leaders adopted a series of engagement and measures in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants to address the urgent migration crisis and the Syrian crisis that killed about 300,000 in five years and pushed four million Syrians in exile in neighbouring countries and European states.
In addition to the UN Summit, the American President Barack Obama organised a meeting aiming at tackling the refugee crisis and especially increase the international assistance provided to entry countries and major host countries. Indeed, 86 per cent of worldwide refugees are currently hosted by developing countries (especially Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uganda, Thailand), while the six world’s wealthiest countries host 7 per cent of world’s total refugees (Courrier International, 2016). The major host countries of Syrian refugees, including Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are now closing their borders and ask wealthier nations to share responsibility for the refugees among states.
Before the Summit even began, many commentators had already qualified the conference as a missed opportunity and it indeed proved disappointing. The Declaration primarily focused on the respect of fundamental rights of migrants and reiterated the commitment of the international community to fight against xenophobia and enhance access to education for displaced children. The Declaration also expresses the political will of UN Member States to protect the fundamental rights of refugees and migrants and share responsibilities. However, the Declaration does not articulate any quantifiable objectives, nor does it develops specific commitments concerning the resettlement of refugees worldwide.
The Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon saw in this “historic UN Summit”, a collective effort to tackle the challenge of migration and the commitment of the international community to begin a process of global compact on migration (see: UN, 2016). In fact, the Summit and the New York Declaration postponed the agreement of a vast plans for refugees and migration until 2018. The New York Declaration solely constrains Members to begin negotiations in perspective of another international summit that will adopt a global compact for migrants and refugees in 2018. Indeed, the “Concrete Plans for Making the New York Declaration work” are:
- Start negotiations leading to an international conference and the adoption of a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration in 2018. The agreement to move toward this comprehensive framework is a momentous one. It means that migration, like other areas of international relations, will be guided by a set of common principles and approaches.
- Develop guidelines on the treatment of migrants in vulnerable situations. These guidelines will be particularly important for the increasing number of unaccompanied children on the move.
- Achieve a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees by adopting a global compact on refugees in 2018 (see: UN,2016).
In other words, the New York Declaration only entails the start of negotiations for an agreement to be reached by 2018, while the migration crisis is considered as one of the most urgent crisis worldwide. There is still a lack of concrete objectives and specific commitments regarding the shared distribution of refugees among states.
In 2015, Ban Ki-Moon announced that states would have to resettle 10 per cent of the total world’s refugees per year under a “Global Compact on Responsibility Sharing for Refugees”. This Compact aimed at greater coordination and cooperation between states, as well as balancing the fact developing countries still host 86 per cent of refugees while wealthy states have often proved reluctant to host more refugees. The plan was supposedly going to be included in the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants and the New York Declaration. The proposition was nevertheless removed from the draft declaration along the negotiations and taken out from the objectives of the Declaration. Following the Summit, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees now asks for the resettlement of 5 per cent of the total burden of refugees. Additionally, while the New York Declaration promised to protect children, little genuine solution has yet been found and agreed on for tackling the retention of children.
The only detailed and concrete decision adopted in the New York Declaration concerns the shift of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) under the auspice of the UN in order to strengthen the global approach to migration (UN,2016).
As the general secretary of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty concludes, instead of becoming an unprecedented agreement, the Declaration simply turns into another well-written text leading to inaction (see: Shetty, 2016). The postponement of the deal until 2018 represents another missed opportunity for the international community since the beginning of the crisis and maintains the status quo. As Human Rights Watch stated, the Summit was “filled with speeches that veered from vapid platitudes disconnected from real world challenges to get-tough pronouncements about securing borders and stopping irregular migration” (Frelick, 2016). Indeed, even EU Representatives in the Summit principally focused on the questions of irregular migration and focused on the need to further support countries of first arrival such as Greece and Italy. However, as Human Rights Watch points, 83 per cent of ‘irregular migrants’ who arrived on European coasts in 2015 originate from the top refugee-producing countries that are Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Eritrea (Frelick, 2016).
Commitments therefore remain minimal in the face of the challenge. The Summit missed the opportunity to bring great change to the current distribution of refugees worldwide and meet the demand of countries hosting the majority of refugees. Political statements and proposals articulated at the beginning of this year, remain way under what would be required for tackling the migration challenge and developing efficient solutions. While collective action would be highly required, the international community and the European Union do not express strong enough political commitment to tackle the problem and develop genuine solution. Despite the G20, the Bratislava Summit, the announcement made in the State of the Union speech of President Juncker and the UN Summit on Migration and Refugees, there are still little concrete plan for the resettlement of refugees and on the detention of children stuck in refugee camps. The refugee crisis is one that demand solidarity, while states are not doing enough.
The EU and more largely the UN must compel their Member States and especially the world’s wealthier states to share responsibility for the crisis and provide greater assistance to the major host and entry countries. Genuine commitments and concrete plans will be required before 2018 to tackle the challenge of refugees both in Europe and worldwide. It is time that the interests of states stop taking precedence over the development of genuine solutions for the 21 million refugees worldwide.
The European Union must prove it is able to put in place concrete solution for tackling the refugee crisis and encourage its Members to cooperate. While refugee quotas remain highly debated and controversial among Member States, the EU will have to take political initiatives among members refusing quotas. Especially, the EU has to find solutions to the increasing reluctance of Visegrad members and Balkan states to coordinate on border control, migration policy, and the EU demand for resettlement solutions. It might have to develop more stringent and vigorous response and sanctions towards governments policy like in Hungary, which is now accused of violation of the Geneva Conventions by the UNHCR for racist discourses and repeatedly using force with migrants. The European Union must formulate clear resettlement solutions and options, encourage coordination among its Members in order to formulate quantifiable and homogenous action plans and targets for the following year.
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