Europe’s changing attitude in the refugee crisis

By Anita van den Brandhof

In the current refugee crisis, the developing nations carry the burden of hosting refugees, but there is an increasing pressure on Europe to host more refugees from Syria.

Never before in history has the number of refugees and displaced people within their own country been as high as today. At the end of 2014 there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide and 38.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs). The number of persons on the move is rising as the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa continue. In the current refugee crisis, the developing nations carry the burden of hosting refugees: 86 percent of the refugees and IDP’s worldwide live in developing nations. The majority of the refugees are hosted in bordering countries; mostly in overcrowded and undersupplied refugee camps with little hope for a better future. More than half of the refugees worldwide are from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The five main hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia.  Europe is heavily debating on how to deal with the current refugee crisis, while neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Turkey host the majority of the refugees from Syria. There is a remarkable silence from the Gulf States, who are not hosting any Syrian refugees.

Main human smuggling routes to Europe. Source: The Economist

Main human smuggling routes to Europe. Source: The Economist

The international definition of the term “refugee” applies to any person who is:

“Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

So the term refugee does not apply to a person who migrates for better economic prospects, but to persons who are fleeing from war or persecution. However, the word ‘refugee’ has become more and more synonymous with migrants in Europe. For almost a decade the influence of right wing populist parties has been growing in Europe. These parties promoted parochial national interests, which was seen as fewer migrants and less European integration. Migrants were portrayed as a threat to the national culture and identity.  Due to the economic crisis many Europeans feared that migrants and refugees would take their jobs and benefit from the social welfare system. Therefore, refugees and migrants were discouraged from entering EU territory through tight border controls and strict migration laws.

The 6 lakh refugees that entered the EU in 2014 often reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in dangerously small boats. Last year more than 2200 people drowned on the way, and 1,66,000 were rescued by the Italian marine. This year more than 2600 people have drowned already on their way to Europe. For a long time these tragic deaths were ignored, but nowadays Europe is forced to revise its migration policy. The pictures of the drowned little boy Aylan on the beach of Turkey showed the immorality of neglecting refugees at sea. The refugee crisis is hotly debated and the support to host more refugees is growing in Western European countries. Many public initiatives have started to host refugees in family homes and collect money. Germany is expecting 8 lakh refugees this year, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that Germany can handle the influx of refugees.

The European Union has to respond to the refugee crisis and is preparing a new migration policy. In 2007 the European Union decided to harmonize the migration regulations of all member states. The process hasn’t been completed, because member states have a hard time giving up their sovereignty in this area. The Dublin regulation arranged that a refugee should apply for asylum in the member state of arrival. Because the main human smuggling routes arrive at Greece, Italy and Hungary, these countries have to deal with relatively more refugees than the other member states.  Therefore, the EU is negotiating with all member state to distribute the refugees more evenly. Since Germany agreed to take 8 lakh refugees from Syria this year, other countries are slowly agreeing to allow more refugees. The refugee crisis became a catalyst for discussing the righteousness of the current migration policy. Europe is forced to take more responsibility and become a more active political power in the crisis in the Middle East.

Anita van den Brandhof is a research scholar at Takshashila Institution.