The European Refugee Crisis

Thousands of people have tonight demonstrated outside Hungary’s parliament after the Government’s decision to stop people travelling on to Germany and other EU countries, just a day after Hungary appeared to abandon efforts to register people as migrants, allowing huge numbers to board trains to Vienna and southern Germany.

There are now hundreds of people camped in the square outside Budapest's Keleti train station, with minimal facilities, while outside Nyugati station, also in Budapest, volunteers run another refugee/migrant camp. The situation isn’t confined to Hungary however; this is a European-wide emergency.

Image: @jpfbadcock

Image: @jpfbadcock

According to the UN, a third of a million people have tried to cross the Mediterranean in the last eight months; at least 2,600 have died – drowned or suffocated on the voyage. Over 100,000 people have arrived in Italy since the start of the year. 50,000 people have arrived in Greece in just one month alone.

Just yesterday, five children were among 12 people who drowned in Turkish waters while trying to reach Greece, with harrowing pictures being carried by numerous news outlets today, while police in Austria have found 71 bodies in the back of a lorry, including a 2-year old girl – they were all from Syria, as the majority of these refugees are.

Czech authorities have moved over 200 people from Breclav railway station to police gymnasiums until it can be established whether they have already requested asylum, in an apparent violation of the 1951 Refugees Convention, which forbids signatories from punishing refugees arriving without documentation.

Therein lies the confusion at the heart of the situation gripping the EU. Are these people migrants – the term used almost universally to describe this crisis by Governments and the media alike, a controversial term at best – or are they refugees, peoples for whom a United Nations convention exists to protect?


Migrants or refugees?

A refugee is, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, any person who "owing to a 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.” To gain refugee status, one must go through the legal process of claiming asylum.

The Oxford definition of the word migrant however, is "one who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area, or country of residence to another".

Refugees then, are a subset of migrants; but labelling all those involved in this situation as migrants, risks genuine refugees losing the protection that the 1951 Refugee Convention affords them. Indeed the UN Commission on Human Rights suggests that “the term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor”.

Image: @jpfbadcock

Image: @jpfbadcock

The refugees arriving at Europe’s borders from the Middle East have likely travelled through Turkey or Greece and then through the Balkans and Hungary – a journey of many days by road. Some children are travelling alone. Those found in the lorry in Austria paid traffickers in good faith, only to have them seal the fridge door and drive off, leaving them to suffocate. 52 people have been found dead in the hull of a boat, beaten by smugglers into an airless hold and bribed to pay just to come up to breathe. Those that couldn’t pay, suffocated to death. Yet another 100 people drowned, while locked in the hold of a capsized boat. 9 people have died in the last three months trying to cross from Calais to Dover, some trapped on the wheel arches of lorries, others electrocuted on power lines. It’s not as though these people have taken such risks lightly – these options are better than staying in their homeland.

There are millions of people who have lost their homes, exhausted mothers desperately holding their baby’s heads above the waves, many of whom have already escaped the horrors of ISIL violence in Syria, the lucky ones with their family members in toe.  More than 13 million children from the Middle East and North Africa have had no schooling for months. There are former teachers, doctors, office workers, shop owners, now refugees, sleeping in bus stations, resorting to paying traffickers out of desperation to find sanctuary and stability in order to rebuild their lives.

Just a few weeks ago, 200 innocent men, women and children were kidnapped by ISIL in Homs, Syria. Others that had previously fled have moved on from refugee camps where thousands are living in desert tents without running water, proper schooling or medical care. Thousands of young children are entering the world in these camps – and have no birth certificate to prove their identity as a result – they are effectively stateless.

It’s clear that these circumstances constitute “external compelling factor(s)”, so let’s be abundantly clear – these people are refugees, not migrants.


What could get in the way of an EU agreement on a common policy?

Perhaps as a result of the incorrect use of the word migrant, rather than refugee, negatively influencing public opinion, EU member states are struggling to agree a common policy for dealing with the situation. So what exactly is holding them back?

One of the founding principles of the European Union, was freedom of movement, the idea that a citizen of any member state could move, at free will, throughout the union, settling as they wish. This was the thinking behind the creation of Schengen Area. These principles are being challenged by the current situation. In addition, a number of member states are starting to build physical barriers at their borders, a practice that is again at odds with the spirit of the Union.

In addition, across the EU, Nationalist parties have been strengthening their supporter base and share of the vote, directly impacting on the stance mainstream politicians have taken towards the issue. Here in the UK, partly in response to the relative rise of the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, the ruling Conservative Party are pushing for new EU rules to limit migrants' access to welfare benefits. In Finland, the nationalist Finns are in power and ruling coalitions have worked with the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands and the Danish People's Party (DPP) in Denmark. France's National Front remains popular and nationalists and Eurosceptics in Germany have staged anti-immigrant marches. Support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats is almost at 20%, while the Far-right Jobbik party won 20% of the vote in Hungary's 2014 parliamentary elections, making it the most successful anti-immigration party in Europe at present.

In all, insecurity about migration is at a generational high, across a Europe still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008. Politicians are anxious not to appear "soft" on immigration, resulting in a hardened attitude toward migrants. In countries such as the UK, the issue is politically toxic. This is precisely why the use of the word ‘migrant’ rather than refugee in relation to the current crisis is deeply irresponsible.

On a more practical level, member states cannot agree on the use of quotas to disperse refugees more fairly across the EU. Germany accepted by far the largest number of asylum claims last year and expects to see as many as 800,000 this year. While this is certainly a grand gesture, there is a clear demographic and therefore economic need for such migration in Germany, which doesn’t exist in other states. The UK has opted out of the quota system completely.

There is also a belief among some member states, the UK included, that more action should be taken to improve refugee welfare at source, rather than deal with the situation when it arrives on Europe’s doorstep. The UK government is among those arguing that the EU aid budget can be used in this regard.

Image: UNHCR

Image: UNHCR

So what is the solution?

Above all, there is a clear need to correctly name migrants and refugees – particularly in the media and by politicians – the distinction is fundamental in determining the path each must take and the extent of the support that must be provided by member states. The 1951 Refugee Convention already adequately protects those afforded refugee status.

In the European Union however, the Convention cannot be applied in an equitable manner, owing to a fundamental disconnect between two EU laws, as exposed by the current crisis. The Dublin Regulation mandates that refugees should seek asylum in the first EU country they enter, yet the Schengen Area allows freedom of movement across all member signatories. The result is a situation whereby people are creeping across Europe, often risking personal harm, in order to reach their chosen destination before seeking asylum. Conversely, it’s also putting great pressure on those member states that are on the ‘front line’, places such as Greece, Italy and Hungary in this instance. The status quo is working for no one.

In response, the European Commission, the executive of the EU, is drawing up a list of safe countries of origin that failed asylum applicants can be sent back to, in order to help establish which of those at the EU’s borders are genuine asylum seekers and which are not. For assessment to be effective however, substantial investment in asylum and immigration assessment centres, both overseas and at the European border is urgently required. Thousands of people in Greece are stuck, as no one is even considering their asylum claim, no one knows how many need sanctuary, nor how many need to return to their homes. So far only Germany has supported Greece. The whole EU must fund assessments as a solution to a Europe-wide problem. It isn’t possible for Greece, Italy and Hungary to cope with the scale of the problem alone.

Once these assessments have been made, the need for an agreement on redistribution of genuine asylum seekers across member states becomes paramount. Quotas based on GDP seem to be the most logical.

The EU is also accelerating work on a new, permanent system of migration management, whereby a crisis on a frontline member state would automatically trigger a system to relocate a proportion of people in need of protection according to a quota. However, the trigger for the declaration of an emergency situation has yet to be agreed and certain member states, including the UK and Ireland, will have opt-in rights. So, while the proposed system would address the matter in principle, there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome before an agreement can be reached.

Finally, UN conventions, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, apply globally. So while this crisis may have landed at the door of Europe, there should be an element of burden-sharing across the globe, as per historical precedent. There has yet to be much recognition of this in the media coverage of the crisis to date.

Is a broader response required?

This matter was discussed at length at the recent Y20 Summit in Istanbul, which this author attended as Leader of the United Kingdom Delegation.

Most refugees want to go home as soon as peace and stability are restored in their country of origin, but, in reality, conflicts such as the one in Syria at present, are unlikely to be fully resolved and communities rebuilt within a decade. That’s why resettlement programmes should be considered fundamental and accompanied by compulsory language development programs and voluntary mentorship programs in order to aid integration.

Yet the time refugees spend in refugee camps before resettlement is detrimental to their future prospects. Refugee camps should offer opportunity for their inhabitants, including:

-          guaranteed primary and secondary education;

-          vocational training schemes;

-          microfinance schemes encouraging an economy to develop in refugee camps;

-          psychological support programmes (including teacher training to identify those in need         of psychological support);

-          reproductive and sexual health clinics;

-          refugee councils with youth representation to identify and address community needs;

Those children born in refugee camps should also be guaranteed birth certificates from their country of origin.

We’ve also got to do more to stop the dangerous and brutal trafficking trade. We need greater sharing of information between police and security agencies and more safety and security checks across Europe too. Since Austria and Hungary reintroduced more border checks, more traffickers have been stopped.

An obligation to end the suffering

There are very few occurrences that should trigger an absolute response in public policy – but whole-hearted support for genuine refugees is one of them. The reality is, of course, that there has been an absolute response to this matter for over half a century, in the form of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Yet the idea that this convention applies only when politically convenient is outrageous. Hence the importance of ensuring that refugees are called as such and given the support that their status mandates. Those refugees that have made it to the EU’s borders have suffered unimaginably already – we have an obligation to end that suffering, not to prolong it yet further.