Going to the heart of the crises

Going to the Heart of the Crises 

As European states search for political and practical solutions to the ‘refugee crisis’, the needs of the refugees themselves are rarely considered. Instead of prioritizing the protection of refugees, the states are mainly intent on protecting their borders.

The arrival of some 500,000 men, women and children, who crossed the external borders of the EU between January and August 2015 in search of protection, has left the bloc reeling in shock as it tries to come to terms with what might well become the new ‘normal’.

The sheer numbers of refugees who have arrived, and their determination to cross internal borders and keep moving until they reach their intended destination, instead of staying put at their point of entry, have changed the rules of the game. It is clear that the legal fiction of the EU’s common asylum laws – especially the Dublin Regulation – is being challenged not only by the refugees but also by states supposed to implement those laws.

And yet, facing an extraordinary movement of people, the reaction of Europe remains much the same as it ever was. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who responded with courage and true leadership in difficult circumstances, has been a notable exception. Most EU states have responded by putting up walls – literally and figuratively – to ‘protect’ themselves from the supposed problems that refugees bring.

This is what happened in the summits held this year about immigration, including the emergency meetings held in September at the height of the crisis. EU states simply came up with more of the same, apart from a couple of innovative albeit token measures. They could bring themselves to agree only – or nearly only – to secure borders; to dissuade refugees from coming to Europe by increasing aid to Syria’s overwhelmed neighbours; to keep tabs on the refugees who come anyway; and to process asylum applications faster to deport more quickly those who fail to be recognised as refugees. According to Donald Tusk, EU Council President, these measures are necessary as the time has come to “change the policy of open doors and windows” that prevailed at most for a couple of weeks, if at all.

EU states also committed once again to crack down more heavily on smuggling rings and to do more to end the war in Syria. But the clear and present reality is that war continues to rage in Syria, and in many other places, and that smuggling networks will continue to profit from the despair of the victims, especially since there is no other way for them to reach a place where they can find protection. Although our leaders have indulged in rhetoric about the need to prevent loss of life, no move was made to put in place concrete measures to enable refugees to reach countries where they can seek asylum safely and legally.

True, there was a pledge to resettle slightly more than 20,000 refugees from outside Europe over a two-year period. But this is just a drop in the ocean. If we consider just the war in Syria, by July, there were more than four million Syrian refugees in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and in North Africa. True, states agreed to two temporary and exceptional proposals of the EU Commission to relocate 160,000 refugees “in clear need of international protection” from Greece and Italy, but only after massive delays, sharp disagreement over quotas and the refusal of Hungary to participate. What remains unclear is how relocation will work in practice and to what extent refugees’ wishes or links with particular countries will be taken into account.

What’s more, no commitment was made to put in place a more permanent relocation mechanism to relieve the pressure on border states receiving large numbers of refugees, even as their obligation to register all arrivals was underlined during the summits. Clearly, it remains very difficult for some EU states to take part in a truly European response based on solidarity and responsibility-sharing.

History is repeating itself. European states are insisting on solutions that have palpably failed to resolve burning challenges in the past. And they will fail again, for many reasons. I suggest two: one is that proposed solutions are not founded on the solidarity that is one of the supposed tenets of the Union, and the other is because they are not listening to the refugees, who are literally at the heart of this crisis.

From working with refugees in Malta I have understood that protection is about far more than safety. For refugees, protection is about belonging to a community where my family and I can give and receive, where we can develop our potential. Refugees do not want to be warehoused in a camp, unable to go to work or to go to school, where they have no hope for the future and where they cannot rebuild their lives. Like all of us, they want to live their lives to the full. Unless and until we understand and take this into account, the ‘solutions’ we devise are likely to fail and people will continue to lose their lives in their attempts to find protection.

Dr Katrine Camilleri


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