First, let’s contrast two sets of numbers. Since 2011 (the year of the Arab spring), around a million refugees or asylum seekers from around the world have sought shelter in the 28 European Union countries which between them have a total population of some 500 million people. In roughly the same period, more than three times that number of refugees from the Syrian crisis have fled into the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq – whose combined populations make up around 130 million people.
Viewed this way Europe – which is of course significantly wealthier than the Middle East – cannot claim to be overburdened with refugees. Yet the popular discourse in most European countries does not reflect that reality, and as a consequence the political space for European leaders to pursue more generous policies is very limited. Indeed, most are under intense pressure from their electorates to pursue more restrictive immigration policies, and although refugees are not the primary focus of concern, they get caught in the squeeze.
One of the reasons for this dilemma is the disorderly way refugees reach Europe. Unlike developed economies in other parts of the world, such as the US, Canada and Australia, most refugees come to Europe not through managed programmes with their status recognized in advance, but through irregular pathways as asylum seekers. This means that people with strong protection needs, who will gain refugee status in due course, are mixed up with “illegal” economic migrants, who though often deserving of sympathy have no grounds for asylum. It also means that refugees enter Europe, along with other migrants, through irregular border crossings, which is both dangerous for them and alarming to the European public. The tragedy of Lampedusa and the ongoing chaos at Calais are just two of the more visible examples of this highly unsatisfactory situation.
A change of policy is urgently required. Europe needs to play a greater role in refugee protection, but it will never do so through the current arrangements. The way forward is a decisive shift towards the resettlement of refugees through the existing UNHCR programme. The benefits of refugee resettlement over ‘“spontaneous” asylum seeking are striking.
A person’s refugee status is established in advance of their travel to Europe rather than through an asylum determination process in the country of arrival. As a result, all those coming through resettlement programmes are genuine refugees (a group that still commands considerable support among the European public), unlike asylum seekers; although some of them may have strong refugee claims, many of them will not. This potential misuse and abuse of the asylum system is what erodes public support for refugee protection.
The managed nature of resettlement also means that those refugees with the greatest needs are prioritized. Asylum seeking is, by contrast, a ruthless “dog eat dog” process – those who get through are those with the funds, connections, drive and luck to do so. The poorer and more vulnerable are much less likely to make it to Europe. Resettlement is planned and managed and so does not involve disorderly movements, clandestine border crossings, the use of false papers and all the rest. It is safer for the refugees and more reassuring for receiving countries. Resettled refugees also go through orientation programmes and get integration assistance, which means they are helped to settle in their new home country from day one.
Given all these advantages it may seem surprising that Europe’s record on resettlement is so dismal. Germany has stepped up to resettle around 30,000 Syrian refugees, but other countries have taken a few hundred at most. More to the point, the EU has failed to embrace the idea of establishing long-term resettlement programmes on any great scale. UNHCR estimates that nearly a million refugees globally are in need of resettlement (including Syrians). But the number of places provided by the world’s governments is only around 80,000. The United States takes by far the greatest number of resettled refugees (53,000 in 2012), and Canada and Australia account for around another 10,000 places. By contrast, European countries provide some 5,500 places in total, with the Nordic countries providing the majority. Many countries, for a variety of reasons, take in no resettled refugees at all.
There’s clearly an obstacle to progress and in our search for it we return to the fact that European countries currently receive large numbers of asylum seekers – hundreds of thousands each year. It is this above all which makes European countries loathe to open up to resettlement on a significant scale. That is understandable given the political pressures, but in my view the status quo is unsustainable. Yes, many refugees do eventually gain sanctuary in Europe – but at huge cost. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives are lost along the way. Asylum determination processes across Europe are cumbersome and costly, and cause misery to almost all the migrants who go through them. Yet at the same time, the system is deeply unsatisfactory to majority opinion in Europe, which wants to see protection provided to those who need it but equally wants to see those who don’t qualify for asylum removed.
Currently, once a migrant is in the asylum process, the prospect of them ever being returned to their country of origin is minimal. In these circumstances, reform of the asylum system, though badly needed, is not likely to happen. Those who want to see Europe doing more to help refugees therefore need to recognize that an alternative is needed.
However, that alternative cannot be liberalization of the asylum system and a substantial resettlement programme – which is what most refugee campaigners and advocates continue to argue for. Some element of trade-off between the way the asylum system works and an increase in resettlement needs to be negotiated. That won’t be easy to do, but I would argue that something along the lines I set out below offers a much better long-term vision for the provision of sustainable refugee protection in Europe.
First, more assistance should be provided to front-line states. People facing persecution need to be sure that if they cross into a neighbouring country, they will be safe and their immediate humanitarian needs will be met. Refugee advocates often don’t like the idea of protection being provided via a “two step” or “two tier” process, with the first move being into a refugee camp across the border and only then a possible new life in the West. But that is the reality for most refugees anyway and so systematizing it, while improving immediate places of sanctuary along the lines of the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey, should not be that contentious.
In return for more assistance in setting and running camps and reception centres, the EU should be able to demand that immediate receiving countries do more to prevent onward migration flows towards the borders of Europe. Again, this would involve refugees and others being stopped short of their destination of choice, so the quid pro quo here must be a significant increase in the number of resettlement places on offer across Europe. A phased increase to 100,000 places annually would be reasonable goal. This would mean that while refugees would find it more difficult to get to Europe as a first step in seeking protection, there would be a fairer process in place, allowing a significant number of them to achieve that goal.
With a much larger resettlement programme in place, the EU would then give itself greater legitimacy in enhancing border protection, making clear for instance that patrols of the Mediterranean to pick up boats of migrants would result not in those migrants being taken to Europe for asylum processing, but being returned to countries of transit. At the same time, while the right to claim asylum in a European state would be preserved, the presumption under these new arrangements would be that a granting of refugee status for those taking this route would be exceptional.
To some, these will be highly contentious proposals – particularly coming from someone who has worked on asylum and refugee issues for a decade or more. But in an era of high migration, European countries will only be able to remain relatively open if they can convince their electorates that they can manage migration flows. Resettlement offers a way of providing refugee protection in a fairer way and on a greater scale than the current system, while at the same time offering the assurance that the process is managed and orderly. In my view, it offers the best way forward.
Author: Tim Finch is director of communications at the UK think tank IPPR and former head of migration research. He is a former director of communication at the British Refugee Council. His BBC Radio programme on refugee resettlement can be found here. His debut novel on a refugee theme is published by Jonathan Cape.
Image: A displaced Iraqi boy, who fled from Islamic State violence in Mosul, carries his brother at Baherka refugee camp in Erbil September 14, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah