Geographies in Depth

How can Europe protect itself without betraying its values?

A Syrian refugee boy sits on a beach after disembarking from a luxury yacht used by about 250 other Syrian refugees and to travel across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast in the Greek island of Lesbos November 21, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

By virtue of proximity, Europe has no choice but to show the way in the Syria crisis. Image: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

David Miliband
President and Chief Executive Officer, International Rescue Committee
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By the end of this year's Annual Meeting in Davos, we can expect more than 10,000 refugees to have arrived on the shores of Europe. And this is the so-called “quiet season”. By spring, the numbers will increase, fleeing the horrors of Syria and elsewhere. If 2015 was the biggest test yet of Europe’s capacity and willingness to manage the crisis, 2016 is only going get tougher.

This is a crisis full of false choices, obscuring the real choice. False choices between sanctuary for refugees and safety for Europeans; between aid directed towards the Middle East and aid directed to the European continent; between commitments to equal rights at home and international law abroad; between head and heart. The false choice is to say that to protect ourselves we have to stop taking refugees in need – in other words abandon our values. The real choice is between disorganized and illegal entry into Europe, around and over fences and walls that are built, and organized management of refugee flows into Europe and within Europe. This is not a matter of compassion or competence; Europe needs both.

My own staff know better than anyone how hard it is to ensure a decent and orderly welcome to people arriving in large numbers. We have a team of nearly 150 in Lesvos. But because we work across the arc of the crisis, from the war zones of Syria to the neighbouring states to Greece and Serbia to refugee resettlement in the US, we know that the international response has to work across these places – protecting civilians inside Syria (many of those arriving in Lesvos come direct from Syria), supporting them in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and then screening and processing arrivals in Europe.

Faced with the biggest crisis since World War II, Europe has in the last six months done some things right. The EU’s current plan of action contains important points, not least that asylum seekers who have already arrived on the continent need to be screened, relocated and integrated into society if they qualify as refugees, and sent home if they do not. The EU is right that Syria’s neighbours need more help. Right too to spread the load.

But implementation is not keeping up with commitments, and as a result Europe is neither providing refugees with the safety and protection they deserve, nor offering confidence to citizens that the crisis is under control. This is a crisis full of priorities, but four stand out. They all represent a win for Europeans and a win for refugees.

1. The EU needs dramatically to improve the dire conditions awaiting refugees landing on the island of Lesvos. The policies that have resulted in the explosion in smugglers’ routes and the chaotic landings on beaches have not just left refugees in danger: they have made it all the harder for the authorities to properly register, check the passports of, and account for those arriving in the EU, thereby undermining efforts to bolster the bloc’s security. There is no good reason why the EU cannot dramatically improve conditions for those arriving, ensuring not only that international humanitarian standards are met, but that more effective registration and screening of new arrivals takes place to assure Europe’s security.

2. For those who have already arrived, the commitments that have been made to relocate vulnerable refugees sheltering in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe need to be met. The EU’s model of multi-agency refugee registration, asylum claim-processing and relocation has not been smooth. There is an urgent need to ensure that processing centers are better resourced, managed and coordinated. And it is a responsibility that Germany cannot bear alone. But relocation is not just a matter of screening and transportation. It is a matter of integration into local communities. The US experience with which IRC is most familiar is not complicated: integration means learning the language, getting a job, getting kids into school and getting onto the pathway to citizenship. Adhering to host country laws and norms is a requirement not an option.

3. The dialogue with Turkey about support for refugees in the country needs to be expanded to include Lebanon and Jordan. These countries have a crushing number of refugees. It is right to talk of a Marshall Plan style approach – public and private sector together. Their economies, services and infrastructure are at breaking point. With no political solution in sight for the crisis in Syria (the growing feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran of course exacerbating the gloom), ensuring that refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries have access to essential services, and also to legal employment, is the only way to help them have the possibility of a meaningful life, and this is only possible if there is a massive upgrade in the nature, scale and time frame of international support for these states. The upcoming London Conference is vital for this.

4. Finally, safe and legal routes to hope for refugees in Europe need to be matched by safe and legal routes elsewhere. Canada has led the way in this regard, agreeing to resettle 25,000 refugees. The US coalition of refugee resettlement agencies has called for 100,000 Syrians to be admitted to the US, which by virtue of geography is well able to screen refugee arrivals.

The Syria crisis has become a global crisis because it has been allowed to fester. We now need to play catch up. By virtue of proximity, Europe has no choice but to show the way.

Author: David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He will be participating in the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, from 20-23 January.

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