As of January 2017, about 22 million people that are 4.2% of the EU-28 population, are citizens of a non-member country. 37 million people residing in 28 states of the European Union were born in a non-EU state.
Continuous wars and political unrest have forced refugees and migrants in the Middle East and Southeast Asia to flee the turmoil in their homelands towards safer European shores, undertaking treacherous journeys from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt. Almost 90 % of refugees and migrants have paid organised criminals and people smugglers to get them across borders.
The EU has launched a series of measures to deal with the crisis. Steps are being taken to relocate asylum seekers already in Europe, resettle people in need from neighbouring countries and return people who do not qualify for asylum. Support to Greece and Italy, the landing point for most migrants has been provided for the establishment of hotspots for better management of the incoming migration flows.
Another point of view claims the situation isn’t even a refugee crisis, It is just the case of some countries bearing a disproportionate responsibility to provide a safe abode to the refugees. “We consider it a political crisis, not a migrant crisis. The numbers are not that significant,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the U.N. International Organization for Migration.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines ‘refugee’1 as any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.
The main difference between refugees and migrants is that of choice. Refugees are people fleeing armed conflict or persecution and for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences. Their arrival is unplanned and turning them away could mean sentencing them to death. Migrants, on the other hand, may move for any number of reasons: Family, Economic, Education, Better living standards etc.
Do refugees have access to basic rights?
As per UNHCR, a refugee has the right to ‘safe asylum’. Refugees should receive at least the same rights2 and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident, including freedom of thought, of movement, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Economic and social rights are equally applicable. Refugees should have access to medical care, schooling and the right to work. In certain circumstances when government resources are not adequate, international organizations such as UNHCR provide assistance.
‘Refugee Crisis in Europe’
In 2015 arrivals via the Mediterranean peaked at more than 1 million, with a significant reduction in numbers since then. The drop-in numbers, since the peak in 2015-16 is because of an EU deal with Turkey, new border fences in the Balkans, and a bilateral arrangement between Italy and Libya. However, the factors that led to the refugee influx are far from resolved and most observers believe it is only a matter of time before the number of arrivals picks up again.
Major Factors Responsible For The Crisis
One of the prominent reasons is the intransigent nature of the Syrian civil war. The civil war in Syria has caused 5.6 million to seek refuge. Of the 1 million refugees in 2015, Half were Syrian, 20 per cent from Afghanistan and seven per cent from Iraq, with most of the remaining 33 per cent coming from Sub-Saharan Africa.3 An estimated 362,000 refugees and migrants risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea crammed into unseaworthy and overcrowded boats in 2016, with 181,400 people arriving in Italy and 173,450 in Greece.
Most of the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are trying to reach Europe through Libya. The lack of an effective government in Libya has enabled people traffickers to operate almost unhindered out of Libyan ports. In Sub-Saharan Africa, while there is a simmering civil war in Mali, the other countries from which the migrants flee are relatively peaceful.
The hopeless poverty coupled with the population explosion in sub- Saharan Africa, causes many people to risk their lives to reach Europe, even when they cannot be termed as refugees.
In 2015, it became much easier to make the arduous journey to Europe, when people realised that moving from Turkey to Greece was a far easier option than sailing from Libya to Italy. Turkey denies having turned a blind eye, but on the ground, reports suggest that the country that houses more Syrian exiles than any other was not particularly proactive in stopping their departure.
Life Of Refugees In Europe
Asylum seekers upon arrival in the landing point countries are channelled to reception centres. Many migrants are detained without any court order, forced to be fingerprinted, and classified as asylum seekers or economic migrants depending on a summary assessment.
Those arriving in Europe need adequate reception and assistance, particularly those with specific needs, including unaccompanied and separated children and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.
As a fundamental right to health guaranteed by European Charter of Fundamental Rights, regardless of one’s status in relation to migration they should have access to “essential primary healthcare” as well as emergency medical care and antenatal care. In practice, however, access to health care is often dependent upon the legal status of migrants with undocumented migrants facing the biggest challenges.
In most European countries, refugees have free access to emergency care and paid access to primary and secondary care. Another barrier is the perceptions that migrants themselves have of the health care system they find themselves in.
A report released by UNHCR stated that more than 3.5 million refugee children aged 5 to 17 did not have the chance to attend school in the last academic year. These include some 1.5 million refugee children missing out on primary school, the report found, while 2 million refugee adolescents are not in secondary school. Many refugee children suffer both physical and emotional bullying in schools, racism, difficulties in making friends etc., when in fact they should be experiencing belonging and connection in order to learn.
Refugees face another mammoth challenge in terms of employment. Admitting the challenges faced by the country faces in integrating its huge migrant population a government minister accepted that “Up to three-quarters of Germany’s refugees will still be unemployed in five years’ time”. Germany being the leader in labour integration in Europe, the situation is worse off in other European nations.
Europe’s Response To The Crisis
To ease the crisis, the EU is trying to resolve the root causes of the crisis as well as increasing aid to people in need of humanitarian assistance both inside and outside Europe.
At the heart of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is the Dublin regulation, which determines the country responsible for processing each asylum claim – generally the first EU country the applicant has entered. The Dublin system has resulted in border countries like Italy and Greece bearing the brunt of the migration crisis of late.
As well as a major reform of the Dublin system, the European Parliament has called for tightening border controls and improving the ability of member states to track people entering Europe. MEPs want standard rules for distinguishing regular migrants from refugees, to ensure fair and equal treatment of asylum-seekers, and shared responsibilities amongst all the member states.
Many Germans believed that with the country’s ageing population, immigration from outside the EU to Germany is crucial to upholding the current German standard of living.
Thus, Germany signalled in September 2014 that it would accept any Syrian’s asylum application, even if they had previously applied for asylum in other European countries; the announcement spurred a bigger wave of arrivals, since people no longer feared being arrested in Hungary, and forced to claim asylum there.
Germany revisited and reassessed the issue of safe countries of origin, resulting in the exclusion of some nationalities, while a so-called “simplified asylum procedure” helped certain asylum seekers facing serious persecution to have their processes expedited. Another legislative amendment enabled those with an active asylum procedure to freely use medical facilities with the introduction of electronic health cards for asylum seekers.
German states spent more than €20bn (£17.5bn) on refugees in 2016. Berlin set aside €685m (£600m) for accommodation, unaccompanied minors, integration programmes, healthcare, language lessons and other projects but spent around €1.3bn (£1.1bn) in total – almost double the budget. The state of Bavaria spent €3.3bn (£2.9bn), Hesse €1.6bn (£1.4bn) and Schleswig-Holstein €783.7m.
However, increasing pressure from neighbours such as France and Italy and the internal divisions amongst the German government have forced the country to change its policies for stricter norms with the reintroduction of border patrols. Germany also reached an agreement with Spain to turn back the refugees coming to the country who enter the EU through Spain.
The German Chancellor has replaced her infamous refrain of the initial weeks — “we can do it” — with another: “The events of 2015 must not be repeated.” The German government in 2017 announced a scheme to offer migrants financial incentives of up to €1,200 (£1,000) each to leave Germany and withdraw their application for protection, with a lower amount of €800 (£700) if they choose to depart after being refused asylum.
The number of people seeking asylum in Germany has plummeted, from around 722,000 in 2016 to 198,000 in 2017. Numbers are projected to fall further in 2018, back to the levels of 2013-14.
Italy has been one of the main gates of entry into the EU for refugees and undocumented migrants. According to the UNHCR, 93,715 refugees resided in Italy in 2014. In 2015, over 121,000 migrants were smuggled by sea or land to Italy. Many refugees entering Italy wish to continue their journey towards Northern Europe, but many of them end up being stranded in Italy as they are denied entry to the country they seek asylum to.8
Italy has been pushing for increased cooperation with the fragile Government in Libya, which is one of the main departure points for refugee boats heading to Europe. Even though Italy has tried to prioritize smaller reception centres to help new arrivals get on their feet, thousands of asylum-seekers reside in large shelters, feeding into the mutual distrust of surrounding neighbourhoods. Italy has continued to press with its safe corridors policy in Libya. It has sought the processing of migrants on-site, in cooperation with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
In 2017, Italy threatened close its ports to humanitarian refugee rescue ships as it reached “saturation point”. The move came after more than 10,000 migrants were brought to the country’s shores in a very short span of time.
Italy’s neighbours have already closed their borders to keep migrants from moving through Europe over land, and countries including Poland and Hungary are facing legal action over their refusal to host asylum seekers taken from overwhelmed Italy and Greece. After years at the frontline of refugee arrivals to Europe, Italy is considering drastic action to force the hands of nations refusing to take redistributed migrants.
Rome can’t cope with the migration crisis alone but has been abandoned by Europe, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said in an interview in August 2017.
Refugee Crisis – An Unshared Responsibility
Britain left the European Union sighting immigration as one of the major reasons. Leaving the EU to cope for itself, Theresa May has been able to distance Britain from the worst refugee crisis since the second world war.
European Union authorities began a legal case in 2017 against three member countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, that have refused to share the burden of hosting migrants arriving on the bloc’s southern shores.
Opposing the EU’s migrant quota system as an assault on national sovereignty, Hungary and Poland have rejected EU refugee quotas. Prime Ministers of both the nations said they have instead opted to help people in Africa the Middle East, or those in need closer to their respective countries, insisting this approach was a more effective long-term solution to the migrant crisis.
UNHCR agrees to the fact that there has been a disproportionate burden on host countries.
Conclusion and Learning Outcomes
European governments couldn’t predict the refugee influx as they wrongly assumed that most of those refugees would never dare risk their lives at sea. But Europe underestimated people’s desperation.
Europe today faces a severe situation. There is chaos all around, while refugees who are already in the continent are leading a grim life, more refugees are approaching European shores every day. Owing to the split within the EU and various national governments, there hasn’t been a well defined and unified approach.
Angela Merkel made a humane and courageous move when she reached out to migrants in 2015. Though she has been criticised by some sections of the society, the European community largely recognizes her efforts to resolve the crisis. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that currently, Germany itself is struggling, Merkel has barely managed to keep her government afloat.
Certain sections of the European population have turned against the immigration norms, thus with the general election coming up in many countries, ‘anti-migration policies’ has become common rhetoric. In the case of Britain, this rhetoric turned out to be the population’s actual will.
Thus despite the efforts of various UN agencies, NGOs, EU and national governments the ‘refugee crisis’ is far from resolved, neither are there any hopes of that happening in near future.
The Current situation raises a very serious question: How relevant is the Geneva accord of 1951 which expects states to cooperate in ensuring the rights of refugees? The governments try to differentiate between people who genuinely need a place of safety and those “merely” seeking a better life. The distinction – as between “migrants” and “refugees” – has become more and more difficult to draw. Fates of millions of refugees are dependent on such fragile differences, which even the European and the world organisations aren’t sure about.
Chaos persists whenever large numbers of migrants or refugees are involved all over the world: whether it be the case of Rohingya Muslims or Mexican migrants across the US borders, situations are hardly dealt with in a well-organised manner. Thus, the analysis of the crisis lays down the importance of planning and the ability to predict what’s coming in the future. The study also draws out the human conflict in sharing our own resources with others, on the cost of our own good.
By Utkarsh Gupta