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Europe’s refugee amnesia

Jun 01,2015 - Last updated at Jun 01,2015

After World War I, when millions of European civilians were made refugees, forced out of their homelands by enemy occupation or deportation, an international regime was developed to coordinate effective responses and ease the suffering of those who had been uprooted.

A century later, another refugee crisis is under way and this time, it is Europe that has the power to provide safe haven to desperate people.

Yet it has not risen to the occasion, with many of its responses failing to match the urgency of the situation.

In just the first few months of 2015, more than 38,000 people have attempted to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. Some 1,800 people have died as a result — more than twice the number of such deaths in all of 2013.

Disappointingly, many Europeans have responded to this humanitarian crisis, which closely resembles the one that Europe endured a century ago, by opposing their countries’ acceptance of any more refugees. How quickly we forget our past.

Worse, some Europeans want us to forget.

Today’s sentiment has been fuelled by populist parties positioning themselves as guardians of national identity.

Europe, they argue, faces a mass influx that threatens to place even greater strain on its economies, labour markets and cultures. 

One does not have to look back a century to see how dangerous the consequences of such rhetoric can be.

But the populists’ narrative is not just inflammatory; it is false. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the drivers of displacement, data from the United Nations refugee agency show that at least half of those trying to reach Europe from North Africa are fleeing from war and persecution.

The International Organisation for Migration, together with Italy’s navy, has determined that this year’s migrants hail mainly from Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria — countries where conditions entitle their citizens to request asylum.

In short, this is a crisis not of immigrants, but of refugees — and it is showing no sign of slowing. Indeed, with instability and violence plaguing much of the Middle East and North Africa, the decline in armed conflict since World War II seems to have slowed — and could even reverse.

The international community is legally bound to protect those who are being forced to flee their homes by conflict and persecution.

Given Europe’s history and values — not to mention its proximity to some of the beleaguered populations — it has a special obligation to contribute to this effort.

But Europe is not the only region that has been burdened by today’s migration flows — or even the most affected.

Nine out of ten refugees do not leave their region, fleeing to countries very close to or bordering their own.

The Jordanian refugee camp Zaatari alone shelters more than 82,000 people; if it were an official city, it would be among the country’s most populous.

Lebanon, a country of just 4.5 million people, has taken in an estimated 1,116,000 refugees — roughly equivalent to the population of Brussels.

Given this, it is difficult to justify Europe’s failure to agree on a system of relocation and resettlement for a total of, say, 20,000 refugees this year, distributed among 28 countries according to individual quotas.

Indeed, many European countries have accepted very few refugees so far, making their inaction even more difficult to comprehend.

Spain and Greece, for example, have each accepted only about 4,000 — a meagre amount, when compared to Jordan or Lebanon.

A quota-based agreement could help to disperse the burden across European countries. 

As it stands, major differences among countries’ asylum policies have meant major disparities in refugee numbers.

Indeed, just four countries — France, Germany, Italy and Sweden — accounted for two-thirds of all refugees accepted in Europe last year.

When a network of human traffickers turns the Mediterranean into a mass grave, Europe cannot simply turn away.

Instead of succumbing to destructive populism and dishonourable isolationism, Europe’s leaders must commit to fulfilling their legal and moral responsibility to help the refugees — and, of course, to explain to their citizens why this is so important.

Such an effort would require every European country — not just those situated on the Mediterranean — to contribute resources to support large-scale search-and-rescue operations. 

Border control cannot be the only — or even the primary — objective.

Beyond helping to manage the crisis today, Europe must commit to helping fragile and conflict-affected countries overcome the challenges they face, improve their citizens’ wellbeing and build thriving economies.

To retain its moral and political authority, the European Union — perhaps the most compelling example of how cooperation can support peace and prosperity — must implicate itself beyond its frontiers in a sincere and determined way, reaching mutually beneficial agreements with its southern neighbours.

Behind almost every request for asylum that an EU country receives is a human tragedy — a microhistory of violence, fear and loss.

The goal of the asylum seekers is not to reach Europe; it is simply to escape conflict and persecution. And they should be able to.

Last century — in both world wars — Europeans were the ones fleeing from persecution.

With the number of displaced people now at levels unseen since World War II, Europe has a responsibility to recall its history.

And it should take the opportunity to respond to today’s refugee crisis as it would have liked the world to respond to its suffering — and to prove that the EU’s value extends far beyond its borders.


The writer is distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution and president of ESADEgeo, the Global Economic and Geopolitical Centre of ESADE. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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