Refugee crisis in Europe: the triple failure

December 2015
Monica de Castellarnau Cirera

Europe had a shocking “rentrée” from the summer holidays this September. As government officials returned to their suits and offices and kids throughout the continent returned to school, the Greek islands had become a highway for people fleeing war. In a matter of days the highway extended through to the Balkans on the tracks of a previously less trodden migration path into the European heartland. In no time thousands of people amassed in Hungary’s borders as this government attempted to halt their advance.

The route diverted its course slightly, as water will do when it bumps into a rock, but it continued as strong as the sum of each individual’s determination to reach safety – whatever that meant to each one of them. For some it has a specific address in a specific town where someone is waiting for them. For some it is as vague as the name of a country (probably in northern Europe) that they associate with a better future for their kids. For others it is just “further…. further away from the hell I’m trying to escape”.

It was soon apparent that no barrier, whether administrative or physical was going to stop this. Not even the risk of losing one’s life in a dangerous journey[1]. By the beginning of October more than 450,000 people had entered the European fortress through Greece – sharp contrast with the 43,500 such arrivals in all of 2014. Ninety-four percent of them are from the world’s top 10 refugee-producing countries, led by Syria (69 percent), Afghanistan (19 percent) and Iraq (6 percent)[2].

There would not have been a European refugee crisis without a Syria crisis. This exodus is but the last leg of a longer journey. Some are fleeing the bombs falling on Syria today, others the hopelessness of the refugee camps in the region.

If we zoom out to take a global view, the world is facing the biggest displacement crisis since the Second World War. Back then, Europeans were fleeing. Back then, the legal body of refugee law was created. Back then, it was in Europe’s interest for borders to be porous, for “their” people to reach whatever destination they had chosen (mostly in the Americas). Back then, it was easy for European leaders to speak of solidarity and compassion. The contrast could not be bleaker with what is happening today. Today, people are coming in, Europe wants its external borders sealed, European leaders speak of a war on smugglers and their “business model”, solidarity and compassion are forgotten. Today, politicians argue not about how to help but about how to avoid resettlements of refugees in their constituencies. The conversation today is not about how much is necessary but about how little I can get away with.

The overwhelming response of civil society in support of the refugees has knocked some sense into our leaders- some more than others- and the discourse has slightly shifted. Still the European Union will be judged by history as having triply failed this test. First, it has failed to adequately respond to the causes and consequences of the crisis that is at the root of this one: the war in Syria (compounded by the war in Iraq). Secondly, it has failed to adequately respond to the crisis when it has reached its shores. And thirdly, it has (miserably, shamefully, unforgivingly) failed the moral test by its blatant demonstration of its double standards in front of a humanitarian crisis. Europe has thereby lost its right to demand/request/invite other countries to respect international conventions and abide by humanitarian principles.

Failure in the Middle East

Syria collapsed into a gruesome civil war soon after political protests started four and a half years ago. Since then, the war has become enmeshed with conflict in Iraq and taken a highly sectarian turn. Today, the US (and their European allies) and Russia (and their Iranian allies), far from trying to broker a deal, are competing for air space, the former bombing IS, the latter bombing what is left of the opposition armed groups.  Not only does it not look like things will not improve, but rather, like an even more nightmarish chapter of this endless war is just beginning.

This war has been gruesome and the civilian cost horrendous. So far, in Syria alone, more than 250,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million people displaced (of which more than 4 million fled to surrounding countries).

There is a constant treacle of refugees out of Syria and Iraq, and those who have been out for years in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have little hope of going home as war shows no sign of abating. The bleak prospects for the prompt resolution of the Yemen crisis may add yet another layer to this refugee crisis.

Concomitantly, the situation for refugees in the periphery has grown worse. Neighboring countries have borne the brunt of the weight of the refugee crisis and are experiencing enormous pressure on public services (education and health provision) as well as on housing and employment. Tension is rising between refugees and host communities.

Donors (some being the very same that are today also throwing bombs) are also allegedly tired. Protracted crises have this effect on them as we have seen in other places. So the UN is struggling to raise funds. Resources are stretched to their limits and assistance for refugees in the periphery is being significantly curtailed.

Little surprise then that, unable to go back home and seeing assistance dwindle, refugees take to the road – again.

Failure in its borders and its soil

Europe has been building its fortress for a couple of decades, and the protectionist reflexes are now second-nature. Grounded on a security logic, policy remains firmly focused on keeping people out. To do this it has over time developed a battery of strategies. It has erected big walls- some made of bricks and barbed wire but also an impressive one made of paper (endless legal and bureaucratic obstacles). It has also outsourced migration control to a buffer zone of nation states who agree to do Europe’s dirty work in exchange of economic and other types of support (these deals are consistently opaque). In doing so, Europe turns a blind eye to the way these (often authoritarian) states treat people on the move, even as public reports documenting abuse and torture (by MSF and others) tell a consistently disturbing story.

The bigger the obstacle, the more creative people have to get to overcome it. The progressive limitation of safe and legal routes for people fleeing conflict and poverty has created the perfect ground for the proliferation of smugglers. And as the “easy routes” are successfully blocked, people have taken to more dangerous ones. Many will survive the journey- yet many die on the way, slowly and silently turning the two natural obstacles that protect Europe into mass graves: one is the Mediterranean Sea, the other the Sahara desert.

But the fortress is of no use when the influx is of this current proportion. No wall has been able to stop it.

Once in, the refugees have tested Europe’s capacity to respond to a humanitarian crisis in their living quarters. The (arguably) most developed continent on earth has not scored very well. Reception capacity in Greece, systematically substandard, is overwhelmed and not even the minimum conditions of hygiene are ensured. Assistance along the route was slow and chaotic at first- normal in an emergency, although one would have expected different levels of preparedness in western countries.

But beyond the serious deficiencies in terms of immediate humanitarian assistance, what is most striking is the gap between the public defense of International Law by member states and their actual practice.

For weeks we have heard of Europe’s reluctance to share the burden of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis through the resettlement of 120,000 refugees- as if one could opt out of these responsibilities. Hungarian authorities blatantly refused to allow the flow of refugees to transit and much less to stay. Last week’s headlines spoke of the EU’s sustained pressure on Turkey to stop refugees from reaching the European shores. This week, the news focus again on Central Europe, where thousands of people on the move are stranded as Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia close all or parts of their borders.

These flagrant examples of current attempts to deny refugees the right to flee fall on a well-established institutional trend to limit by law the possibilities that anyone fleeing a war could apply for asylum in the majority of European countries. Through their migration and asylum policies, based on walls, quotas, speedy returns and national laws that “allow” the non-respect of international legislation, most European Union member states are slowly yet systematically eroding refugee law.

Whilst UNHCR has actively challenged European states on their responsibility to accept resettlements and has also been quite outspoken about shortcomings in assistance for this crisis, it has not publicly confronted European states’ blatant disregard of refugee law nor has it lived up to its mandate of ensuring protection at field level. Over the years, UNHCR has suffered a progressive loss of relevance and political weight inside the UN system and so today it struggles to lead the response not only of this refugee crisis but also many others throughout the world.

The moral failure and its implications for humanitarian action

But most disturbing of all, is the fact that this crisis has confirmed, without a shadow of a doubt, that Europe too is governed by double standards. That there is a vast rift between what it preaches and what it does. And that when push comes to shove, it has no qualms in ignoring  responsibilities acquired through international law in the name of narrow national interests.

The lofty image of a Europe as a defender of human rights (or whatever was left of it) has just gone up in flames.

The very same countries that are “donors” in humanitarian crises all over the world, are the ones that are unable (or unwilling) to respond responsibly when they have a crisis at home. The same “donors” that push the humanitarian system to do better and be more accountable, are the ones that are not only doing a lousy job in terms of assistance but that are also refusing to abide by the laws that they (demagogically) defend.  This crisis is getting the worst out of European states, which, far from demonstrating a humanitarian impulse, are reacting to this crisis by rejecting and denying the humanitarian dimension of the problem.

The question that arises is then, can states do humanitarian action? In this crisis they have shown that they cannot. Whilst they have the responsibility to provide services, and would have ample capacity to do so (both financially and technically), they do not have the reflexes to put their means at the service of those in need.

Zooming out again, 2015 has been a dark year for humanitarian action with some big blows to the foundations on which much of our work rests.  The European Refugee crisis has shown that rich nations pay little more than lip service to refugee law- and they are getting away with it. The Yemen crisis has further demonstrated that aid is heavily politicized and that the UN system’s never ending quest for coherence (with all its integrated mechanisms) has rendered it unfit to operate in conflicts[3]. The Yemen crisis has also demonstrated that the progressive loss of independence of most NGOs (financial, operational, logistical) has left them unable to act unless the UN rolls out the red carpet.  And the latest blow, the repeated bombing with surgical precision of the MSF hospital in Kunduz by the US forces in Afghanistan, has shown that not even the “civilized” armies respect the rules of war.

Refugee law, humanitarian principles, international humanitarian law, all coming undone before our very eyes.  Clearly the end of an era. What next?  Let it all slide? Find a way to revive it? The jury is still out.

[1] According to IOM, more than 3,000 people died trying to cross Mediterranean to Europe this year – mainly between Libya and Italy,, seen on 14 October 2015

[2], seen on 14 October 2015

[3] See Kate Burton (2015), Humanitarian Action on Standby. No refuge in a country Neglected by the World, IECAH report 2015