09 Sep 2015
The disturbing scenes of refugees newly arrived in Europe that have unfolded before our eyes over the past few weeks are today testing the true commitments of a European Union founded on the principles of respect for human rights, dignity, and equality. They also are a stark reminder of what tragic circumstances prompt families to undertake such distressing voyages.
By and large this is an acute – if long-term – refugee crisis, and not merely a question of how to deal with migrants as the debate has often been framed previously. And international law, not to mention fundamental human moral obligations, requires that refugees be afforded protection.
The families moving from Turkey to Greece and further on, treading their way towards Austria and Germany through the Balkans, are predominantly Syrians. When they first fled their country to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt, they were hoping, as RI has reported in past years, to return home as soon as conditions would allow. Today this hope has been crushed by unremitting violence in Syria. The bombing of schools, markets, and health facilities is a main reason for both the continuing exodus of refugees, and the inability of international assistance to make a meaningful impact inside Syria.
And while Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt opened their doors generously to Syrian refugees in the first years, the welcome is slowly drying up, as international aid has not met these countries’ requirements for supporting them. Humanitarian funding for assistance to refugees throughout the region is barely reaching 40% of needs, food rations have been drastically cut, governments are becoming leery of the charge they have accepted, and host communities are increasingly hostile to the very people they initially admitted in a remarkable show of solidarity.
Most refugees are not living in camps, but rather are dispersed among the local populations, increasing pressure on infrastructure, services, rents, and utilities. Work opportunities are scarce and refugees are progressively drawn into poverty and losing any hope to be able to “make it” over the next few years. This is why those who are taking the dangerous sea journey look towards Europe as their last chance, and are prepared to take all the risks attached to the conditions in which smugglers convey their human loads.
Today, the urgency is for Europe to come up with the right support for reception and transit facilities in Greece and the other frontline countries where refugees can be received decently and their need for protection can be ascertained.
There is also the crucial aspect of fairly sharing responsibility when deciding where to transfer refugees for their initial settlement in countries of the European Union, so that refugees won’t have to find their way onward through obstructing countries, fences and walls, and overcrowded public transport. In other words, the relocation process must become more orderly and humane.
Even if well-managed however, the current large-scale arrival of refugees in Europe will not be able to continue for long, despite the admirable leadership of Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, whose strong principled voice has been met with only timid and slow responses by other key European leaders.
It is therefore imperative that the global international community reassesses the way it is responding to the Syrian crisis. First, there needs to be full funding of United Nations humanitarian appeals in order to reduce the pauperization of refugees and the indirect pressure it is putting on them to move.
Second, the U.S., Canada, and Australia, traditional leading resettlement countries, must urgently adjust their planned intake of Syrians to better meet the needs of the most vulnerable. European and Gulf states must join in this effort as they should be able to mobilize both the financial resources and societal capacity to absorb a meaningful number of refugees.
And lastly, but equally importantly, substantial development aid must be provided to countries of first asylum in order to ensure that their governments can address the structural challenges that large number of refugees are presenting to national resources, and that livelihood opportunities can be created to benefit both the refugees and the communities hosting them.