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The Refugees on Our Watch: Europe’s Pandora Box?

Editorial by Dr Caty Clément

The arrival of several hundred thousand refugees has rapidly come to represent one of the most challenging tests Europe has had to face in recent years. Roughly 350,000 people have attempted to enter the European Union (EU) illegally since the beginning of 2015, which is the equivalent to one refugee for every 1,500 European citizen (0.07% of the total EU population). The majority come from three countries rife with conflict: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. In Syria, 240,000 people are said to have been killed so far, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Europe previously cut down on its search-and-rescue operations, focusing instead on punitive action against traffickers. This, however, has had little impact and the refugee situation worsened with 20,000 refugees arriving in Greece over the summer.


Legal regulations are more at the centre of this crisis than physical boundaries.

Legal regulations are more at the centre of this crisis than physical boundaries. European policies allow people to apply for refugee status from within the EU. That being as it may, candidate refugees do not usually board commercial planes but the majority rather take so-called ‘routes of death’ paying on average two to three thousand US dollars to traffickers. Over 2,300 people are believed to have died in the Mediterranean this year, many of them children (of the three million Syrians currently in Turkey and Lebanon, 40% are less than 12 years old).
Europe is divided on how to address the growing refugee crisis. Although Germany used its army to shelter up to 8,000 Syrian refugees and, together with Sweden, practices an open-door policy, Hungary initially declared its central station off-limits to refugees, and the Czech Republic marked numbers on refugees’ arms. Discussions have often appealed to fear (economic burden) and culture (Christianity) more than hard facts. Yet this is hardly the first refugee crisis in the world and there is sufficient data to build evidence-based scenarios on the consequences of both closed- and open-door policies.

What happens if Europe accepts only a token number of the refugees piled at its doorstep or accepts them but denies access to basic services (shelter, work, education, etc.)? This would probably merely provide respite in the short-term, and mainly for Western and Northern Europe. Given the worsening conflicts in their countries of origin, the refugees’ desire to enter the EU could increase. Already unable to stifle the current flow of refugees, the EU would have to step up its spending on security forces and incarceration facilities. Refugees managing to enter and avoid security forces could be driven underground, forced to live a precarious life. Unable to achieve work legally, they would be more likely to resort to criminal activities to survive or require charity and medical care. For instance, women refugees in precarious conditions have been documented as more likely to be subject to prostitution and abuse.
Whatever policy Europe adopts, this will also impact its immediate neighbours. Refugees increasingly confined in a volatile region still dealing with the aftermath of the Arab Spring may well push it beyond tipping point. Turkey, a strategic NATO ally in the region, and Lebanon are already home to the world’s largest refugee populations in absolute and per capita terms respectively. Researchers have calculated that over 80% of any conflict’s costs are borne by the country’s immediate neighbours. Internationally, should pictures or stories of detained families and drowned toddlers multiply, Europe’s ethical stance could be weakened.


Europe needs to come to terms with the fact that by failing to address this crisis properly, it may well turn its deepest fears – acculturation and economic strain – into a self-fulfilling prophecy

Europe needs to come to terms with the fact that by failing to address this crisis properly, it may well turn its deepest fears – acculturation and economic strain – into a self-fulfilling prophecy by forcing people into illegality and the informal economy. Specifically, shifting discussions to limiting refugee rights is likely to draw unwieldy consequences. Europe could instead consider integrating legitimate refugees for selfish reasons: helping refugees integrate is economically sound. Legalising refugees will bring in a more stable refugee profile: more families and skilled workers. Studies have shown that when allowed to work, refugees around the world are more likely to start businesses than natives and less likely to resort to crime. Instead of straining Europe’s purse, refugees can contribute to supporting its ageing population. With the support of creative mayors, refugees sheltered in a number of remote ageing Italian villages have already helped to revive its economy.

If European states further allowed refugees to apply in their diplomatic missions in the MENA region or online, refugees could enter safely by sponsoring the legal airline industry instead of organised crime. In order to ensure integration, Europe needs some historical perspective and creative thinking akin to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the dedicated institution set up during World War II that provided for Europe’s eight million refugees from 1943-47 and then disbanded.
Finally, preventing refugees from piling up at the door can also have a ripple effect on Europe’s neighbourhood. An enlightened and capable diaspora is more likely to participate – either in person or through remittances – to the economy of their country of origin and thereby accelerate the stabilisation and reconstruction of those places. By displaying a sound moral compass, Europe would uphold international norms largely of its own creation (free trade, refugee status, human rights, child protection, the Responsibility to Protect, etc.) and considerably strengthen its international credibility.