The EU and the refugee crisis: humanitarian and institutional consequences

The EU’s insistence on short-sighted policies towards the refugees and migration crisis has led to contradicting approaches and a disastrous response to a predictable situation in its immediate neighbourhood. As the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement unfolds, its problems become more apparent. Member states seem to be handling an international crisis by responding to domestic political goals. Each state adopts an approach according to its national interest failing to address the problem in its entirety: unable to come up with a common strategy, they are actively intensifying the crisis instead of alleviating it. This narrow perspective of exclusively satisfying domestic fears not only imperils the ability to conduct coordinated EU policies in crucial issues, but also sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

The deal of last resort
The length and destructive nature of the Syrian conflict, recently depicted in drone videos, does not give many Syrians much choice over whether to flee. Europe is the logical destination for those fleeing war and persecution, considering it has – until now – self-advertised as a safe haven.

The EU-Turkey agreement is the closest to a collective solution to the refugee crisis, after a series of unproductive summits. It is also a perfect example of the EU’s fixation on short-term solutions. All irregular migrants arriving in Greece after the 20th of March will be returned to Turkey. Meanwhile, EU Member States will in turn relocate an equal number of Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. By giving priority for asylum processing of refugees within Turkey, the incentive to cross to Greece loses its appeal.

Indeed, in the first weeks after its implementation on the 20th of March this year, the arrivals have sharply diminished, arguably preventing many deaths as fewer migrants now attempt the dangerous trip. However, even though Turkey hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees (a far greater number than that of Syrians currently relocated within the EU), a number of asylum and human rights issues exist on a legal and practical level: Turkey’s status as a safe third country is ambiguous as it has only signed a geographically restricted version of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Furthermore, there are concerns due to its domestic conflict involving the Kurdish minority, but also reports of forced returns of refugees to Syria, which would go against the principle of “non-refoulement”. Turkish law also lacks provisions for asylum seekers to access legal channels for labour, explaining why refugees have attempted the dangerous crossing to Europe.

However, Turkey, which is already hosting 2.7 million refugees is far from being the only one to blame on a humanitarian level. The number of victims that already perished in the Mediterranean and the existence of the Calais and Idomeni improvised camps vividly demonstrate Europe’s short-comings. The refugees and migrants stranded in Greece under worsening conditions further demonstrate that the slow implementation of the plan has consequences.

The compromises to keep this rather cynical agreement in place have recently reached a new level when Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to allow the prosecution of a German satirist for offending Tayipp Erdogan, by request of the Turkish president positively answered by Chancellor Merkel. This adds to the EU’s already tarnished image as the global centre of human rights protection and endangers its ability to address future humanitarian crises at home or elsewhere.

Misguided political calculations
The humanitarian aspect is constantly conflicting with each member state’s distinct political calculation and its own population’s grievances. European populations are presented with a misleading dilemma: preserving their societies as they know them or stepping into the unknown by showing compassion towards Syrians attempting to escape war. The fear factor that followed the Paris and Brussels attacks has inevitably been associated with the EU’s porous borders and already endangers the EU-Turkey agreement on an institutional level. Most EU countries were already reluctant to implement the first relocation agreement as numbers demonstrate. Fear is now playing into the hands of political opportunism and short-sighted strategies looking only into implementing policies based on the polls of the closest election. Chancellor Merkel’s decision to backtrack on her original refugee policy was not only due to complaints by European partners but also from domestic political considerations related to her own popularity. It is clear that questions of security and concerns over Europe’s cultural integrity prevail over more realistic, long-term approaches of the refugee and migrant issue. The calls for immediate political action is exacerbated by the power of influence of the media over the political scene. For instance, we have seen criminal events falsely linked to Syrian refugees directly influencing policy, as a response to reassure the nation through the illusion of protection.

The increasing militarization of borders demonstrates that some in Europe are still under the false impression that they can fortify themselves against crises happening in the immediate geographical neighbourhood. The EU-Turkey deal effectively created a “buffer zone” against refugees reaching their destination: northern Europe. The opening of discussions on the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) by Frontex for border protection, foreign police forces on Greek islands and the calls for the creation of a reinforced European Border and Coast Guard all point towards the establishment of a security-oriented environment in the area.

However, as more fences are constantly built, new routes are found to bypass them. While the EU deal with Turkey has effectively slowed down flows of refugees crossing the Aegean, embarrassing compromises aside, the central Mediterranean route is becoming active again. The surge in rescue operations by the Italian navy has already led to Austria closing the Brenner pass. Italy has also recently issued a Migration Compact, offering alternative solutions such as more support to countries of origin. This signals a different strategy compared to the current policy of funds being allocated primarily into stopping refugees from entering the EU or returning them to third countries. As the conflict in Syria continues and the situation in Libya is rapidly deteriorating the current policy does not respond to the root causes and actively emphasizes the “need for protection” of insiders from outsiders.

Geography is the only constant factor in this equation, and in this era of increasing population movement, fortifying a continent like Europe is a blatant refusal to face reality. The EU’s recent harsh review of Greece’s Schengen provisions and the opening of a discussion on reforms to the European Asylum system reveal the deep effects such an unrealistic approach has on an institutional level for the EU and even the potential of creating a North-South divide within the EU.


Dimitris Sotirchos
Dimitris Sotirchos is currently an independent researcher interested in Geopolitics, Migration and Security with a focus in the geographical region of the Eastern Mediterranean. You can find him on his Linkedin profile.

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