Refugees: links in the chain of disaster and response

Refugees’ humanitarian needs have generated toxic politics in the EU, with yesterday’s uncertain summit the most recent evidence of that, and a response that is widely deemed inadequate. But the critics have not been able to offer a better alternative.

The majority of EU governments have voted for a quota system to share responsibility for up to 120,000 refugees, against strong objections from Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. As hard as it was to get this agreement, it is not enough.

First, the figure of 120,000 does not meet the need. This year, over 470,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean, at least 182,000 from Syria. Estimates of how many refugees may make it to Germany this year are currently rising from 800,000 to 1 million.

Second, the agreement is only about one part of the problem. That is not surprising. How many refugees to accept is the focus of political debate in several key countries. But if European political leaders and institutions are going to rise to the challenge, they have to find a way to bring the whole picture into shot.

There are three basic links in the chain:

  • What drives flight
  • The journey and on arrival
  • Staying until it’s safe to return.


Masses of people do not abandon their homes and country without good reason. So UK Prime Minister David Cameron was not wrong when, he argued that, instead of “taking more and more refugees”, “The most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world.” Yet neither was he right.

He’s not wrong because peace and stability will mean no more flight and, after massive reconstruction, the possibility of return. On the other hand, peace is not likely soon – and certainly not soon enough to meet today’s needs of hundreds of thousands of people on boats, on roads and in camps.

Further, there is not currently an actual policy for bringing peace to Syria and the region, except that each party to the war wants to win and that would mean a kind of peace. But right now, a clear victory for any party seems as unlikely in the short term as any other road to peace. And the current policy of some Arab and European states along with the USA of air attacks on selected targets shows no prospect of being a recipe for peace either.

All that means the options are limited. First, the quiet diplomatic drudge work of exploring possibilities with all parties – those who are fighting on the ground and the governments who are supporting them – has to plough on. If there is to be a political settlement in the end, it will be prepared by patient effort.

Second, the EU has to prepare actively for more refugees. Some argue that preparing for refugees only encourages them – but there are enough reasons for people to flee that the effect would be marginal at most. The response will be better, cheaper and less disruptive if it is properly prepared and not made up on the hoof. There, however, the EU’s internal divisions remain an obstacle.

A third option is to establish safe zones in Syria itself. It is surprising that this is not already on the policy agenda. It carries distinct risks, especially because as war in Bosnia-Hercegovina showed, it is much easier to declare a zone is safe than it is actually to make it safe. But if force is to be used, it would be well to use it to protect people rather than fir air and missile attacks that will only create martyrs to inspire more militants. It is an option that is at least worth exploring.

The journey and arrival

This is where most debate has focussed over the past two years. It is a basic humanitarian responsibility to provide refugees with safe and healthy asylum. Alongside that, there needs to be humanitarian policing in the Mediterranean to do as much as possible to end the deaths at sea. But there are many areas of the Mediterranean coastline where people smugglers will operate with impunity until there is effective government of some kind. So even the most purely humanitarian part of the whole picture is also inextricably political. Contributing to an assertion of normality in Libya and helping ensure that neither Tunisia nor Algeria go in the Libyan direction are parts of an overall approach.


If it is right that peace, reconstruction and return are not short-term prospects, then refugees will stay. How long is not currently knowable. As with refugees from former Yugoslavia, it is likely that some refugees will want to return home, others not. Their lives will move on and they will start to put down roots where they find asylum. And welcome though that is in many ways, there are problems.

There are many ways in which the confusion between immigration and the right of asylum is malign in European politics today. But there is also a reality here that many who are moved by humanitarian concerns do not want to hear.

Several European countries find it increasingly difficult to accept the prospect of more immigrants. As articulated by political parties in almost every EU country today, too many people feel they are talked down to by the political class; being lectured about racism instead of listened to about cultures clashing has come to epitomise a lack of political voice. To ignore this reality is to court problems and only make the situation of refugees harder.

Linking up

The influx to Europe of large numbers of refugees from the wars in the Middle East is thus shining an uncomfortably bright light on deficiencies in European policies on the region, on differences of fundamental values within the EU, on the readiness to fulfil basic humanitarian responsibilities, and on issues of internal social cohesion.

It is a big ask but, unless we can get to grips with national and international debates that address each of these links in the chain, we will find that every effort at any point along the chain will be undermined by the failure to address a linked problem. These are indeed challenging times.

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