Syrian Refugee Crisis: Will Europe Pass This Test?


As the number of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Eritrea continues to grow, the asylum capacity of the European countries continues to rapidly shrink. Around 300,000 people have tried to find a shelter in the EU member states so far, which is said to be the largest amount of refugees unseen in Europe since the Second World War. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that the number of migrants observed at the European borders between January and August 2015 reaches more than 350,000 people, excluding those who got in undetected. The EU proposed the resettlement plan in response to the surge in migration which although looks more or less promising, lacks support in the European community.

Germany, Hungary and Sweden remain the most popular asylum destination among refugees. The amount of asylum applications in both Germany and Hungary have already exceeded their totals for 2014. According to BBC News, by the end of July, 438,000 refugees had applied for asylum in comparison to 571,000 applications sent for the whole of last year. This year, around 235,000 refugees arrived in Greece and 115,000 in Italy. Some routes to new asylum destinations are more dangerous and longer than others and many people die throughout the voyage. IOM reports that around 2,643 migrants have died this year in the Mediterranean. April was the deadliest month for migrants this year and the large number of fatalities is reasoned to occur due to overcrowding on the boats.

The civil war in Syria is the main driver behind the enormous influx of refugees. A large number of refugees found shelter in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The conflict began with anti-government protests and then escalated into a full-scale civil war. The regime of Bashar-al Assad turned Syria into a war-torn country where crimes against civilian population are committed on a daily basis. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have further empowered the Assad regime and significantly elevated the risk of mass atrocities in Syria.

“The intentional starving of entire communities for the purpose of gaining a military advantage; the terrorizing of populations through the illegal use of barrel bombs and chemical, artillery, and cluster munition assaults; and inflicting gruesome torture techniques upon thousands of prisoners” are among the prevailing war crimes and crimes against humanity happening in Syria (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2015).

The number of civilian casualties have reached more than 200,000 Syrians in four years of armed conflict. About 12 million Syrians have been displaced, 4 million abroad, since 2011. The amount of civilian deaths have reached critical numbers which according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should “shock the international consciousness”.

The response of the international community to the refugee crisis so far includes the resettlement plan primarily proposed by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The EU leader proposed to distribute the refugees across Europe, however several Central European leaders refused to take in the required share of the asylum seekers.”Under Juncker’s proposal, Germany, France and Spain would take the majority of 120,000 asylum seeker slots, and the remainder would be distributed across 19 other nations. The plan also includes an additional 40,000 asylum seekers that EU nations pledged earlier in the summer to take in voluntarily. Eligibility would be limited for now to Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans”, reports the Washington Post.

The main difficulty to follow through with the proposed resettlement plan is the fact that some European countries are more welcoming than others when it comes to accommodating refugees. For example, the UK is acting cautious and David Cameron keeps sending mixed messages regarding how many refugees the UK will actually take in. Likewise, some of the Gulf countries which the international community has heavily relied on due to their proximity to Syria, refused taking in any refugees. Fears over security and terrorism associated with the arrival of refugees have kept the doors of the Gulf states shut so far.

Another aspect is that many refugees prefer to stay in Western European countries like Germany where the conditions for refugees are more favourable. This might also complicate the implementation of the resettlement plan as some refugees might refuse to stay in the assigned countries and instead go to Germany which already expects 800,000 migrants this year. “The response to the refugee crisis in Europe has been piecemeal and incoherent at a time when the need for clear-sighted leadership and radical reform of Europe’s collapsing asylum system has never been greater”, said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia. So far the level of uncertainty regarding this chaotic situation appears to be as high among the European states as it is among the asylum seekers themselves.

While Europe is unsure where to start resolving this chaos, Amnesty International’s Agenda for Refugee Protection in Europe outlined the problems that require urgent attention.

According to AI, the EU leaders immediately have to “significantly increase support for frontline EU members so that they can provide humane reception conditions and speed up the processing of asylum applications; ensure access to EU territory for refugees arriving at external land borders; relieve the immediate pressure on external border countries through an emergency relocation scheme; revise EU legislation which limits the freedom of movement of successful asylum seekers within the EU; and frontline member states must end push-backs and stop human rights violations, including ill-treatment and excessive or unnecessary use of force”.

The collaboration of the international community is required to avoid one of the most disastrous crises in a long time. Apart from dividing amounts of refugees among themselves, the EU member states should also divide other responsibilities. Member states who are able to take in more refugees should do so. The others who are either reluctant to offer asylum spots or are too far and cannot be reached by the refugees should assist financially to the countries that took in the majority of the refugees. Likewise, while the states that are providing shelter for the majority of refugees should be focused on accommodating them, the others should focus on addressing the chaos in Syria immediately.

It is more than disturbing that no matter how many peacekeeping operations and diplomatic talks have been held where the Syrian case was frequently discussed, today, we are still not even close to resolving this crisis. It is more than unfortunate that the seriousness of the Syrian crisis has been realized worldwide only when it escalated to full-scale civil war and when Syrian refugees started knocking on Europe’s door, not when something could be done back in the days when it was an emerging conflict. It is also frustrating that it took a published image of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found on the shores of Turkey, for the international community to unite and take an action. The chain of wrong responses to the Syrian crisis have led to this day where in the 21st century the amount of deaths reaches devastating numbers and soaring amounts of refugees unseen since the Second World War.

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