Refugees at the Idomeni camp along the Greek-Macedonian border. Europe’s refugee response is causing disunity in the global development community. But what are alternative policies and what could they look like in practice? Photo by: Julian Buijzen / CC BY-NC-ND

The response to Europe’s refugee crisis has long been far from unified. But when the European Union cut a deal with Turkey to stem migration and refugee flows from Turkey to Greece, it sparked a new level of discord within the development community. Some of Europe’s top advocacy NGOs reacted with a profound sense of the EU’s collective failure, with some groups calling for a more principled and responsible approach.

At the conference titled “The future of EU External Action — towards integrated policy responses for global sustainable development,” which took place in Berlin, Germany, last month, members of the European development community discussed the road ahead for actions being taken on Europe’s external borders. Participants called for human rights to be made front and center of the current debate.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the discussions on migration policy:

First, policymakers have to come to terms with reality, Kevin Watkins, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute told Devex at the sidelines of the event. “People move because of conflict. But they also move because of aspiration and ambition. Like people everywhere, refugees and migrants are seeking security, opportunity and a better life for their children.

“Unfortunately, European policymakers have got it into their heads that building fences and strengthening border controls will somehow stop the movement of people,” he said. “All the evidence is to the contrary. We urgently need a review of the laws and rules that govern how people on the move are treated. In the specific case of Syria, we also need a global resettlement plan, allied to the proper processing of asylum claims, and investment in search and rescue.”

Europe also needs a cohesive response, according to Lotte Leicht, European Union advocacy director and director of Human Rights Watch's Brussels Office. “Logic says that only a united front will tackle the problem,” she told Devex. Approaches must be in line with the EU’s legal commitments — specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention that guides people’s rights to seek protection — “so the discussions about upper limits is out of step.”

But Europe also needs creative solutions. The EU is trying to solve the challenges predominantly with policies that haven’t worked in the past, said Anna Knoll, policy officer in the Strengthening European External Action Program at European Centre for Development Policy Management.

“Instead, we should propose creative new options to enable safe travel for asylum-seekers — like humanitarian visas. … Or some legal alternatives overcoming current constraints that have been proposed by think tanks already for some time. In that sense these are not necessarily new suggestions, but they are currently not sufficiently happening.”

Alternatives in the region

One of the reasons people are fleeing Syria’s neighboring countries of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, where the overwhelming majority of refugees are hosted, is the lack of a future, said Leicht.

“This is based on the people’s status in the region: Status without rights; status without education; status without work opportunities,” she said. “We need to address the lack of jobs in the region.”

The London Syria donors’ conference in February, was aimed at raising the funds needed for assistance in neighboring countries, including by providing employment opportunities.

Watkins called for further funding; he recently witnessed the need firsthand, in Lebanon’s Beqqa Valley. Syrian children who he met there had spent only a few years in primary school, before being displaced and having to take up work as child laborers.

“We also need to urgently address failures in the aid system,” he said. “Take the case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Because these are middle-income countries they are not eligible for grants and highly concessional loans from the World Bank. Yet these are countries hosting over 1 million refugee children, many of them being forced into child labor.”

Watkins argued that the architecture of multilateral institutions — the World Bank, the United Nations, for example — was not demonstrating the imagination, the innovation, and the ambition to make something happen.

“The World Bank’s response has been abject,” he said, “in part because of the failure of its major shareholders to innovate and develop more flexible mechanisms.”


As the refugee crisis has continued apace, the strain on Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy has been being felt for years.

The Dublin agreement, which requires refugees to register in their first point of entry in the EU, exacerbates the situation on the ground. Watkins said it restricts the right of people to move when they have already registered, helping create the crisis that we’ve now got in Greece.

According to Leicht, resettlement within the European Union is a real option.

“It is important for the EU collectively to understand the only way forward is to bring order into the chaos and to advance what would be the safe and legal resettlement of people who are fleeing for a reason,” she said.

But efforts are slow: The commitment to relocating 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary in September, for instance, has not been met, Leicht noted. Six months on, fewer than 1,000 people have been relocated, putting a strain on the EU’s border countries.

Realizing the potential

Watkins suggested that creative solutions could take advantage of the “huge” EU labor market shortage.

“Policymakers in the EU need to take a look at Europe’s demographic trajectory,” he said. “With ageing populations, EU member states should be encouraging labour migration — not seeking to insulate themselves. Without more flexible and open approaches to migration, Europe will lose opportunities for economic growth and jobs creation.”

While having an influx of lot of young, motivated young people may be a real economic opportunity, however, there is also a risk of underemployment among resettled refugees.

Europe would need to provide new arrivals with the opportunity to develop language skills and technical skills. Short of that, large populations could be unemployed or underemployed

This could resemble the models that already exist within Germany, for instance, where government and private firms work very closely to identify labor market needs.

This response could be managed by both civil society and private sector players, advocates said. Collaboration would be key — and provide a moment for “strange bedfellows to come together,” said Leicht.

“We need real coalition,” she said. “Let’s move into practical solutions and dealing with problems to show that, practically, it is possible.”

What are some of the practical solutions to the ongoing refugee crisis? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Helen cropped

    Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an Associate Editor at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.