Seeking solutions to Europe's refugee crisis

By Daphne Davies 21 March 2016

Yves Pascouau, director of migration and mobility policies at the European Policy Centre. Photo by: Patrick Mascart / European Union / CC BY-NC

Over the past year the European Union has faced its biggest refugee crisis since World War II. According to Eurostat figures from 2015, more than 1.25 million first time asylum-seekers applied for international protection across the EU’s 28 member states — more than double that of the previous year.

This current wave of refugees is mainly the result of political instability in the EU’s immediate neighborhood, and as the Syria crisis enters into its sixth year it is likely that similar numbers of refugees will continue to attempt the often dangerous journey into the EU in 2016.

Population growth in some of the poorest countries in Africa and the Middle East could be described as another “push factor” for people to leave their own country and seek opportunities elsewhere. With the world population set to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050, and Africa likely to see its population double by 2050 to 2.4 billion, access to resources and land loss through climate change will likely force many people to migrate.

Devex asked Yves Pascouau, director of migration and mobility policies at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, for his assessment of how EU member states and the European institutions had dealt with the emergency so far, and what plans are forthcoming to deal with future influxes.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

The United Nations foresees large population growth in Africa, and so it is likely that the number of economic migrants and climate change refugees will increase. What is being done to meet this challenge?

EU trust funds, cooperation and the road ahead

For a more efficient response to the migration crisis, the European Commission is working with a range of partners — including governments, the private sector and NGOs, Alexandre Polack, European Commission spokesperson for International Cooperation, Development, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, explains in this #AcrossBorders video interview.

The EU set up the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa of 4.3 billion euros ($4.87 billion) in November 2015. This is designed to stem the tide of economic migrants through addressing the root causes of irregular migration in the Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa and northern Africa through providing financial support to improve living conditions, create employment opportunities, promote food security and education, and support good governance.

As it was created in middle of the refugee crisis, it’s not clear whether it is a communication tool or will be properly implemented. Half [of the funds] will come from the EU budget and half from EU member states. So far the EU has delivered its half of the budget, but member states have only contributed $90.8 million, so their level of commitment is extremely low.

One objective is to enhance development in order to limit migration, but experience has shown that development often leads to more not less migration, at least in the short term, so it’s unclear if it will be successful.

Another issue is with whom the EU negotiates funds in the countries concerned. Given the level of corruption in many of these countries, how can we ensure funds reach the right people?

What should the EU do to ensure that all member states abide by the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees, when some appear to be failing in their duty?

The U.N. Convention defines which people qualify as refugees, and the conditions for nonrefoulement: not sending people back to their country if they are at risk. EU countries have introduced procedures to check whether people can be considered as refugees and for giving them asylum.

However, given the pressure on the EU’s external and internal borders, some countries are not sticking to international or EU rules, and define themselves as “transit” countries, so don’t examine people’s legal situation and let them continue northwards.

The European Commission is responsible for checking whether EU countries respect the U.N. Convention and EU asylum rules. For a long time, the commission never intervened, but when it became obvious that countries were not sticking to the rules, it started launching infringement procedures for consideration by the European Court of Justice. So far procedures have been launched against Greece, Malta, Italy, Croatia and Hungary.

Considering the overwhelming extent of human migration, it’s hard to keep track of the definitions prescribed for different subgroups — like migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker. Devex breaks down what each term means, as well as why it matters to distinguish among them.

In 2015, more than 1.25 million people sought asylum in Europe, and 217,000 people were accepted. Given the unequal reaction to granting asylum to refugees within the EU, is Schengen working?

Schengen rules outlining EU countries’ duties on external and internal borders were drawn up when countries were under less pressure. On the EU’s external borders it is the country’s responsibility to apply EU rules — the Schengen Borders Code, and the European Commission recently presented a proposal to create an EU border and coast guard unit to improve checks.

On internal borders, in principle controls have been lifted, although some EU states have reintroduced border checks for public policy reasons, but keeping within the rules. Schengen will be severely endangered when countries set up systems outside the EU legal framework.

When we see footage of countries setting up border fences, these are at the EU’s external borders, not between EU countries. For example, the fence between Hungary, an EU country and Serbia, a non-EU country.

In 2015, 80 percent of asylum-seekers in the EU were males under the age of 34. Even though well-documented problems said to have involved young male asylum-seekers have been discredited, should accepting families nonetheless be a priority?

While it is tempting to select people we consider less dangerous, international law stipulates that we must grant protection to those who need it, which means not distinguishing between lonely males and families.

After granting asylum, the next step is to ensure people are reunited with their families as soon as possible. However, we do prioritize those who are particularly vulnerable, such as pregnant women, children, or people with disabilities.

How can think tanks influence EU policy on asylum?

Today, as we’re in such an emergency situation, it’s difficult to influence decisions. One needs to be able to anticipate future critical moments, identify the right people, and prepare the political debate so any policy recommendations will land on the right desk.

It’s difficult to assess the impact, but we have seen our proposals used by decision-makers.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

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Daphne Davies

Daphne Davies is a London-based freelance journalist and consultant with more than 30 years' experience in international development. She has worked with the U.N., the European Union, national governments and global civil society organizations, including Amnesty, WWF and LDC Watch. Her expertise is in monitoring government policies in relation to international cooperation. Her interests are in sustainability, social and economic matters, women and least developed countries.

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