Four years into the Syrian civil war, the dramatic refugee crisis can no longer be ignored by European and American leaders. The US administration, though deeply involved in the Middle East, has found it convenient for Syrian refugees to be seen as a European problem. And Europe’s response to date is far from the rhetoric of a union founded on the values of respect for human dignity and the protection of human rights. That has to change.
“In Aleppo, we are already dead,” explained a Syrian landing on the Greek island of Lesbos recently, when asked what had driven him to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Turkey. Similar calculations underpin the decision of hundreds of thousands of other Syrians to flee for Europe. They will make a compelling case for protection based on their “well-founded fear of persecution”, the defining characteristic of a refugee in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Depressingly, they are but a fraction of the 20 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced people uprooted by conflict and persecution – the highest level ever recorded by the UN Refugee Agency.
The causes of this human tragedy need to be addressed at source. There is a clear need for European Union leaders to use the bloc’s unique combination of diplomatic, political and development assets to re-energise moribund peace processes, and to expend the diplomatic capital necessary to stay the violence that uproots an average of 42,500 people every day. But decades-old instability in Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere will not be solved overnight, and it will be years before those who have fled Syria can even begin to consider returning home. So significantly increasing humanitarian and long-term development assistance to those uprooted by conflict and to refugee-hosting countries is vital.
Syria is the largest and most immediate bleeding wound. Its neighbours, such as Jordan and Lebanon, need direct financial assistance and development support to build up their infrastructure, reboot their public services, and start creating vocational training and employment opportunities for Syrians and the communities who host them. The economies, basic services and infrastructure of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq are collapsing under the pressure of sheltering more than four million refugees. Jordan alone expects the cost of hosting Syrians to amount to $4.2bn by 2016. Investment from the World Bank and other international financial institutions will be essential if these countries’ economies are to recover. Stabilising countries who host refugees in the region is imperative in order to hold hundreds of thousands more desperate people from choosing the deadly way across the Mediterranean.
One task is even more urgent. The UN’s appeals for Syria and the wider region are just 31 and 40 per cent funded. The supply of food and basic medical treatment to refugees is in danger. We immediately need a joint European, American, and Arab donor initiative to boost the funding of those institutions that deliver help on the ground. Moreover, the machinery of international donor conferences needs to be turbo-charged to support an ambitious reconstruction and investment plan in the region.
An essential counterpart to such a plan is the establishment of safe, legal routes into the EU, and elsewhere in the industrialised world such as the US or Canada, for those fleeing violence. Resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification and other schemes would spare those on the move the exploitation, torture and sexual abuse of the smugglers’ routes. Some countries have shown true humanitarian leadership in pledging to resettle large numbers of refugees; others have been less willing. More refugees arrived in Germany by train over one single weekend than the number of Syrians that the UK has agreed to resettle over the next five years. We need a much more co-ordinated and fairer approach from Europe’s leaders. An effective strategy to manage the crisis will need to address the plight of those who have already reached Europe. Here, too, there are a number of steps that EU countries should urgently take.
The first is to ensure that refugees arriving in Europe are treated with humanity and dignity. The EU should provide the funding and technical support necessary to launch an effective, co-ordinated humanitarian operation at the entry points. This means ensuring that traumatised arrivals receive food, water, medical assistance, safe shelter and access to toilets as soon as they arrive, rather than enduring the squalid conditions that currently greet them.
Secondly, the EU member states must stop acting as if the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean is the sole responsibility of Europe’s littoral states. Almost 245,000 refugees have arrived in Greece so far this year, and another 200,000 are expected before Christmas. But in July member states agreed to relocate a mere 32,000 refugees in Italy and Greece elsewhere in the bloc. This also must change, and the Juncker Plan is a beginning for serious relocation quotas. It deserves our support.
The third step is to establish a fair, comprehensive, common European asylum policy, which ensures that all asylum applications are processed according to international standards, and shares out responsibility for hosting refugees among all EU member states. Equally, the Juncker Plan is right, too, to highlight that those who do not have a claim to refugee status should be sent home.
No single country can solve a crisis of this magnitude. Indeed, with all the will in the world, neither can Europe; a global crisis requires a global response. But Europe will be in a far stronger position to influence how the US, the countries of the Gulf and other governments who have yet to step up respond to the crisis if its own actions match the scale of the problem.
It is also an opportunity to give life to the ideal of human solidarity. Europe’s leaders should look to Lesbos, where locals are this very moment providing food, blankets and medicine to refugees arriving on the northern shore. Among the volunteers are islanders whose grandparents escaped the carnage and the chaos of the Second World War by fleeing to Syria, where they found safety. In this, we believe, is the example to emulate.
David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, and Sigmar Gabriel is Vice-Chancellor of GermanyReuse content