Jean Lambert MEP: the refugee crisis demands a coherent and strategic response
We can either throw our hands up at overwhelming human misery, or we can rally and do something – quickly. On Monday Britain announced meagre plans to accept refugees from Syria through a formal resettlement procedure. In contrast, on Tuesday the European Parliament (EP) debated plans for the relocation of thousands of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy and voted to support that. On Wednesday, the European Commission also set out further proposals, and the EP then voted through a supportive resolution on Thursday.
The crisis demands a coherent and strategic response infused with compassion because the situation in the Middle East is not going to disappear, and what unfolded over the summer risks becoming the new normal. This is due to one simple fact: people try and escape dangerous conditions. Over 3000 people died in the Mediterranean this year. Now that Mr Cameron has seen a picture of one of them, a small child, he is beginning to understand. But his response is simply inadequate.
This is a humanitarian crisis and as much as we need to deal with it at source, it is also present here and now in the EU and we have to handle that. That is not to say that the UK’s humanitarian support for refugees in the region is not welcome – it is and more countries should join that effort, but we also need to respond to the situation in Greece, Italy and other countries receiving thousands of desperate people very day. What exactly has the EU Parliament been doing? It has called on EU member states to step up and fairly share responsibility, including a binding formula for distributing asylum seekers among all EU countries, bigger contributions to UNHCR resettlement programmes and better cooperation. The EU and its Member States effectively force refugees and migrants towards smugglers by sealing off external borders thereby removing legal entry. This is wrong.
Bridges are what is needed, not fences. Research by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicates Europe is the world’s most dangerous destination for “irregular” migrants, more proof of the pressing need to save the lives of people in danger, as well fulfil international protection obligations.
Our resettlement number in the UK is low, and this is a political choice. It is interesting that public opinion is not as hard-hearted as the Conservative Government’s default position. However, resettlement from overseas should never be used as a substitute for accepting those seeking asylum on UK territory. In contrast, Germany has set aside €6 billion in asylum relief funds, and their ruling coalition said state and local governments will receive €3 billion to help accommodate arrivals. Another €3 billion will be put aside to pay for other expenses like benefits. Germany is expected to receive around 800,000 asylum seekers this year. Our Prime Minister has said we can take about 11 or 12 a day.
Germany and France are, understandably, applying pressure to get a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers across the EU. Both support imposing mandatory quotas on how many each member state should accommodate. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has announced a new plan to distribute a further 120,000 asylum seekers from the main points of entry: Greece, Italy and Hungary, in addition to the 40,000 in the Commission’s proposal before the summer.
This at least goes some way to acknowledging the extent of the crisis – but still, it is not enough. The UK has made it clear that it wants nothing to do with any EU co-ordinated response to the biggest refugee crisis for Europe since World War 2 – even surpassing the Balkan conflict. This British opposition is being used by some Member States to justify their own unwillingness to co-operate – fuelling the political problem as to whether the EU can manage a coherent response.
Instead, and contrastingly, all EU member states should assume a fair share of responsibility and solidarity towards the countries that are currently receiving most refugees and asylum seekers in absolute or proportional terms. Solidarity also entails making sufficient contributions to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Search and rescue obligations should also be effective and properly funded. That’s search and rescue – not border control, as the Greens have repeatedly pointed out, along with organisations such as Doctors without Borders a humanitarian crisis of this scale needs immediate response and it also needs exceptional forward planning: both the European Parliament and Commission have recognised this but Member States have repeatedly proved themselves to be slow in taking the necessary action. What should this include?
The EU should ensure safe and legal access to the EU territory for those seeking asylum, and move beyond its obsession with border controls.
The role of regional protection, resettlement and returns policies, including migration management agreements, should be clarified. There is a need to examine cooperation strategies with third countries and also for those countries to respect fundamental rights and guarantee protection of refugees.
The Dublin Regulation is now coming into the spotlight. This sets out the criteria to decide which country is responsible for processing an individual’s asylum claim in the EU. I have long argued for it to be over-hauled and for asylum seekers to have some choice as to where they go. Yes, the first country of entry is one criterion but it is only one, and member states have discretion to disregard it. The key lines are contained within Article 17 of the Regulation, which states that a member state can always decide to take responsibility for an application, even if it is not its responsibility as laid down in the Regulation – this should certainly be applied more widely. It is what Germany did when it said it would not return those Syrians seeking asylum in Germany to the country where they entered the EU. If the UK made the same decision, it would help ease the situation at Calais. There are now a growing number of critical voices concerning Dublin, and the Regulation will soon be reviewed.
There is no getting away from the fact that all member states should step up and not step back. It’s that simple.
The right response to this crisis – and the challenge is a global one – is not walls, fences and deterrence, and nationalism boosted by fear, but a common EU asylum and refugee policy. Plans for sharing asylum seekers among EU countries were presented to Parliament this week by Commission President Juncker. National governments must address the real question that Europe must answer: whether it wants to be a “Union against all”, or a “Union of solidarity” – solidarity with other member states and solidarity with those fleeing conflict and persecution. All politicians, in all their debates on figures, must not forget that refugees are people, who come to Europe because they believe we offer freedom and respect for human rights – this is our reality, it is their dream.
The humanity shown by those who give exhausted people water, food, clothes and toys for their children, help out in refugee centres or offer support in their communities, must guide our response to the challenge, not the meagre, defensive and wholly inadequate plan from Mr Cameron.