Can the EU develop an effective response to its Syrian refugee crisis?

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The international community is ill-equipped—and perhaps unwilling—to handle the refugee crisis resulting from Syria’s civil war. Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon cannot adequately help the millions of refugees already within their borders, let alone any large number of additional refugees.[1] As a result, around half a million asylum-seekers[2] have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean to enter Europe in the past year.[3] More than 2,600 have perished, including a three-year old Syrian boy;[4] the photograph of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shore has been cited as evidence of the international community’s failure to deal with this crisis and renewed public interest in it.[5] 

Unfortunately, asylum-seekers’ dangerous trek across the Mediterranean is not the last obstacle they face in finding a new home. Once they reach a European Union member state, they face a broken asylum system and further suffering.[6] The EU and its member states have appeared wholly unprepared to deal with the crisis, yet they surely had entertained the possibility that asylum-seekers would make their way to Europe, especially given the ongoing conflict and horrific human-rights violations in Syria.[7] Greece and Italy, the most common entry points into the EU, particularly lack sufficient resources to deal with the overwhelming influx of asylum-seekers.[8] Hungary, also faced with an overwhelming number of asylum-seekers, claims the same, but its anti-immigration leaders appear concerned primarily that those seeking asylum are Muslim.[9] Hungary even went so far as to “put up a razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia, criminalise[] illegal entry and tear-gas[] migrants trying to get in.”[10] Other member states are similarly resistant to accepting asylum-seekers or agree to take in far fewer than necessary to mitigate the crisis.[11] This raises the question: What can the EU do about uncooperative member states when they are potentially violating international and EU law?

Emergency talks among the twenty-eight EU interior and justice ministers of the European Council were held in September, where they debated potential solutions to handle the flood of asylum-seekers.[12] Just beforehand, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres criticized the “lack of a common European response” and called for the EU to “tak[e] urgent and courageous measures to stabilize the situation and then find[] a way to truly share the responsibility in the mid to longer term.”[13] The problem with developing a common European response is that some European countries—such as Croatia—are vehemently opposed even to processing asylum claims.[14]

On September 22, a majority of the European Council approved a plan to address the refugee crisis by relocating asylum-seekers throughout member states, overruling objections from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania.[15] The EU Plan would relocate 120,000 asylum seekers to other member states from Greece, Italy, and Hungary over two years, in addition to 40,000 agreed upon previously.[16] Of these 120,000 asylum seekers, 15,600 will be relocated from Italy, 50,400 will be relocated from Greece, and 54,000 will be relocated from Hungary.[17] Due to Hungary’s objection at being labeled a “frontline” state, the agreement provides for Hungary’s 54,000 to be relocated from Italy and Greece.[18] According to the EU, “[t]his number corresponds to approximately [43%] of the total number of third-country nationals in clear need of international protection who have entered Italy and Greece irregularly in July and August 2015.”[19]

While this plan is a start, it does not adequately address the problems asylum-seekers face in EU Member States, including treatment from various governments that potentially violates international and EU law governing refugees and human rights. Under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention (PDF) [20] and the 1967 U.N. Refugee Protocol (PDF),[21] countries are legally obligated to take in people fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, who are outside of their country of nationality and cannot go back for fear of persecution.[22] Furthermore, under Article 3 of the Refugee Convention, states party to the agreement cannot discriminate against refugees based on race, religion, or country of origin.[23] Article 31 of the Refugee Convention also enshrines the principle of “non-refoulement”, which prohibits states from expelling or returning refugees to a territory where they would be in danger.[24] However, EU asylum law complicates the situation, with the Dublin III Regulation requiring asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first European country they enter.[25] As we can see, the first European country an asylum seeker enters is not equipped to register and house him or her.[26]

Several European countries have potentially violated international law with how they have dealt with the influx.[27] For example, Hungary’s government has enacted a series of anti-immigration laws that criminalize asylum-seekers crossing the border into Hungary, subjecting them to “fast-track trials,” imprisonment, and deportation.[28] Hungary also used tear gas on asylum seekers attempting to enter the country from Serbia, and built a 109-foot barbed-wire fence at the border to prevent both entry and exit.[29] Hungarian policies simply create more chaos and suffering for those seeking asylum by forcing them into an even more untenable situation as they try to leave Hungary for a more prosperous European country.[30] The resistance of the Hungarian government to grant but a small fraction of these people asylum appears to rest solely on the fact that they are mostly Muslim, which would be a clear violation of both international and EU law.[31] While claiming Hungary cannot afford to provide the asylum-seekers with relief or even help them find their way to another country willing to take them in, Hungary appears very willing to spend billions of dollars keeping them out.[32] Hungary of course is not the only European country resistant to helping refugees, just the most extreme example.

France, Germany, Belgium, and Austria are carrying far more of the burden than most of their fellow member states by taking in significantly more refugees than countries like Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.[33] This is concerning, as a crucial aspect of both international refugee law and EU law is burden-sharing or solidarity between countries or member states.[34] In a refugee crisis of this magnitude, a few countries cannot take in everyone in need of asylum. Somewhere along the way, this simple concept apparently became difficult for many countries to understand, including the countries outside of Europe, who are also slow to help share the burden.[35]

There are many potential ways the EU can deal with this crisis, though leaders have shown a lack of political will to take the necessary and drastic steps.[36] The EU’s focus on preventing the tide of asylum seekers from the Middle East, as opposed to helping the refugees currently fleeing to Europe, has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations.[37] The EU should provide far more assistance to the “frontline” member states than is provided in the recent agreement, in addition to creating safe routes of travel for the asylum-seekers travelling through these countries.[38] By allowing asylum-seekers to fall victim to smugglers crossing the Mediterranean or between borders of member states, the EU gives the impression that they do not care about lives, just about protecting their borders. Additionally, the EU should closely monitor member states for violations of human rights and sanction those found violating international or EU law. Amnesty International recently called for the EU to formally sanction Hungary for international-law violations in its treatment of asylum-seekers.[39] Another proposed solution is for the EU to hold a major international conference to discuss solutions with countries outside Europe as well.[40] Whatever the EU does or does not do about this crisis, it is certain to have far-reaching consequences for Europe and these refugees.


[1] Migrant Crisis: Why EU Deal on Refugees is Difficult, BBC News (Sept. 25, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34324096 [http://perma.cc/7BGS-GSJH] (“[A]bout four million Syrian refugees are living in squalid camps in the Middle East, with no jobs – many of them longing for a new life in Europe.”).

[2] An asylum-seeker is a person seeking asylum who has not yet received refugee status.

[3] Migrant Crisis, supra note 1.

[4] Ishaan Tharoor, A Dead Baby Becomes the Most Tragic Symbol Yet of the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis, Wash. Post (Sept. 2, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/02/a-dead-baby-becomes-the-most-tragic-symbol-yet-of-the-mediterranean-refugee-crisis [http://perma.cc/3UKR-EZ87].

[5] See id.

[6] Statement by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres on Refugee Crisis in Europe, UNHCR, Sept. 4, 2015, http://www.unhcr.org/55e9459f6.html [http://perma.cc/B9TP-32UC].

[7] Id.

[8] Migrant Crisis, supra note 1.

[9] Michael Birnbaum, E.U. Votes to Distribute 120,000 Asylum Seekers Across Europe, Wash. Post (Sept. 22, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/eu-ministers-seek-common-front-on-refugee-crisis/2015/09/22/34ad5a66-60a2-11e5-8475-781cc9851652_story.html [https://perma.cc/T675-9NUL] (“Prime Minister Viktor Orban has crusaded against the mostly Muslim asylum seekers, saying they are on a campaign to de-Christianize Europe.”).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Migrant Crisis, supra note 1.

[13] Statement by Guterres, supra note 6.

[14] Dara Lind, The Right to Asylum: Why Europe has to Take in People Fleeing Persecution, Vox (Sept. 18, 2015), http://www.vox.com/2015/4/22/8464623/asylum-refugees-law-europe.

[15] Birnbaum, supra note 9.

[16] Council Decision (EU) 2015/1601, Sept. 22, 2015, available at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.L_.2015.248.01.0080.01.ENG.

[17] Id.

[18] Migrant Crisis, supra note 1.

[19] Council Decision 2015/1601, supra note 16, at ¶ 26.

[20] United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, 189 U.N.T.S. 137, http://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume 189/v189.pdf (PDF) (scroll to page 137).

[21] United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Jan. 31, 1967, 606 U.N.T.S. 267, http://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%20606/v606.pdf (PDF) (scroll to page 267).

[22] Id.

[23] United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, 189 U.N.T.S. 137, http://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%20189/v189.pdf (PDF) (scroll to page 137).

[24] Id.

[25] See Council Regulation 2013/604, 2014 O.J. (L 180/31), available at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2013:180:0031:0059:EN:PDF; Ruth Green, Serious Concerns Over the Legality of Responses by European Countries, Int'l Bar Association (Sept. 23, 2015), http://www.ibanet.org/Article/Detail.aspx?ArticleUid=b2263aa8-6fbe-4d88-b4df-c305ed2da606 [http://perma.cc/9M28-YVE9].

[26] Migrant Crisis: Why EU Deal on Refugees is Difficult, supra note 1.

[27] Lisa De Bode, With Tear Gas and Razor Wire, EU Countries Skirt International Refugee Law, Al-Jazeera (Aug. 26, 2015), http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/8/26/with-tear-gas-and-razor-wire-eu-countries-skirt-international-refugee-law.html [http://perma.cc/9M28-YVE9].

[28] Green, supra note 25.

[29] Anthony Faiola & Michael Birnbaum, Migrants’ Deaths Bring Scrutiny to European Handling of Refugees, Wash. Post (Aug. 30, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-migrant-deaths-critics-also-blame-europe/2015/08/30/5b01c89a-4dd4-11e5-80c2-106ea7fb80d4_story.html [https://perma.cc/P27K-FLP5].

[30] Id.

[31] Steve Peers, The Refugee Crisis: What Should the EU Do Next?, EU Law Analysis (Oct. 18, 2015), http://eulawanalysis.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-refugee-crisis-what-should-eu-do.html [http://perma.cc/N429-7JHD].

[32] Report, Fenced Out: Hungary’s Violations of the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, Amnesty Int'l, 4–6 (Oct. 7, 2015), https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur27/2614/2015/en [http://perma.cc/N429-7JHD].

[33] Council Decision, supra note 16.

[34] Peers, supra note 31.

[35] Michael Ignatieff, The Refugee Crisis Isn’t a ‘European Problem’, N.Y. Times (Sept. 5, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/opinion/sunday/the-refugee-crisis-isnt-a-european-problem.html [http://perma.cc/Y9F9-YNMK].

[36] EU: Leaders Duck Responsibilities on Refugees, Human Rights Watch (Sept. 24, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/09/24/eu-leaders-duck-responsibilities-refugees [http://perma.cc/QP96-TKTN]

[37] Id.

[38] Peers, supra note 31.

[39] Report, Fenced Out: Hungary’s Violations of the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, supra note 32.

[40] Peers, supra note 31.


Posted by Madison L. Beveridge on Tue. October 20, 2015 12:44 PM
Categories: European Union, Greece, Hungary, International Human Rights, Islamic State, Italy, Refugees/Asylum, Reports (longer, analytical blog posts), Syria

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