The news has been dominated by stories of migrants trapped at railway stations in Hungary, of Macedonian authorities declaring a state of emergency, and we have witnessed many emotional portrayals of refugees including, of course, that of the father of 3 year old Aylan. Stories such as these are illustrative of a malfunctioning European migration system. European politicians struggle to find solutions, and as Eastern European countries turned against the idea of binding quota, the migrant crisis seemed to develop into yet another European crisis.
Now finally a proposal is in place. Although it is good to see that plans are finally being made, the question remains whether these will provide the long-lasting solutions that this crisis requires. My guess is that they may provide a first step, but that there is still a long road ahead.
The news about which countries will receive exactly how many immigrants leaked out earlier this week. The Netherlands will have over 7,200 asylum seekers on top of the 2,000 that it promised to receive before the summer. What strikes me is the obsession with numbers and that this is what is picked up by the press. Europe talks about a distribution of 120,000 asylum seekers across Europe. These 120,000 asylum seekers are those who are already in Hungary, Greece and Italy. It is an emergency solution for those who are already here. But what about those who continue to arrive each day? The most important question faced by the migrant crisis is whether an agreement can be reached on a more permanent solution. As long as this does not happen we will continue to see pictures of dead children in the news every day.
In the past weeks I have heard many politicians blaming such fatal incidents on human smugglers. And yes, of course, many people smugglers take advantages of the situation and put asylum seekers in dangerous situations in order to make money. But what gets sidelined in the ‘blaming-the-smuggler’ discussions is why human smugglers provide such services in the first place. It is due to migration policies that asylum seekers are not allowed to migrate to Europe’s safe havens legally. Our policies force those who seek protection to migrate to Europe illegally – and they often need the services of people smugglers to do so. Will the proposal change that? That is the fundamental question, not the numbers. It is certainly a step forward that migrants may be redistributed once they have reached European shores. But would it not be more humane if we could prevent them from having to rely on human smugglers?
It is often said that the key solution to the migrant crisis is to provide assistance in the region. But if this the case, why does Europe not seriously invest in it? Syria’s neighboring countries have repeatedly asked for help. With a population of 8 million, Jordan is already hosting 1,5 million refugees from Syria. How many refugees can a country absorb? Turkey has spent 6 billion euro on supporting the over 3 million refugees from Syria currently staying in Turkey. Europe’s aid spending is dwarfed in comparison. Why not seriously invest in assistance in the region? Or arrange redistribution from there, instead of in Europe? And if we talk about redistribution, why not consider countries other than those in Europe? Why has this become a European problem to solve?
The Netherlands is one of 25 countries that invites refugees that have been selected in camps run by the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR). Each year we invite about 500 refugees. This comes down to 0,004% of the total population of nearly 12 million refugees registered by the UNHCR in 2013. Could such initiatives not be built upon and expanded? The UNHCR, through its High Commissionaire, has made pleas in this direction in the past. It could prevent people from having to undertake perilous journeys across dangerous seas.
Until long-term solutions are found, refugees continue to stay in poor conditions in camps in the region, and they are going to have to undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety and better conditions. Once they are here, private citizens will give them a warm welcome by providing them with clothes and shoes through heartwarming private initiatives. Whereas some of these private initiatives do much good, many others demonstrate that assisting asylum seekers is best left to the professionals who have been doing this for decades.
Moreover, will such private initiatives still exist once the numbers go down and migration no longer dominates the news? In past decades asylum seekers have regularly washed up on European shores and they have resided in asylum seeker centers. Most people did not care about their fates. This is definitely changing, and I sincerely hope this change is here to stay so that we can have more balanced debates about migration than we have often had in the past. And who knows, this increased public awareness might just command responsible policy responses in the future.