According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced, while more than two million refugees have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) writes that more than 5,000 Syrians are fleeing the country every day, adding that “the current protection environment remains unstable. Large numbers of refugees have expressed concern for their wellbeing, depleting food rations and savings.”
But in the Resolution on Syria adopted by the European Parliament last Thursday, there was hardly any mention of the refugee issue except in very general terms: “The European Parliament expresses grave concern at the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the implications for neighboring countries; [it] urges the EU and its member States to live up to their humanitarian responsibilities and to increase their assistance to Syrian refugees.”
Gone is the call for a joint European policy in this regard, asked for by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) political group in the European Parliament. “The different political groups in the EP could not agree on a language that would go in that direction,” Céline Bayer, spokesperson for the president of the S&D group, explained to Mint Press News. “The fact is that some of these groups are more in favor of a national approach. They want their country to keep their room for maneuver; they want to decide by themselves how many refugees they accept.
“A common EU policy would probably be more progressive, more generous than any of the 28 individual policies,” Bayer continued. “And they know that.”
The missing political consensus
The European Parliament found a consensus to condemn the use of chemical weapons and agreed that “a lasting solution can only be achieved through a Syrian-led, inclusive political process,” but it could not manage to find such a consensus in calling for a joint European policy to welcome the Syrian people displaced by the violence. In other words, whereas the Europeans recognize the dramatic consequences of the conflict, national interests trump solidarity and compassion when refugees are concerned.
Germany is currently in election mode and asylum seekers are an issue most politicians there prefer to avoid. In countries like Spain and Greece, where the economic crisis continues to hit hard and unemployment is on the rise, governments fear that helping Syrian refugees may be met with resentment by the local populations. Other states like France and the Netherlands — as well as Greece — are experiencing growing nationalism and xenophobia inflamed by ultra-right movements, and the authorities are all too aware of the sensitivity to bringing in more foreign nationals.
In the midst of this general European reluctance, one country stands out: Sweden announced last week that it would give asylum to all Syrian refugees who apply, making it the first and only country in the European Union to have this kind of open-door policy for Syrians dealing with one of the worst periods of bloodshed in modern history. The decision, says Anders Danielsson, director-general of Sweden’s Migration Board, “stems from the EU’s failure to act on growing numbers of refugees” and was made “because we believe the violence in Syria will not end in the near future.”
Stockholm offers permanent residency to those who have already made it to Sweden. This will give Syrian refugees one vital thing: security. Also very important is the legal right to bring family members to Sweden. For Danielsson, “the ability to reunite families ripped apart by war is at the fore of the new policy.”
The move strikes a marked contrast with some countries’ policies — namely, those of France and the United Kingdom — which built the case for a military intervention that would further deepen Syria’s refugee crisis. But whether or not these countries decide to attack Syria in the end, it appears as though the displaced Syrian people are not going to be heading home any time soon.
Financial help is not enough
The European Union has provided €1.3 billion in humanitarian relief to Syria and its neighboring countries that are taking the biggest share of Syrian displaced civilians. But “supporting refugees financially is not enough,” said Barbara Lochbihler, a German euro-parliamentarian with the Greens/European Free Alliance group, speaking to public German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “When a military strike is being discussed, governments have to support Syrians.”
“In light of the tragedy of the century, you can’t just hope and feel sorry,” she added. “You have to help concretely.”
The European Commissioner of Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström has challenged other countries within the EU to follow Sweden’s example. The problem is that the European Commission cannot do much in this regard: migration and asylum are policies that still are largely determined by national governments, although the Commission has an important coordinating role. “Malmström has to raise the pressure on EU countries,” Lochbihler argued. “If she sets up the right framework, then the others will have to decide.”
Tobias Billström, Sweden’s minister for migration and asylum policy, has also called on other countries to recognize their duty to help the Syrian people. Legally speaking, however, such a duty does not exist. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” But this right to seek asylum has not been included in any legally binding instrument; nor does the 1951 Refugee Convention mention such a right. Additionally, legally speaking, the right to asylum is an individual right and is granted only on a case-by-case basis.
This does not mean that there is no moral or humanitarian duty to take care of people fleeing violence, nor that there is no legal way to solve the issue: in 2001, after the conflict in Kosovo demonstrated the need for special procedures to deal with mass influxes of displaced persons, the EU adopted the Directive on temporary protection.
This Directive puts in place an exceptional scheme to deal with possible cases of mass arrivals in the European Union of foreign nationals who cannot return to their countries, in particular due to a war, violence or human rights violations; it puts in place immediate temporary protection for these displaced persons and promotes a balance of efforts between member states in receiving them and bearing the consequences of such reception. But the mechanism has never been triggered so far.
A catastrophic humanitarian situation
During a press briefing in Geneva on 13 September, UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards declared that the U.N. Refugee Agency “is seeing a sharp increase in Syrians arriving by boat in southern Italy. Over the past 40 days, 3,300 Syrians, of whom more than 230 were unaccompanied children, have come ashore mainly in Sicily. The UNHCR estimates that over 4,600 Syrians have arrived in Italy by sea since the beginning of 2013. A full two-thirds of these arrivals have been in August.” Cyprus, in the grip of economic upheaval, is also preparing for an influx of Syrian asylum seekers.
This is a unique opportunity for the EU to show the purpose of temporary protection; it would allow a collective and coordinated response to the issue of Syrian asylum seekers. The conflict in Syria shows all the conditions for that protection to be activated. Neighboring countries with far less resources than European countries are currently bearing the greatest share of the burden; it would only be normal for Europe to participate — and not just financially — to the protection of the displaced people.
The European Commission, who has a right of initiative in this regard, has chosen not to do so. It is indeed in no easy situation: even if it decides to initiate the procedure, it still has to be approved by all member states’ governments, many of which would probably refuse to do so. This is to be expected, but Europe’s apparent lack of solidarity with countries on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean could set a cynical precedent, especially considering the populist and inward-looking political trends fueling the inaction from member states.
According to the U.N., countries in the region have accepted 97 percent of Syrian refugees. Lebanon alone registered more than 700,000 Syrian refugees by the end of August. Jordan has accepted slightly more than half a million and Turkey slightly less than half a million. Around 160,000 Syrians are now living in Iraq and more than 100,000 have managed to flee to Egypt. The U.N. says the tide of human suffering unleashed by the Syrian conflict has catastrophic implications — if the situation continues to deteriorate, the number of refugees will only grow and some neighboring countries could be brought to the point of collapse.