The Refugee Saviour Known as the ‘European Union’

Sandra Sichlau, Christine Yurechko & Inez van Soolingen


During the summer of 2015, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ arrived in Europe. In September of that year, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave his first State of the Union speech, held in the European Parliament. He stressed how it was not time for “business as usual,” and addressed the refugee crisis as the first issue, saying that “(…) now is not the time to take fright. It is time for bold, determined and concerted action by the European Union, by its institutions and by all its Member States.”[1]

And boy oh boy, have the EU and its member states proven their ability to take bold, determined and concerted action. In this blog post, we will emphasize all the amazing efforts the EU and its member states have made to deal with the refugee crisis properly. We explore efforts firstly within the EU border, secondly, at the EU border and finally, far beyond the EU border. Along the lines of the EU’s spirit of collaboration, this blogpost is a result of close teamwork between three experts; two of law, respectively American and Dutch, and one Dane of EU governance and politics.

Efforts within the European Union

With its beautiful diverse landscapes and its appealing economic stability, Europe has long been a destination for foreigners. In fact, approximately 1,6 million third-country citizens immigrated to the EU in 2014.[2] And for the past two to three years a special group of immigrants, namely asylum seekers and refugees, has been honoured with the attention of all EU member states’ heads of governments. The EU has previously experienced peaks in the number of asylum seekers, for instance in 1992 and 2001,[3] but that does not come close to the situation the EU faces today. In 2015 about 1,3 million people applied for asylum in the EU.[4]

(Figure by authors of blogpost, according to data from Eurostat [migr_asyappctza])

The Dublin Convention was signed in 1990 in order to deal with the asylum seekers and refugees who were all so excited to come to the EU; today it is known as the Dublin III regulation.[5] The regulation establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining which EU Member State is responsible for examining an asylum application, and prescribes that the EU country of arrival is the one responsible for handling the asylum application. But since the Convention does not seek to delegate fair shares of refugees and asylum seekers between EU member states, the system was unable to provide enough asylum seekers for every EU country’s satisfaction. With the amount of asylum seekers in 2015 one would think there are enough asylum seekers for everyone. Unfortunately, and much to the frustration of many other member states, countries like Greece and Macedonia gave themselves the right to claim most of them. This, plus the fact that Germany and France tried to cheat by processing asylum applications from Syria without taking notice of where the refugees first entered the EU,[6] made the Dublin III system functionally obsolete.

But then again, the EU has always grown stronger in times of crisis. So even in times of unfair games between competing EU member states, the EU has proven that it will not break and that it is ready to take on the great responsibilities that knock on its door. For example, the Commission already showed action in 2015 by presenting a ‘comprehensive package’ with which it aims to take concrete actions to respond to the immediate crisis.[7] But even more impressive to see is how the member states cooperate and find common solutions. Like last year, when the Justice and Home Affairs Council agreed to relocate 120 thousand asylum seekers.[8] This means a marvellous 9% of all asylum seekers that year would await their asylum process in a land of milk and honey, due to the sincere work of good men wearing suits and ties.

And even countries with opt-out from collaboration under the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ) still take their responsibilities within the refugee crisis seriously. Denmark, for example, still actively and progressively participates in EU solidarity; even though Denmark is not bound by the above-mentioned Council decision, it has pronounced to voluntarily take in no less than one thousand refugees.[9] And even though this number may seem small, Denmark’s welcoming heart is as big as its intentions are positive.

Meanwhile, at the borders

And this positive attitude is one that is seen at the EU borders as well. Because as the Union welcomes the many refugees coming from northern Africa with open arms, it makes sure the countries that have to cope with the influx of refugees get all the necessary resources and support they need. In fact, only two months ago the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament agreed on regulations to expand the European coast and border security.[10] The so-called ‘European Border and Coast Guard Agency’ will, as an expansion of the former ‘Frontex Agency,’ cooperate closely with national authorities in the field of border control. After all, securing external EU borders and monitoring migrants who are on their way to Europe is highly important in order to guarantee the safety and the freedom of movement of EU citizens. But of course, the agency is there for the sake of the refugees as well, saving some 173,500 lives from the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.[11] And once they set foot on European ground, the EU’s registration system will guide them further on their paths to legally registered happiness, or a nice campsite adventure in Paris, if you please. That countries like Sweden, Austria and Germany temporarily reintroduced border control after the system of open international borders was abolished by the Schengen area[12] illustrates the apparent efficiency of this registration system very well.


And even more amazing to see is how the accomplishments of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency can be reached with so few resources. Because, after all, the agency does not generally own heavy assets. For its border operations, it has to borrow people and equipment from member states using its budget to reimburse the member states.[13] Unfortunately, the agency only receives six times the budget that is allocated to agencies that are set up to support member states’ asylum-related programmes (like the European Asylum Support Office);[14] luckily, the 28 EU member states are very keen on donating the organization some change. Apparently, pure altruism still exists within the EU. Strangely however, the generous donations the agency receives from both member states and the European Parliament are not enough for proper resourcing and will thus have to be sent back to their rightful owners and Brussels.[15][SS1] One might almost think this unfortunate event has something to do with the annual celebration called the ‘European Day for Border Guards’, which costs approximately 350 thousand euro every year and is paid from the organization’s budget. But then again, in a situation of crisis, what better way to keep morale high than to throw a party?

Another illustration of the EU’s efforts to help the border countries is that it is getting better at sending back immigrants. Take for example the EU’s agreement with Turkey: in return for better financial support from the EU and agreements about the abolishment of the visa obligation, Turkey would shelter more migrants and guard its borders better.[16] The Turkish president Erdogan has indeed proven to be a friend of EU by persistently pushing back against IS close to the Turkish border.[17] A Human Rights Watch report[18] reveals how Erdogan’s soldiers ensure the safety of the border by putting an end to refugees’ misery and sending them into the afterlife, saving them from becoming trapped in long asylum application process. This demonstrates Erdogan’s commitment to keep Europe safe. Of course the EU only makes agreements with partners devoted to protect European citizens from terrorism and to keep them safe.


But that’s not all! The EU’s determination to properly deal with the immigration crisis reaches beyond the empowerment of a strong organization and making agreements. One needs to take into account that the EU consists of 28 powerful states that all have marvellous ideas for solving the so-called problem. The fact that they all do everything that lies within their power to work on solutions has currently been illustrated by the Netherlands, as the country decided to support Libya with 1,5 million euro for the migration crisis. The fact that Libya says it wants to use the money to save as many people from the Mediterranean Sea as possible, while the Netherlands want Libya to use the money to send back illegal migrants by plane,[19] is probably just a language-related misunderstanding that will be dealt with as sooner than later.

Offering help beyond the borders

Despite any criticisms levied at the EU, the EU is certainly doing a very good job outside its own borders to end the crisis without getting involved in conflicts. Under the Treaty of the EU, the EU may use a number of mechanisms outside of its territory in pursuit of peace-keeping, conflict prevention, and strengthening international security, including military means, humanitarian tasks, and post-conflict stabilization conflict forces, both to fight terrorism generally and within third countries.[20] The EU has decided however, in spite of its mandate that might allow a wider range of actions, to assist the refugee crisis through its financial support of other countries handling refugees outside of EU borders, by its commitment to using humanitarian aid and international law mechanisms to mitigate the problems, and by assisting in certain conflict zones.

Whoever thinks this wide range of actions includes getting milky white European hands dirty is wrong. After all, someone needs to stay home and make sure no illegal immigrants set foot on European soil. Thus, the EU and its member states continue to donate money to international human rights organizations assisting those in conflict zones, so no Europeans run the risk of missing dinner. This includes 300 million euro in 2016 directed to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Food Program (WFP), the Red Cross family, and other international NGOs to help refugees in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.[21] And even though the EU recognizes that humanitarian aid is not a tool for migration management and will not address the root causes of what is forcing migrants to flee their home countries, the money serves perfectly to cover the wounds of the poor bleeding refugees, while at the same time it makes sure the EU is not confronted with too many difficult questions.[22]


The EU continues to remain committed to international rule of law to address the refugee problem. One mechanism the EU will persist in using is the issuance of strongly-worded press releases calling for the end of the conflict and condemning the actions of the various parties involved, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. In October this year, the EU also vowed to impose more sanctions on al-Assad’s government.[23] In addition, the EU will put more Syrians under travel bans and asset freezes if they are suspected of having attacked civilian targets in Aleppo.[24] That is in addition to the EU’s existing sanctions list and its oil and arms embargo. By using this ruthless strategy, the EU will be able to keep those who are assisting in the conflict on the naughty list, and shame them into ending the conflict. Additionally, the EU has said that they believe the players involved in Middle Eastern conflicts who are violating international law should be referred to the International Criminal Court; when and how this would happen are questions that remain to be answered, as the EU has no presence in conflict zones to find and arrest these people.[25]

While the EU as a legal body is not officially involved in any conflict zones, NATO, who counts 22 members in common with the EU, remains involved in ending violence in Afghanistan. NATO’s presence there is to assist Afghan security forces and institutions with planning, programming, budgeting, oversight, and adherence to the rule of law.[26] As NATO continues its work to strengthen governance in Afghanistan, the EU can now deport Afghan refugees back to their home country, because it is now safe. After all, Afghanistan’s safety was confirmed by the UN earlier this year: in July, the UN announced that the first half of 2016 saw a record number of civilian casualties since counting began in 2009, with 5,166 civilians recorded killed or maimed in just the first six months of this year, of whom almost one-third were children.[27] Then, on November 16, 2016, Germany announced its plans to send 12,500 refugees back to Afghanistan.[28] Apparently the UN report was the green light to Germany that it was finally safe to send their guests home. As the UN counts all NATO and EU member states in its ranks, it’s heartening to see all three organizations coordinating their efforts around shared information.



As you can see, the EU is using the tools available to it to help refugees while staying well within the bounds of its mandate. As one senior EU official who refused to give his name stated, “This has been the opposite of a failure. This has been an unprecedented victory. No one has ever gotten such refugee flows under control is so short a time.”[29] The evidence we have offered here clearly demonstrates that his words ring true.

A continuation of the EU’s efforts should be able to almost completely eliminate the remaining small “slippage” of migrants into the EU recently referenced by Pieter de Gooijer, the permanent representative of the Netherlands to the EU, and cement the legacy EU officials have created in their unprecedented response to this crisis. As EU President Junker said when he in 2015 expressed his hopes for the EU, “Let it read that together we made European history. A story our grandchildren will tell with pride.”[30] And history they surely made.

Footnote sources:








[8] ‘Council Decision establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece’ (22 September 2015)

Recap of main results:

Press statement from the Commission:







[15] ibidem





[20] TEU, Articles 42–43.