Toward Building a More Humane Refugee Policy

By Emma Bonino, Former Foreign Minister of Italy and European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid

Kara Tepe transit camp for refugees near Mytilène on the island of Lesvos, Greece, on 23 December 2015. MAGNUM/Jerome Sessini
Emma Bonino

European countries are accepting migrants and integrating them into their societies. So my question is: Why not more Syrians? And, for that matter, why not more Iraqis, Afghans or Somalis? Is it because of racism? Is it because they are suspected of posing a risk of terrorism? Is it because they are considered not properly skilled or trained? These are questions that European leaders need to begin answering in order to overcome the refugee crisis.

Europe is well aware that it faces a structural problem, with dramatic demographic declines in Germany, Italy and Spain to name but a few. In 2014, European countries welcomed in around 2.3 million migrants and successfully integrated them — reuniting them with their families, and providing them with work permits and education. In fact, the UK was the best country at integrating migrants, taking in 568,000 people in 2014 alone, including from the U.S., India, China and Brazil. But how many from Syria? Almost none. Even my country, Italy, integrated more than 200,000 people in 2014. And yet many Europeans continue to resist accepting refugees and migrants stemming from the “crisis” along the continent’s southern borders.

We need more immigrants of all kinds, not less.

When refugees make it to Europe, there must be an effective integration policy that avoids past mistakes. Investment is needed in areas such as housing, education, language and skills training to avoid future alienation or disenfranchisement. Europe cannot afford to continue its uncoordinated and woefully inadequate approach to the reality of human migration. Our failure to effectively manage the entry and resettlement of refugees and migrants has magnified the problem, creating an acute political crisis.

In the absence of a comprehensive plan for managing the arrival and distribution of asylum seekers, the nations of Europe have panicked. Many of them have erected strict border controls and cast about for scapegoats.

Greece, which has been under economic strain for years before the current crisis, has been singled out for failing to adequately process and house refugees. It is unreasonable to expect the country to bear such huge burdens alone. The EU has pledged €509 million for the Greek national program (2014–2020) — and additional aid totalling €264 million — to help the country manage the influx of migrants. However, some member states have failed to pay their share. This lack of solidarity is compounding the crisis and means that Greece does not have the resources to individually process each migrant to determine their right to asylum. That process requires more case workers, interpreters and judges — which Europe has promised but not yet provided.

While it is true that there has been a lack of leadership on this problem, there have been some positive actions taken. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bravely opened the door to refugees — or, as she put it recently, simply refused to close the door. She has been accused and criticised for “picking and choosing refugees”, favouring Syrian refugees in particular who tend to be better trained and educated. Regardless, at least she kept the German border open in order to process new arrivals, and I would encourage other European Union (EU) states to follow that example.

In Italy, we can be proud of the lives saved through the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. That program rescued more than 140,000 people in less than a year, before it officially wound down in late 2014. We are continuing with search-and-rescue on a much more limited scale, thanks to efforts by the Italian Coast Guard, fishermen’s associations and NGOs.

A properly conceived mission in the Mediterranean should include an active search-and-rescue program, following the successful model of Mare Nostrum, in order to negotiate the coming months and years of this crisis. The idea of losing lives at sea is absolutely unacceptable.

European institutions need to improve their forecasting ability to identify early warning signs of political instability and potential conflict — and take pro-active steps to help vulnerable states before another mass exodus of people begins. One country at risk is Algeria, where there is extensive social conflict, a closed political system, and widespread corruption. There is no viable successor to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Considering all the turmoil in Libya and other neighbouring countries, it is fair to describe Algeria as a ticking time bomb. Europe is not doing enough to anticipate and prevent a potential eruption and the inevitable migration consequences that would have for our continent.

There are a number of complicating factors regarding the current crisis, including how to separate refugees from economic migrants. This is, of course, an important distinction, but one that is not always easy to make. First of all, most of these people come without documents. They might say that they come from Eritrea, for example, but how would one establish whether or not this is true? And then, should this person be categorised as a refugee or as an economic migrant? It is admittedly very difficult.

We can build a more rational system to address the challenges, but only if we first calm the hysteria that is gripping Europe. Millions of people are fleeing war, repression, torture and death threats. Above all, refugee policy must safeguard human lives.

This is a global problem, not confined to the Mediterranean. It helps to look at the situation in other countries: Tunisia has taken one million Libyans into a population of around eleven million; Lebanon has absorbed more than one million Syrians into a population of around four million. How can Europe not show the same generous spirit in welcoming those fleeing horrors?

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