European integration

Peter Sutherland: If Europe fails the refugees it will not be the union we hoped for

The EU is in disarray. Faced with waves of asylum seekers from conflict-ridden states, too many European countries have acted selfishly and unilaterally, undermining any chance of an effective collective response to the crisis.

Rather than calmly handling an eminently manageable situation, they have made Europe appear incompetent, near hysterical and without integrity.

This is not to deny credit where credit is due. Under the leadership of Angela Merkel, chancellor, Germany has welcomed hundreds of thousands of people — not without controversy but in relative calm. Berlin also has been honest in

declaring that the European asylum system is not working. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken,” Ms Merkel stated bluntly this week, “then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”

Greece and Italy, which have rescued more refugees than any other member states — and Sweden, the EU state that has taken in most per capita — also have acted honourably. Countless thousands of private citizens and non-governmental organisations have done the same.

But Europe’s failure to measure up to the human disaster has radically increased the human, financial and political costs of the crisis. One of the bedrocks of the EU, the Schengen free-movement zone, is now in jeopardy. It is not too late for the bloc to recover from a crisis largely of its own making. As hardline, anti-migrant parties surge in many countries, European governments must show they can work together to tame the chaos, uphold international law and show compassion to those in need.

Europe’s leaders and media need to start calling the situation what it is: a refugee crisis, not a migration crisis. At least two-thirds of those crossing the Mediterranean come from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and other states from which they are legitimately fleeing persecution. Refugees have inalienable rights under international law, and their plight is well understood by the European public. Only a minority of those taking to the seas are economic migrants.

The EU also needs to give far greater help — starting straight away — to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which together host 4m Syrian refugees. Such aid will be far more effective than military missions or yet more dogs and barbed wire at border posts. Most refugees prefer to stay close to home. But, if there are no schools or jobs for them in frontline countries, they will move on. Four years into the Syrian conflict, this is what is happening .

Simultaneously, the EU must make every effort to establish safe and legal means for asylum seekers to seek protection in Europe without risking their lives. This could be done through massively expanded resettlement; by establishing private sponsorship programmes so that individuals, churches and NGOs can take responsibility for integrating refugees; by issuing humanitarian, labour, family reunification and student visas — or a combination of all these.

Finally, EU member states should agree to a permanent system of sharing responsibility for processing and hosting asylum seekers and refugees. The European Commission’s plan to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, rejected by member states, needs to be expanded and made mandatory. There are many details to work out, but such a programme is within reach.

This would be the first, necessary step towards a single European asylum system — not a hodgepodge of 28 systems that produce vastly different outcomes. So far this year, Hungary has granted asylum to just 278 out of 148,000 applicants — barely 0.2 per cent. By contrast, Germany has accepted 40 per cent of applications. This chasm makes a mockery of both the law and the notion of a common system.

An emergency meeting of EU interior ministers scheduled for September 14 needs to make inroads on this. But the rest of the world also needs to do far more. The world’s 20m refugees, a historic high, are a shared responsibility — one that at present falls most heavily on the developing world, where 86 per cent of refugees live.

The global refugee system was originally created to help Europeans, and it has helped save and rebuild the lives of millions of them. Now, with the system strained, faltering and outdated, Europe should reciprocate. It is time for the

EU to rescue its integrity and dignity before they, too, perish in the Mediterranean.

This article first appeared in The Financial Times on 3 September 2015.