Seven key proposals to ease the Syrian refugee crisis


Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, December, 2012. Freedom House under a Creative Commons Licence

The Syrian refugee crisis needs to be met with structural policy responses. Individual Europeans have responded with inspiring solidarity campaigns, like an AirBnB for refugees in Germany and individuals offering their homes in Iceland but – with about 4 million Syrian refugees having fled their country and more than 6.5 million internally displaced – the scale of the problem demands structural responses from governments. Asylum is a human right, not an act of charity. European Union (EU) governments should take steps to ensure this right is not eroded in the face of austerity, nationalism and xenophobia.

British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested last Thursday that the solution should be to bring ‘peace and stability to that part of the world’. While long-term solutions must address root causes (i.e. the Syrian civil war), Cameron and other EU leaders cannot displace their responsibility for refugees arriving on their own borders. A swimmer at a pool would not let a person drown by reasoning that the ‘root cause’ must first be addressed and that the person should learn to swim.

To address these problems EU leaders have scheduled an emergency meeting for 14 September in order to hash out an EU-wide response to the crisis. This will most likely include quotas to resettle up to 100,000 refugees across the EU – a fraction of those displaced – for the purpose of ‘sharing the burden’ outside of Italy, Greece and Hungary.

A co-ordinated inter-governmental response, such as a unified asylum system, will spread the burden of hosting new refugees throughout the EU. This could mean negotiating the proportion of refugees each member state must host or that some states may sponsor refugees to be hosted in other countries. Richer countries – including those outside of the EU – have the capacity to host more refugees than poorer countries on the periphery. Germany is leading by example, by proposing to accept 800,000 Syrians, but Britain, France, the US, and others need to step up and offer much more help to aid the survival of those displaced by war.

There are significant political hurdles standing in the way of a unified asylum system. European diplomats have been negotiating the Common European Asylum System since 1999, with little progress. One of the main challenges is that the Dublin Regulation requires asylum-seekers to be processed in the first European country they enter. In light of the current crisis, this seems impractical and will need to be reconsidered.

While everyone is talking about quotas, these alone will not solve the structural crisis that the EU faces. Thus, EU leaders should not ignore the full spectrum of possible policy responses. Here are 7 key structural policies that should also be discussed at the emergency meeting on 14 September:

1. Immediate humanitarian aid to refugees travelling within the EU or near its borders

European governments should mount a co-ordinated effort to provide humanitarian aid. Refugees who are near or have recently crossed a border into the EU are in desperate need of food, medicine, shelter and clothing. While the questions of where and who will provide asylum are still controversial, providing food to hungry children and families should not be. This co-ordinated humanitarian effort should be led by a central European or UN agency and jointly funded.

2. Full funding for UNHCR emergency budget

If governments are serious about easing the refugee crisis, the quickest route is to fully fund the one agency best equipped to help – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was created with the mandate to protect refugees and help resolve refugee problems worldwide. When governments do not pay up, the UN is forced to cut food rations for refugees. The World Food Programme reported that in May 2015 more than half the Syrian refugees in Lebanon did not have enough food to survive. This year UNHCR projected that a full response to assist Syrian refugees throughout 2015 would cost more than $4.5 billion. To date governments have contributed $1.7 billion (only 37%) to UNHCR’s appeal.

The EU and other governments can and should contribute more to the UNHCR emergency budget.

3. Prima facie refugee status for all Syrian applicants in the EU

Earlier this year, the European Commission published the European Agenda on Migration with the hope of implementing coherent EU-wide policies. One component is to create a common EU list of ‘safe countries of origin’ in order to speed up screening for asylum applications because all member states would apply the same standard. For this to work, border officials must respect individuals’ unique claims of persecution and not assume claims are based only on the situation in their country of origin.

UNHCR recognizes that in times of emergency it is impossible to process every person through individual interviews and review – this more practical concept is called prima facie refugee status. In 2006, Sweden recognized that this temporary provision would be necessary to provide protection for the mass influx of displaced Iraqis. Applying this to Syrians could accelerate processing and unify protection across member states.

4. Overseas asylum-processing centres

Some European diplomats have discussed opening processing centres overseas in order to allow refugees to apply for asylum without making the life-threatening journey by land or sea. This could be implemented through EU member state embassies around the Middle East or North Africa. Once asylum is given, the EU would facilitate safe transportation to the continent and this would be integrated into the overall burden-sharing agreement.

This is controversial on 2 points. First, the UK is fully against it. Theresa May, Britain’s Home Secretary, said that ‘the idea of making it easier for legal routes to stop illegal routes is completely the wrong way.’ Second, refugee advocates worry that outsourcing applications will undermine or criminalize those asylum-seekers who do not apply abroad. But if legal routes can be made easier, they should be. If we can save lives by processing applications abroad, we should.

5. Make the Mediterranean safe

European countries have a moral responsibility to create safe borders. This summer has shown the Mediterranean to be one of the deadliest borders in the world. In 2014, the EU drastically cut the search-and-rescue mission Mare Nostrum, which is estimated to have saved more than 130,000 lives, and replaced it with Triton, a severely scaled-back naval security mission. The EU increased its budget after harsh criticism but it still remains insufficient.

A reorganized and fully funded search-and-rescue mission would identify and assist all boats in distress. In addition, if boats are in danger and are knowingly not rescued – as has historically been the case – the agency and leadership should be held accountable. Someone must be held responsible for the growing numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean. The EU should create a unified agency responsible for rescuing any boats in distress, empowered to do the job, and held accountable if it fails.

6. Increased resettlement to the US and Canada

The UNHCR has a well-established resettlement programme, which is co-ordinating the resettlement of over 70,000 Syrian refugees. While this is a significant number, more can be done – especially in the United States. The US has a good record for resettling refugees and should respond to this current crisis by creating a new special visa route for Syrians, as was done historically for Iraqis.

7. Appoint a Special Representative for Human Rights in Migration

The EU should appoint a new high-level official to report on human rights within asylum, detention and deportation throughout the continent. The office should research and document human rights violations within all aspects of migration. It should also be a resource for states looking for best practice in migration.

While the UN special representative for migration, Peter Sutherland, should, theoretically, also be covering these issues, an EU-level official will be better placed to hold member states accountable for human rights violations on their own borders and in their own detention centres.

Finally, this special representative should ensure that the traditional rights of asylum are not eroded throughout the negotiation and construction of new institutions. While overseas applications centres would make seeking asylum safer, there will still be individuals who make the perilous journey to apply within the EU. These individuals’ applications must be judged fairly even if they have bypassed the overseas application process.

The current refugee crisis in Europe needs structural policy responses, not individual cases of charity, because asylum is a human right. It is not criminal. It is not cheating the system. As EU leaders meet later this month, the spotlight will be focused on quotas and numbers. But this should not detract from the whole range of other policies that would also ease the refugee crisis in Europe.

For more on the Syrian refugee crisis see our September magazine Syria's good guys: Inside a forgotten revolution.

Bosnia: small victories in a place on the edge

children performing theatre
Children performing A Midsummer Night's Dream in Trnopolje school which was used as a detention centre during the war
Nick Micinski

The cities and villages of Prijedor, Kozarac, Trnopolje, and Omarska have recently won a few small victories at a time when optimism and hope are scarce.

These small, economically deprived places are located in the Republic of Srpska in the north of Bosnia. It is in this place that 3,173 people were killed early in the 1992–1995 war in Bosnia with more than 1,000 people still missing.

On Monday 27 May 2013, 40 children from the four areas staged a performance of Shakespeare in the Omarska community centre. The fantasy of the children’s interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream did not end with the fairies or painted faces; it was magical to see the residents of Omarska applauding Bosniak, Serb, and Croat children sharing the same stage just one kilometer away from what in 1992 was the most infamous ‘interrogation facility’ in Bosnia.

This was the first victory in the same week for Prijedor and the other areas. The second victory was on Friday 31 May when several hundred people gathered in Prijedor’s city centre wearing white armbands. The protesters were remembering that 21 years before this, the Serb controlled government of Prijedor ordered all Muslim residents to wear these armbands and to display white sheets in their windows. In 2012, a similar protest was effectively prohibited by the Mayor of Prijedor with only one person defying the ban and standing alone in the city center.

For 2013, people travelled from Sarajevo, Mostar, Banja Luka and even New York – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – to stand together in solidarity and hope for the future. They gathered chanting, ‘Enough segregation, enough discrimination of victims because of their ethnicity!’

However, the area remains a tense, crumbling relic of what used to be a prosperous industrial region of Yugoslavia. Now, unemployment is a stifling 43 per cent with few opportunities for youth. Politics are divisive and often nationalistic. Since the violence ended, the villages in this region are mostly segregated with Serb, Croat, and Bosniak (Muslim) children attending different schools and being taught different histories of the recent conflict.

I first came to this place five years ago as part of a project to bring together the schools in the area for a week-long youth festival. In 2009, the charity Most Mira held workshops in drama, music, art, circus skills, photography and dance with 500 children from four schools in a field in Kevljani – the same field in which the residents of Kevljani were rounded up in May 1992 before being taken to Omarska and other detention camps only five kilometers away. Most Mira has continued its work with young people through drama projects, video diaries, leadership training, and festivals, in addition to hosting an international exchange this year with Humanity in Action, an international network of human rights activists.

This year when I arrived in Prijedor I was reminded by friends that expectations are so low in Bosnia that people often say, ‘At least we are not shooting at each other.’ One feels this when you see the bullet holes that pepper the walls of many homes in Prijedor and Kozarac. Refik Hodzic, communications director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, believes that: ‘The problem is with the children who don’t have the shared memories that we lived together. They can’t imagine that it would even be possible to live together.’

And this is how the conflict continues to be engendered in the children of Bosnia through segregated and ideological schools – schools in which sectarian imagery is painted in murals on their walls and fresh nationalist graffiti remains in the boys’ bathroom. Their history books tell of one side’s war heroes and victims and perpetuate stereotypes of the ‘other’. Although these children live within 15 kilometers of each other, they rarely interact.

In this place that has seen thousands of people displaced, there are small but important victories for people coming together. They stand in contrast to a nonexistent economy, declining educational system and stagnant local and national politics that are actively dividing people. Most concerning, as pointed out by Hodzic is that, ‘the international community is allowing Bosnia to descend to the point which it is so tense that a spark could set it off again… If we don’t act now, we will be raising the next generation of soldiers.’

In the face of this growing risk, these communities may be forced to rely on the few inter-ethnic relationships that children have forged through art, theater, and protest. If not, the next Shakespeare performed in Omarska may be another tragedy.

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