Reception in the region – or dumping? (2015)

13 October 2015

The problems which Europe is facing with sheltering refugees are a consequence of the utter failure of the reception of refugees in their region. This failure was caused by the short-sightedness of the international community, last but not least of Europe. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria four years ago, in front of our own eyes millions of Syrians fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. In 2013 and 2014, the international community has raised only half of the money needed for humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in these countries. Increasing numbers of Syrian refugees became desperate. This created an increasing demand for the services of human smugglers. This demand was met by an enormous supply, which is being used by others besides Syrians as well. Short-sightedness created a fabulous market for human smugglers, and the result of that we see on TV every day.

The failure of reception in the region is nothing new. Many large groups of refugees have been forgotten, like the Palestinians after 1948 and 1967, the Afghans since 1979 and the Somalians since 1990. Millions of them are still in refugee camps without any prospects. Many of those migrate, and some of them become interested radical movements. It is in Europe’s best interest to do better.

In the short run, the consequences of this policy failure are a given fact. European countries will have to begin by clearing up their own mess. This means sheltering lots of asylum seekers and examining their applications. The EU wants to destroy the business model of smugglers – an excellent idea. But the instrument the EU intends to use is further criminalisation and prosecution of smuggling, including by military means. But precisely that is part of the policy that has gotten Europe in the mess it is in. If you want to destroy the business model of smugglers, the demand for their services has to be diminished. In the short run, this can be done if the world’s richest countries abolish visa requirements for groups such as Syrians, Eritreans and Rohingyas. Furthermore, massive investment in reception in the region is necessary, immediately. The EU seems to have woken up to the need of emergency aid for Syrians; but for other groups a sense of urgency is nowhere to be seen.

In order to prevent the kind of anomalies Europe is witnessing today, in the long run reception is the region has to be taken seriously – at last. Reception in the region is only possible if emergency aid for refugees is generously funded. This has not even nearly happened in the past half century. Emergency aid by its very nature is temporary. Protection in the region is only a realistic notion if there is a prospect of durable solutions. First, that could be return to the country of origin. In most situations, regrettably that is an illusion. Safe zones in Syria would require large scale military intervention, and these tend to lead to more, not less refugees (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). Furthermore, as a Dutchman I am acutely aware that the safe havens in Bosnia were not terribly successful. Therefore, practically speaking durable solutions come in two kinds: local integration, and resettlement elsewhere.

The overwhelming majority of the world refugee population is finding protection in the region. Three issues make this problematic. First: if refugees are entangled in a wider political conflict (Palestinians, Kurds), the rest of the world would be wise to prepare for migration of refugees from that region. Second: if there are simply too many refugees, that means end of story. In Lebanon, over 25% of the population now consists of Syrian refugees. The situation of the half million Palestinian refugees in UN camps makes perfectly clear to them what happens if refugees trust the international community. Third, there is a risk that (because of international aid) refugees are better off than the local population. Therefore, protection in the region should be part of a broader development policy.

So, regional protection should imply asking the countries in the region how many refugees they can integrate, in particular by naturalising them after some years. They should be asked what they need so as to be able to do that.

People who cannot integrate in the region should be offered a durable solution elsewhere. This requires a substantial increase of the number of refugees offered resettlement in Western countries. It would be a good thing to stimulate private initiatives, such as the Canadian sponsor system which allows churches and other groups to sponsor refugees.

In itself, it is possible to prevent the problems caused by the short-sighted policies we are seeing now. These situations are problematic, both for small villages swamped with asylum seekers in 48 hours, and for the refugees themselves. This requires loyal cooperation with countries in the region. Until now, these countries have every reason to distrust Europe, because “reception in the region” until now meant, first and foremost, that European countries tried to dump refugees in countries which were completely overburdened already.

Published in Dutch in NRC Next 13 October 2015, and NRC Handelsblad 15 October 2015