This month’s blog post – Patrick McCusker

What policies should European governments pursue to address the refugee crisis?

In the wake of the recent atrocities in Paris and the likelihood of direct mobilisation against ISIS which was underway at the time of writing, the refugee crisis has been joined by another reminder of how desperate the situation has become in Syria. The refugee crisis had already exposed the inadequacy of refugee policy and drawn a massive amount of right-wing criticism, creating insecurity and fear amongst the public as to whether admitting refugees diminished their own quality of life or placed them at risk from terrorist attacks. Whilst these claims are spurious, they have allowed public resentment to increase.

We need only look at a single example of the administrative issues created by Germany’s open-door policy to get a sense of the problems which can be created when a long-term strategy and infrastructure are absent. In the small village of Sumte, in Lower Saxony, 102 permanent refugees have been joined in recent months by 750 refugees. (1) Such short-term thinking in which an empty office building was turned into a refugee camp despite a lack of any amenities in the village has led to other disastrous situations, such as the creation of mass camps which have stretched the resources of security forces and humanitarian organisations to breaking point in several places. As refugee policy and the treatment of asylum seekers were already cited as a major issue by humanitarian organisations before the current crisis, the time has come for governments to acknowledge that is not an isolated crisis. We are looking at the most recent incarnation of a perennial problem.

Given that public opinion polls had already shown signs of public reservation as to the amount of refuges currently being admitted (51% polled in Germany were opposed in early October) and of a surge in support for anti-immigration politicians. (2) Marine Le Pen and the Front Nationale have enjoyed a surge in support based on aggressive criticism of public spending on migrants. Some polls claim that as many as 41% of working-class voters back the Front Nationale, to say nothing of the popularity of right wing anti-immigrant parties in other countries, such as UKIP, Sweden Democrats or True Finns. (3) Proposals such as ‘obligatory quotas’ are only likely to worsen this situation by bolstering claims that admitting more refugees will require the EU to undermine public services by redirecting money.

However, the arguments being advanced against admitting more refugees admit two major shortcomings of the approach taken by European governments thus far: refugee policy to date has been mishandled; and beset by misinformation. Addressing the refugee crisis is now a question of validity – to properly address the crisis, government policy has to gain the public’s support by both providing a sustainable framework for future refugee policy and tackling alienation. A long-term strategy must be developed in which the framework established can be sustainedafter the crisis ends.

The sheer extent of the problem requires both external and internal policy changes. The external aspect of the problem requires a genuinely multilateral approach. For a precedent, Western governments can look towards the successful integration of 1.3 million migrants from Vietnam by the international community from the 1960s to the 1990s. This was marked by a co-ordinated policy from 1979 involving both the destinations and the host country, with agreed quotas and application procedures established to provide a legal and safe option for refuges without taking in an unsustainable number. Whilst the immense human cost involved in seeking refuge remained, it has been agreed that the development of a comprehensive multi-lateral approach to housing refugees in which the country of origin was involved, along with a number of willing parties. helped alleviate the worst of the suffering in the immediate term. Unfortunately, the crisis persisted and in 1989 a Comprehensive Plan of Action was developed, in which disincentives were provided with the intention of bringing the flow of asylum seekers to a gradual end. A closer study of the policies pursued by Asian governments during this period has many lessons for European governments today. Any policy agreed on will have to combine the good intentions of the 1979 plan with the pragmatism of the 1989 one, with a view to repatriating or integrating refugees in the longer term rather than maintaining permanent camps. (4)

Such a plan is unworkable without public support and the primary internal objective of any successful refugee policy must be the winning over of hearts and minds when faced with the mounting internal opposition to housing more refugees. Without achieving this, any efforts made will forever be susceptible to populist attacks. To win over public opinion to this end, there must be a move towards a bottom-up strategy in which local politicians and the public are properly involved in any effort to house refugees. Initiatives such as the Berlin-based Refugees Welcome, in which volunteers offer to provide a room to a refugee, should be nurtured. These help integrate rather than ostracise refugees, as the current policy forces them into specialised housing and an easy target for criticism. Only by encouraging the public to see refugees as people rather than an abstract concept can this be overcome.

The refugee crisis so far has been defined by chaos and confusion on the parts of governments, public opinion and the treatment of the refugees themselves. Addressing the refugee crisis properly involves acting rationally and developing a sustainable, long-term framework which involves the full participation of both host nations and those of origin so as to avoid alienating the public, creating administrative crises and leaving those refugees admitted with substandard treatment. Without these considerations being properly addressed, any refugee policy will be a mere Band-Aid when much more thorough treatment is required.

Patrick McCusker

1. The Independent, 6 November 2015

2. ARD opinion poll, 6 October 2015

3. The Economist, 14 November 2015

4. The State of the World’s Refugees, UNCHR, 2012 edition, pages 84-5