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The European Refugee Crisis

Where There’s a Will...

Forced migration caused by armed conflict or persecution is unpredictable [1]. The Syrian crisis, which by October 2015 saw over four million refugees already registered outside Syria, certainly seemed to catch Europe off guard.

The vast majority of Syria’s refugees stay in the region—Tur­key, Jordan and Lebanon have each taken on more refugees than the entire EU, despite having far less capacity than Europe to deal with massive humanitarian dis­asters. Still, the crisis is testing the very principles upon which European integration has res­ted at a time when the security threats propagating from Syria to Europe—threats like the November 13 attacks in Paris—become very direct and real.


Within Europe, an important obstacle to resolving the crisis is the EU’s Dublin Reg­ulation. Adopted to prevent “asylum shop­ping,” it has led to the incongruous situation in which border countries like Italy, Hungary or Greece first receive a disproportionate number of asylum seekers, half of whom ul­timately end up registered in Germany and Sweden. As such, the Dublin system has proven itself poorly suited to the task. It should be replaced by another framework, one coordinated at the European level.

Policies to alleviate the pressure on individual member states need to involve greater solid­arity across Europe. Yet the political will re­quired for such solidarity is lacking in much of the EU, often due to electorates increas­ingly unwelcoming toward immigration. The result in many cases, such as in Calais or at Hungary’s border with Serbia, has been selective border enforcement. But this is not a solution—human smugglers will find other, riskier routes at higher economic and, sadly, humanitarian costs.

In the short term, the provision of large-scale humanitarian assistance, aid and education is crucial. In the long term, the UNHCR aims to offer refugees one of the three “durable solutions”: repatriation, resettlement in a third country, or integration into host soci­eties. While resettlement and integration remain politically problematic, temporary solutions—such as refugee camps—prevail. Naturally, as the conflict in Syria endures, mass repatriation is not feasible either. Any true long term solutions would need to ad­dress the conflict first—a diplomatic as well as a military challenge.


For Europe, there are options in the mean­time. In particular, the crisis has demonstrated an acute need for multiple layers of risk management, contingency and crisis plans [1]. One en­couraging example is Japan, where excellent crisis man­agement plans are in place for earthquakes, which—like refugee crises—cannot be pre­dicted with any reasonable foresight. Another example is the capital buffer require­ments for banks put in place in the wake of the global fin­ancial crisis.

Indeed, coordination between countries, political and milit­ary alliances, international and non-govern­mental organisations needs to improve and special reserve capacity, specialised assets that remain mostly idle between crises, would need to be created. A public man­date for such capacity will require an open, possibly difficult public debate on the mer­its, and price, of keeping such reserves and capabilities. The price is not only economic: in this debate, the difficult questions of trade-offs between liberty and security are also unavoidable. But—like with earthquake preparedness or financial regulation—where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Jakub Bijak, ESRC Centre for Population Change, University of Southampton, UK

[1] Disney G, Wiśniowski A, Forster JJ, Smith PWF and Bi­jak J (2015) Evaluation of existing migration forecasting methods and models. Report for the Migration Advisory Committee. Southampton: ESRC Centre for Population Change.