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Protecting refugees in Europe and beyond: Can the EU rise to the challenge?

Speeches and statements

Protecting refugees in Europe and beyond: Can the EU rise to the challenge?

6 December 2016
Speech by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the European Policy Centre, Brussels

Mr Van Rompuy,

Ladies and gentlemen,

A year has passed since the peak of what has been called – though I am not sure the terminology is correct – the “European refugee crisis”. A year in which this “crisis” has become a significant factor in key political and electoral processes, in Europe and beyond; and has had a profound impact on how refugee responses are managed globally, and on the policy debate surrounding them.

As a European, I myself grew up as part of a generation that benefited – socially and economically – from the practical application of the values of cooperation between European states. It was a Europe also committed to sharing responsibility for meeting common challenges; a model for the world to come. As I watched the events of last year unfold, I was struck by how much Europe seemed to distance itself from those fundamental values, as solidarity faltered and the responses of European states fragmented.

This has serious implications for refugee protection, in Europe and globally. My aim today – and I am grateful to the European Policy Centre for giving me this opportunity – is to share perspectives on how that fragmentation might be overcome, and confidence restored in Europe's ability to address refugee crises without creating anxiety, fear or rejection among its citizens. These are elaborated in a set of practical proposals that we have shared with EU Member States and the European Commission, and which aim to inform the important discussions currently taking place regarding the future directions of the European Union's refugee policies.

This is not an abstract debate; after the arrival of more than a million people last year, increased EU-Turkey cooperation and the closure of borders along the Balkans route have applied a brake to the flow of arrivals through the Eastern Mediterranean for the time being. But the challenges have by no means passed. The number of people arriving by sea in Italy this October was the highest in a single month for the last four years, and three times the figure for October last year. And deaths at sea in the Mediterranean have reached record levels, getting close to five thousand this year. That number would have been significantly higher had it not been for the search and rescue operations carried out by EU member states, coastguards and merchant ships, volunteers and NGOs.

The arrival of refugees in Europe, alongside migrants on the move, forms just one dimension of a broader global picture of heightened human mobility. Its refugee component is driven by conflict, instability, state failure and severe human rights violations.

We now live in a world in which power, and the power to harm, is more diffuse and dangerous than ever before. The paralysis of the Security Council – not least over Syria – is a significant symptom of an international peacemaking crisis. Long-standing crises in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan have become entrenched, and a long list of major conflicts – including devastating ones in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan – have emerged or reignited in the last five years. We are watching with apprehension developments in fragile states such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We continue to struggle with immediate responses: as a consequence, refugees and countries hosting most of them are left without adequate resources. Funding for international humanitarian assistance in 2015 was the largest amount ever recorded, at USD 28 billion, including USD 6.2 billion from private donors. But the shortfall was also the largest in history – with just 55% of the needs identified by the humanitarian appeals process actually funded.

The arrival of some 500,000 Syrians in Europe – the driving factor and the bulk of last year’s influx – was determined largely by these two causes: one, lack of prospects for a political resolution of the war and two, a dramatic process of impoverishment, including amongst Syrian refugees in the Middle East affected by cuts in the provision of food assistance. Other refugee populations were similarly affected by overstretched humanitarian resources and in some cases, a weakening of hospitality in terms of rights and support. The absence of alternative pathways for some of them to move to Europe and other destinations through regular, managed arrangements resulted in a chaotic and irregular flow of people, for which Europe was manifestly unprepared.

The vast majority of people arriving in 2015 and early 2016 through the Eastern Mediterranean came from the world's top ten refugee-producing countries – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and others. While these movements also included economic migrants, this was predominantly a refugee flow. Today, the profile of those arriving through the Southern Mediterranean route has become more mixed, with a stronger migratory component, calling for a differentiated response for the categories of people arriving. It is nonetheless critical not to lose sight of the strong refugee dimension of the arrivals, and to ensure that Europe's discourse and policy responses reflect this reality.

Events in Europe last year placed the plight of refugees back on the international agenda. As I have repeated many times, this is not, primarily, a European crisis. Of the 65 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, almost two thirds are inside their own countries, and of those that have fled as refugees, 86% remain in developing countries in their own regions.

And this, perhaps, should not be called a crisis at all: one million people arriving in the course of a year is a large number; but it represents just 0.2% of the population of the European Union – a modest proportion when compared, for example, to Lebanon, where one in four people is a refugee. Uganda, a country of 38 million people with a GDP per capita of USD 675, has received on average 3,500 refugees per day for the past three months – that's more than 300,000 people – and has not closed its borders. And European states themselves, in the past, have demonstrated their ability to respond effectively to large-scale refugee movements – including from Hungary in 1956, and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The situation in 2015 was certainly challenging, but not unmanageable. However, measures aimed at forging a collective response, including through relocation, were not implemented to any meaningful degree. This left a small number of states – Greece and Italy, as the receiving countries, and Germany, Sweden and Austria, as the countries which 70% of asylum-seekers spontaneously moved to – bearing a grossly uneven share of the responsibility for addressing the situation. Reception at Europe's borders was haphazard and inadequate, leaving people who had survived traumatic journeys in terrible conditions. Now is the time to draw lessons from that experience – and to chart a new course.

We must be realistic. Conflict and instability – including in Europe's neighbourhood – are sadly set to stay for the time being, as are the broader drivers of migration today. Refugee movements to Europe (as part of mixed migratory flows) will unavoidably continue for the foreseeable future. As such, it is important that responses span the entire spectrum of displacement, from internal displacement, to host and transit countries, to asylum in the EU. Even if greater political and economic investments succeed in bringing about a level of stabilisation at the origin, arrivals in Europe will continue to occur, and therefore responses aimed at ensuring a fair, efficient and humane system for receiving and responding to them have to remain in place and have to be improved.

We must also be principled. The same experiences and values that shaped the European identity and institutions after the Second World War are at the heart of the international refugee protection regime. The 1951 Refugee Convention was adopted to ensure the protection of rights by reconciling the interests of refugees with those of the states and communities receiving them, and in parallel, the right to seek asylum was firmly embedded within the system of human rights that shaped post-war Europe, and was incorporated in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Europe has been one of the key players in the development of international systems for refugee protection, and the European Union and its member states represent the largest humanitarian donor, including to refugees globally. As such, refugee protection is a critical aspect of the identity of post-war Europe and its foundational values – and Europe has played a key role in transmitting and embedding those values at a global level. The failure to implement a humane, organised, collective response to the large-scale arrivals in 2015, and the resort to policies of containment rather than shared responsibility, with even the relevance of the 1951 Convention being called into question by some, has already set a negative example – there is certainly a link between recent policies by industrialised states and more restrictive refugee policies in the developing world.

This situation is already having a concrete impact on how states globally manage refugees. The decision to allocate three billion euros to Turkey, for example, is useful and important in helping Turkey host the biggest current refugee population of any country. But it has also created a complex precedent, raising questions from other governments hosting large numbers of refugees elsewhere.

More directly, the narrowing of access to Europe has coincided with measures restricting entry by Syrians, for example, to neighbouring countries, leaving them displaced and trapped inside Syria as conflict intensifies. As a result, the right to seek asylum is no longer available to the majority of those affected by the largest and most deadly conflict in the world today. We all express horror at daily images of destruction in Aleppo. But for a Syrian trying to flee Aleppo today, the only way out of the country – if this is even possible – is very dangerous and involves large payments, often to criminal networks.

We must also take charge. Mixed migration, by its nature, demands a transnational response. When the responses of governments are fragmented and inconsistent, the management of mixed migratory flows is assumed by smugglers, traffickers and transnational criminal networks.

The impression that governments are not in control – as it indeed appeared to many when the failure to implement a collective, managed response led to scenes of chaos at borders – also leads to a breakdown in trust, and plays into the hands of those who challenge the legitimacy of those governments and seek to turn refugees into scapegoats. It is important that European governments show, through collective action, that they are just as capable of responding effectively to refugee movements as in the past.

A final, all-important consideration, concerns the citizens of the European Union. Scanning social media, listening to the rhetoric of some politicians, analysing electoral results show that it is imperative to demonstrate – much more clearly than we have done so far – that their interests, the interests of the citizens, are being taken into account in the response to refugee arrivals and mixed migratory flows. Many people have genuine concerns about the impact on key aspects of their lives: their safety and security; their economic prosperity and in particular access to jobs; and their own identity and values – perceptions vary significantly, but negativity prevails. These reactions are not new – the same concerns were voiced, for example, regarding refugees from Hungary in 1956. But there is a deepening gap between those who see globalisation as rich in opportunities, and those for whom those opportunities have not been realised. In that context, refugees and migrants have become the flash point around which fear and uncertainty have converged.

It is important that we work together to engage with these concerns, to develop the evidence base to counter those narratives. Research carried out among recently arrived refugees in Germany demonstrated that they share the same values of democracy, freedom, and commitment to gender equality as German citizens. The OECD points out that the medium and long term effects of migration on public finance, economic growth and the labour market are generally positive. Analysis of the impact of last year's refugee arrivals in Sweden showed that they provided a boost to the job market through increased public spending. It is important to actively demonstrate that the measures taken to provide protection to refugees are also designed to address the concerns I have just mentioned – and that the social contract between refugees and the States that host them, which incorporates both rights and obligations, is properly established. Like anyone else, refugees must comply with the laws of their host countries and respect their values.

Of course, there is also a strong countervailing trend in Europe – based on the values of compassion, multiculturalism and human rights that are part of the modern European identity. In my experience, the most powerful advocates for refugees are people who have been directly exposed to them and have shared, even momentarily, the reality of their experiences. This is a powerful force to be nurtured, which has the potential to shape public opinion, and to form a bridge between refugees and communities. I very much welcome President Juncker's announcement of the formation of a European Solidarity Corps, to enable young people across Europe to volunteer their help, including for refugees.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The paper we are launching today is aimed at building a system that works for refugees, governments and the people of Europe. This is not an aspirational vision, but a set of very concrete and pragmatic proposals for cooperation, most of which can be implemented through existing financial resources and without new legislation. Let me highlight a few points that have the potential to make a real difference.

The common element running through all of our proposals is that of solidarity – the principle that drove the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants last September.

Solidarity is indispensable for Europe to move from the short-term tactics of control and rejection to a proper strategy to address refugee flows. This is the core message developed by our paper. Exercised in practical ways, solidarity is based on a genuine commitment to shouldering a common responsibility, and not deflecting that responsibility onto others. This applies both to external solidarity – between the EU and the states outside its borders affected by refugee outflows; and internal solidarity, between EU member states. The two dimensions are not mutually exclusive but must be part of a comprehensive approach to restore European leadership in refugee responses.

First, external solidarity. The European Union is already strongly engaged beyond its borders, including in refugee crises. Globally, however, that engagement must become much more specifically tailored to address the factors driving forced displacement and onward movement. Plans being made to invest large sums for this purpose, in Valletta and subsequent initiatives, could have an enormous impact in preventing and stabilizing refugee flows, but must be more decisively implemented.

Resolving forced displacement is also unavoidably linked to conflict resolution. The European Union has often played an important role in this regard in the past. This role, let me be frank, appears to be in decline, and I would encourage member states to reinforce their efforts in this respect. Targeted investments that help strengthen protection and enable solutions for internally displaced people within their countries can complement conflict resolution initiatives at the political level.

Investment in refugee hosting countries is another critical pillar. There is – finally – an emerging consensus around the key role of substantial and targeted development action in addressing refugee outflows. Thanks to the leadership of the World Bank, this is finally being translated into financial instruments aimed at supporting opportunities for refugees and host communities – with a particular focus on education, jobs and infrastructure. It is crucial that international financial institutions – with the support, encouragement and resources of EU Member States – do more to become predictable and engaged partners.

The EU is already playing an important role – including, for example, through innovative approaches that bundle trade, humanitarian and development support, as in the Jordan Compact that emerged from the London Conference on aid to Syrians in February, but this engagement must be stepped up much faster and further. Other pledges are producing results: primary school enrolment amongst Syrian children in Turkey for example, rose from 37% in September this year to 59% currently. This enhances the prospects for children, but also for their parents, who are less likely to think about moving on. Investments in transit countries – particularly in building asylum systems and strengthening access to protection and opportunities – can also play an important role.

But I would like to offer one word of caution here. Support to host and transit countries should be driven by solidarity, not strict conditionality, and by a commitment to responsibility sharing, in the spirit of the 1951 Convention and the New York Declaration. Caution should be exercised in linking financial aid to other benefits and migration controls. This sets precedents and raises expectations that may not always be met and can ultimately even allow host governments to use population movements as a pressure point or even a threat.

Another key proposal is for a substantial reinforcement and expansion of safe pathways for refugees to move to Europe and other destinations. To provide a sufficiently meaningful alternative to irregular migration routes, and divert refugees from trafficking and smuggling networks, these need to reach a critical mass substantially above current levels.

In particular, we are proposing a robust expansion of the scope of family reunification, and practical measures to make existing programmes more accessible. Increasing opportunities for joining family members through regular channels would avert the need for people to risk unsafe journeys. One very concrete step would be to accord the same rights to family reunification to those granted subsidiary forms of protection as are given to refugees.

We are also calling for a significant expansion of resettlement programmes. Last year, some 81,000 of the most vulnerable refugees were resettled globally to third countries with UNHCR's assistance. This represents fewer than 1% of refugees worldwide and, while it is helpful for those who benefit, it does not yet provide a really meaningful alternative solution. Data related to EU are even less impressive: resettlement averaged 5,700 persons a year between 2011 and 2015 – frankly, an irrelevant figure, just 7% of the global resettlement total, although with recent new commitments by 27 member states, the pace is slowly and hesitantly picking up.

This is why we very much welcome the recent Commission proposal for a European Union Resettlement Framework. This must be scaled up quickly and boldly – in a way that is strategic and responsive to global needs, and sets much more ambitious numerical targets. For 2017, we estimate that 1.2 million refugees will be in need of resettlement globally, of whom 40% are Syrian. To make a real (not a symbolic) impact, resettlement and other forms of humanitarian admission to the EU would need to reach a six-digit figure annually.

We welcome the initiative of some EU Member States to complement resettlement, by making other pathways, including scholarships, available to Syrian refugees – hopefully this can be expanded and made available to refugees of other nationalities, together with private sponsorship programmes and labour mobility opportunities. Managed migration programmes for potential migrants who are not refugees can also play a useful role – in contributing to their countries' development, in providing potential answers to the challenges presented by aging populations in Europe, and having the immediate effect of alleviating the pressure on asylum systems caused by unfounded refugee claims made by migrants in the absence of other options.

Let me turn now to the more controversial issue of internal solidarity. Solidarity within the EU is essential for a revitalised and well-managed common asylum system. It is needed from a protection, security, humanitarian and common sense perspective. But there is no consensus among member states on how to share responsibility for asylum-seekers and refugees within Europe.

Our paper sets out some elements that can help reshape the common asylum system and hopefully move towards an agreement at the political level – drawing on the lessons of 2015 and 2016, and building on the Commission’s proposals currently on the table. The paper is detailed in this respect. Let me give you five quick examples.

First, we are calling for a common registration system – to make sure that all those who arrive are registered using the same system, that people are directed into the right procedures and those in need of protection have access to it quickly. We have seen how trust in asylum systems has been shaken by images of people moving across Europe without proper registration and screening. Our proposal would improve security screening and data sharing between states, and eliminate costly duplication. Registration databases would be directly linked to the case processing system in each member state, to ensure swift access to asylum procedures. Efforts should also be made to develop compatible systems in EU candidate countries, with appropriate data protection safeguards.

Second, we are issuing an urgent call for action with regard to unaccompanied and separated children. Record numbers applied for asylum throughout the EU last year; 24,000 have arrived in Italy by sea already in 2016. Most have been exposed to appalling risks – separated from their families, detained, exposed to sexual violence, exploitation, trafficking and severe physical and psychological harm.

Later this week, I will be hosting a high level dialogue on “children on the move” in Geneva. We have consulted widely to develop a roadmap to inform better practice, and a number of initiatives are already being undertaken by the EU and Member States. We do not need new guidelines, new legal frameworks, but to come together and secure concrete results.

Children need to be treated as children first. We must end the detention of children. It is never acceptable. We must move away from the immediate channeling of children into asylum systems. Instead, we must ensure a common age assessment methodology across Europe and that children have immediate access to a guardian to help them find a solution that is in their best interest. Then, the right decisions can be made about family tracing, about whether an asylum application should be made and how to ensure that the child is protected and adequately supported.

Third, our proposals include practical suggestions with regard to relocation – the mechanism for distributing responsibility for asylum seekers that the European Commission has proposed, based on experience with schemes established last year. The numbers relocated remain unacceptably low, but the pace of implementation has been picking up and the ideas underlying relocation are good. Getting relocation to work efficiently and at scale will be a central component of solidarity in action.

We believe that the key is a rational system that incorporates clear incentives for Member States and asylum-seekers to comply. We know – for example – that asylum-seekers often move on to join family members, so why not facilitate family reunion at the earliest possible stage – thereby minimising the incentive for irregular movement? For asylum seekers with manifestly unfounded claims, why not apply an accelerated procedure for return, rather than complicating matters by distributing them to another member state? And we have also made a number of concrete suggestions to speed up and simplify the procedures for asylum determination, and to facilitate return for those who are found not to be in need of international protection – an important element of a well-functioning asylum system.

Fourth, we are also urging Europe to invest in preparing for new influxes. While the events of 2015 were certainly exceptional, significant surges in the arrivals of refugees and migrants will certainly feature in the months and years ahead, and it is critical that the scenes of 2015 are not repeated. It is essential that early warning mechanisms, contingency plans, clear coordination structures and standby capacities are established. The civil protection agencies of EU member states have experience and expertise in preparing and responding to emergencies that can be brought to bear. UNHCR stands ready to provide support.

Fifth, we are urging substantial, early investment in integration programmes, including through a mandatory requirement that 30% of the financial support provided through the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund is used for this purpose by Member States on an annual basis. The current system, in which some states do not spend one euro on integration, fosters secondary movements and generates huge disparities. Evidence demonstrates the importance of access to the labour market in facilitating integration and avoiding the creation of an underclass, which contributes to social divisions, intolerance and xenophobia. Under our proposal, targeted investments would be made in employment, housing and language training, and refugee skills and qualifications would be recognised.

Integration is an opportunity, for both refugees and the communities in which they settle, and there are many powerful examples of positive initiatives  the engagement of volunteers who give language courses, clothes, toys, food and shelter; the role of the private sector in providing jobs, shaping policies and influencing perceptions; and the involvement of influential sectors of society such as football teams in promoting positive attitudes in hard-to-reach constituencies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is indeed a complex moment in Europe's history. On the refugee front, we need prompt and robust action to avert a 'race to the bottom' in which some countries renounce a common approach, believing that only national solutions can work. This does not solve the problem. It generates restrictive measures, hate speech and a drive to deflect refugees to other Member States through hostility and deterrent measures. If Europe does not rise to the challenge of collectively managing mixed flows of refugees and migrants, through both external engagement and internal measures, this will almost certainly lead to more fences, the re-establishment of internal border controls, the end of Schengen and the abolition of one of the European Union's four fundamental freedoms.

Instead – I believe – Europe must lead responses; starting from displacement in conflict, to support to host countries, to an asylum system based on practical and innovative measures that work for refugees, communities in Europe and Member States. History has demonstrated that Europe is stronger when it addresses its challenges together. This is the moment for a new vision for Europe's collective engagement with refugees – drawing on its history of tolerance, openness, and based on protection principles, but also on a pragmatic and practical approach to addressing refugee flows.

Thank you.