EARLY IN September, a picture of a three-year-old boy who had drowned off Turkey’s coast while fleeing from Syria spread alarm on social media, and consequently brought the European Union (EU) migrant crisis into the global spotlight. In the past few months, hundreds of thousands have been risking their lives to seek refuge in EU nations. Facing the largest movement of people it has seen since 1945, Europe is now struggling to deal with the implications of this movement in a unified manner.
What has been happening?
The number of migrants seeking refuge in Europe is growing at an astounding speed. While 280,000 migrants were detected at EU’s borders for the whole of 2014, from January to August of this year, more than 350,000 migrants were identified. In fact, the actual number of migrants is estimated to be larger than 350,000, since many migrants reached the borders in secrecy. Of the 350,000 individuals who were detected, more than 230,000 arrived in Greece and nearly 115,000 arrived in Italy.
A portion of the migrants come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Iraq. However, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 58% of irregular migrants who crossed into Europe by sea in the first six months of 2015 came from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. In all three countries, civilians are facing various conflicts and issues such as poverty, persecution, and war. To leave behind such problems, migrants from these countries have attempted to enter EU nations.
To provide refuge for these migrants, the EU exercises a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), which is intended to ensure that the rights of refugees in members states are protected under international law. This system sets out guidelines on how asylum applications should be addressed and how asylum seekers should be treated. According to this system, those who can convince authorities that they would face harm or even death if sent back to their country are granted asylum, and thereby receive refugee status. These individuals are granted the fullest extent of protection, and are able to get a job and eventually, citizenship. Asylum seekers who need international protection, but do not qualify as refugees can still receive subsidiary protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
According to Eurostate, in 2014, 626,715 people applied for asylum, and more than 160,000 were granted protection status while an additional 23,000 received protection status after appealing. Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans made up the largest portions of those who gained protection status. Furthermore, in 2014, Germany approved the highest number of asylum decisions, followed by Sweden, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. One major factor for Germany’s high approval rate of asylum applications is its low birthrate and shortage of skilled workers within the nation. As Eric Schweitzer, president of the Association of Germany Chambers of Industry and Commerce, stated to Newsweek, “Many companies are desperate to find trainees and qualified staff, while some refugees have qualifications that are dearly needed.”
Getting to the root of the crisis
The main causes of the migrant crisis lie in the countries from which the migrants are fleeing. According to the United Nations (UN), 75% of the total refugees hail from countries in the midst of armed conflict or humanitarian crises. In particular, Syrians make up the greatest portion of the migrants traveling to reach EU nations because of the country’s brutal civil war. In March 2011, pro-democracy, anti-government demonstrations erupted in Syria. As the government acted forcefully to quell these demonstrations, it simply exacerbated the conflict by hardening the protestors’ resolve. Rebel forces did not weaken, and battled government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside, leading Syria to descend into civil war. As a result of the conflict, Syria has faced and is currently facing various problems. As of March 2015, 220,000 people were killed by the conflict, and now, one in five Syrians are living in poverty.
Similarly, conflicts in other nations have been motivating individuals in those nations to flee in hopes of a better life. Other than Syrians, Afghans also make up a significant portion of the refugee population. In Afghanistan, local affiliates of extremist groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are organizing uprisings. Caught in the middle of these outbreaks, civilians are at continuous risk from bomb attacks. Some civilians have even been specifically targeted and threatened by these extremists.
Additionally, many families in Eritrea have fled their country in order to escape its dictatorship. Eritrea is a country with no constitution, court system, elections or free press, in which civilians are mistreated and exploited. According to a report released by the UN in June 2015, in Eritrea, “violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labor may constitute crimes against humanity.”
Lack of a unified solution
Since this crisis involves the EU, which consists of 28 member nations, leaders of the EU are highly divided on how to respond to the crisis. While countries such as Germany have been more welcoming to refugees, other countries such as Hungary have implemented more restrictive measures. For instance, according to new laws, anyone who crosses the border illegally will face criminal charges, and anyone who damages the newly-built fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia can be deported or sentenced to three years in prison. In response to this lack of unification, UNHCR has expressed concern. In a news release, the agency revealed that “individual measures taken by countries will make an already chaotic situation worse, furthering suffering and increasing tensions among States at a time when Europe needs solidarity.” In particular, the agency voiced concern about Hungary’s restrictive measures. According to UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres, “States should manage their borders in a way that is consistent with international law and EU Law, including guaranteeing the right to seek asylum.”
To ameliorate this crisis and work towards unity, EU leaders can take various measures. To start with, the EU could revise the controvesial Dublin Regulation, which requires EU countries where a migrant first arrives to process the migrant’s asylum claim. Under this system, in 2014, just five EU states handled 72% of all asylum applications. Furthermore, EU countries could tackle the root of this migration crisis by providing aid to countries from which individuals are fleeing. For instance, according to BBC, more targeted EU aid in sub-Saharan Africa could create local jobs and reduce the flow of economic migrants.
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The EU migrant crisis is difficult to deal with because the individuals migrating to EU come from various countries dealing with long-lasting problems and conflicts. Futhermore, these individuals are traveling to various EU nations that each have different methods of coping with the influx of migrants. While some nations are more lenient and willing to accept foreigners, others seem to have more stringent policies. To fully resolve this crisis, EU nations must unite, and look for ways to eventually tackle the underlying conflicts of the crisis.