The Migrant Crisis in Europe is America’s Problem Too


Germans prepare to welcome refugees in September, 2015, from Flickr user Franz Ferdinand Photography.

The refugee and migrant crisis in Europe is a human tragedy borne out of civil wars in the Middle East and institutional failures in the West. It is also turning into a political nightmare, as nationalists throughout Europe exploit fear of refugees to undermine the European Union and attack the values of liberal democracy it represents.

Alarmingly, their strategy seems to be working. For the past year, Europe has been divided and paralyzed by the humanitarian crisis on its shores. Confidence in the EU has fallen, while the appeal of populism has grown.

At a time when the continent faces a host of serious challenges – including Russia’s aggressive policies in the East, a debt crisis, and the prospect of Brexit – Europe cannot continue on this path without jeopardizing its future. It is time for the EU to show the world it can act, compassionately but decisively, to bring this crisis under control. And it is time for the United States to step up and assist.

EU leaders took an important first step in March when they reached an agreement with Turkey to prevent so-called irregular migration and establish a process for refugee resettlement. By drastically reducing the number of dangerous crossings from Turkey into Greece, from more than 57,000 in February to less than 4,000 in April, the agreement has already dealt a blow to the smuggling rings and helped to alleviate some human suffering in the Aegean.

Many observers, including respected human rights groups and relief organizations, have raised legitimate concerns about how migrants will be treated and whether human rights will be upheld under this agreement. These questions need to be answered, but critics must also acknowledge that an imperfect agreement is better than an unsustainable status quo. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and support for this agreement should not overshadow our concerns about the state of democracy in Turkey. 

If the EU-Turkey deal ends the chaos at Europe’s borders and improves the lives of refugees in the region, it could go a long way towards restoring trust in the EU and dampening the appeal of xenophobic politicians. Still, for that to happen, the agreement must be properly implemented, in accordance with international law, and it must be embedded in a broader, global response. 

At a recent meeting of the Aspen Ministers Forum in Oslo, a group of former Foreign Ministers held a series of consultations on migration issues with experts and policy officials. We identified a mix of practical, short-term steps and longer-term initiatives that could help us emerge from this crisis.

First, we must work to improve the situation on the Greek Islands. In recent weeks, as a result of the EU-Turkey deal, the number of new arrivals from Turkey has fallen dramatically, but there are still more than 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers residing on the islands – many of them in detention centers. 

By every indication, neither the Greek government nor the EU has provided the necessary resources to ensure that asylum claims are resolved fairly and efficiently. This must change. The European Stability Initiative has suggested that a surge of at least 300 case workers would be sufficient to work through the backlog in two months.  These case workers need to be put in place as soon as possible under a genuinely European, EU-led asylum support mission. This problem must not be left to Greece alone, which would suffer the most from a failure of the EU-Turkey agreement but has far too few staff to cope, something that has become painfully obvious in the past two months.

As fewer migrants and asylum seekers cross the Aegean, European governments may feel less pressure to implement other aspects of the agreement.   Already, the EU is backing away from implementing visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. That would be a short-sighted mistake. The EU must also uphold its commitment to undertake a large-scale resettlement from Turkey under a voluntary humanitarian admission scheme. Resettling between 150,000 and 250,000 refugees is easily achievable if more European countries agree to participate. 

Resettlement will help ensure a more equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees, the vast majority of whom still reside in poor nations. It will not, of course, resolve the underlying crisis. Many, though not all, of the refugees originate in Syria, where civilians have borne the brunt of attacks by both the Assad regime and Daesh. As long as those players are on the stage, Syria will continue to hemorrhage human beings.

Still, a successful resettlement effort can also show Europeans, and the world, that it is possible to act with compassion while at the same time exerting control over one’s borders. It would undercut the claims of the demagogues and the populists, and it would set an example that other wealthy nations would hopefully follow – including the United States. 

The United States needs to recognize that its interests are deeply affected by this crisis, and act accordingly. What is at stake is not only the stability of the Middle East, but the unity and strength of its most important partners in Europe.  In order to protect its own global interests, the United States needs to shift from being an observer to being a problem-solver in Europe, and it must admit far more than the 10,000 Syrians it has committed to resettling. The United States cannot lecture Europe from afar without doing more to alleviate the problem.

Meanwhile, even as the EU-Turkey agreement is implemented, there must be a parallel effort to address the institutional shortcomings in humanitarian assistance laid bare by this global crisis. Because even though it is an emergency, it is also a challenge that will remain with us for a long time.

While there are a multitude of world-class NGOs doing extraordinary work in the field, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be lauded for its efforts, humanitarian relief efforts are still too ad-hoc, too focused on the short-term, and too underfunded.

In recent months, a consortium of top relief organizations outlined a comprehensive set of recommendations to overhaul the global humanitarian system – emphasizing new mechanisms for financing, better integrating emergency response with longer-term development, and an increased role for the private sector. The purpose is not only to secure more humanitarian aid, but to ensure we have better forms of assistance that are used more strategically.

Building on discussions at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, these proposals and others should get a full airing at September’s UN General Assembly meeting, where the UN Secretary General and President Obama are hosting a series of high-level meetings on refugees and migration.

The public discourse on refugees in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere has been dominated by xenophobia. It is time for responsible leaders in every country to stand up against this fear-mongering, and show that our commitment to liberal values need not come at the expense of our security. The coming months could be make or break for Europe and the United States. We cannot afford to fail.

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Edition: May/June 2016
Filed Under: Global Affairs, refugees, Europe