As the death toll mounts in the Eastern Mediterranean, with stormy seas claiming the lives of at least 70 refugees in the last week of October, many of them children, the EU’s slow and fragmented response to the refugee crisis is looking increasingly ineffectual.
Months of summits and action plans have still not provided refugees with an alternative to putting their children in flimsy boats and handing over large sums of money to smugglers.
In a speech on Friday, following a series of fatal shipwrecks in the Aegean, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told his parliament he felt “shamed as a member of this European leadership, both for the inability of Europe in dealing with this human drama, and for the level of debate at a senior level, where one is passing the buck to the other.”
The EU plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states was supposed to relieve pressure on frontline states and restore some order to the registration of asylum seekers, but so far it has only increased the chaos on the island of Lesvos – the only official “hotspot” in Greece where people can be fingerprinted and registered for the scheme.
Beyond the failure to properly manage its implementation – thereby creating additional humanitarian needs – the relocation plan has also done nothing to save lives. To claim asylum in Europe, refugees must still rely on smugglers to get them to Greece or Italy, exposing themselves to dangers before and during the crossing. Prior to boarding boats on the coasts of Turkey or Libya, refugees and migrants are often threatened, robbed and extorted, while the crossing itself is a harrowing experience with too many people crammed into rubber dinghies and rickety wooden boats that cannot withstand winter sea conditions.
By forcing refugees to reach Greece or Italy before they can register asylum claims, the EU has greatly increased demand for smugglers and boosted their profits.
Alternative solutions that would protect lives and dignity do exist:
1. Register asylum seekers in Turkey and transfer them directly to asylum countries in the EU
This would require the EU to work with Turkey on setting up reception and registration centres. However, it is not one of the elements of a cooperation plan on irregular migration that Europe has been negotiating with Ankara. That plan instead focuses on boosting aid to Turkey In return for its cooperation in intercepting boats and cracking down on smuggling networks.
2. Open the official border crossings between Greece and Turkey for asylum seekers
This would involve registering asylum seekers at Greece’s land border with Turkey in Evros, where there are two official crossing points. Greek and Turkish authorities would need to cooperate on the building of infrastructure to receive and accommodate large numbers of people as well as organising their transportation to the next border, with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, around 500 kilometres west. The border fence could be retained to discourage people from crossing at dangerous points, such as where the Evros River floods in the winter or where there may still be minefields.
3. Make it easier for asylum seekers to apply for European visas in neighbouring countries
More asylum seekers could be allowed to apply for humanitarian or family reunion visas or even asylum at European embassies and consulates. Syrians should be able to access visas at embassies in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, while Afghans should have the option of applying from Iran. Such actions have been taken in the past with the involvement of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, for example to facilitate the movement of Indochina refugees in the 1970s.
4. Admit so-called economic migrants to the EU according to a points system
EU member states could set yearly migration targets worked out on the basis of their need for particular skills. Potential migrants would then apply and be granted work visas according to how many points their skills are “worth”. Various countries including Australia, Canada, and the UK already use such systems.
5. Significantly boost the humanitarian response
Until alternative solutions can be implemented, the EU needs to find ways to better manage the movement of migrants and refugees into and through Europe if it is to avoid an inevitable loss of life on European soil over the coming winter.
Greece needs support to beef up its health and emergency relief services, coast guards, police and asylum processing capacities. The current efforts of NGOs, volunteers, and UN agencies are simply not enough to respond adequately to the enormous and growing needs of the arriving refugees. National authorities must coordinate with the EU and international agencies to come up with response plans. The needs of host communities in places like Lesvos, which have depleted resources because of Greece’s economic disaster and face considerable trauma due to the refugee crisis, also need to be taken into account.