Saving refugees to save Europe

NEW YORK • The refugee crisis was already pushing the European Union towards disintegration when, on June 23, it helped drive the British to vote to leave the EU. The refugee crisis and the Brexit calamity it spawned have reinforced xenophobic, nationalist movements that will seek to win some upcoming votes - including national elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany next year, a referendum in Hungary on EU refugee policy on Oct 2 and a rerun of the Austrian presidential election on the same day.

Rather than uniting to resist this threat, EU member states have become increasingly unwilling to cooperate with one another. They pursue self-serving, beggar-thy-neighbour migration policies - such as building border fences - that further fragment the union, seriously damage member states and subvert global human rights standards.

The current piecemeal response to the crisis - culminating in the agreement reached earlier this year between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of refugees from the Eastern Mediterranean - suffers from four fundamental flaws.

First, it is not truly European: The agreement with Turkey was negotiated and imposed on Europe by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Second, it is severely underfunded. Third, it has transformed Greece into a de facto holding pen with inadequate facilities.

Most important, the response is not voluntary. The EU is trying to impose quotas that many member states strenuously oppose, forcing refugees to take up residence in countries where they are not welcome and do not want to go, and returning to Turkey others who reached Europe by irregular means.

This is unfortunate because the EU cannot survive without a comprehensive asylum and migration policy. The current crisis is not a one-off event. It augurs a period of higher migration pressures for the foreseeable future because of a variety of factors. These include demographic shortfalls in Europe and a population explosion in Africa, seemingly eternal political and military conflicts in the broader region, and climate change.

The agreement with Turkey was problematic from its inception. The very premise of the deal - that asylum-seekers can legally be returned to Turkey - is fundamentally flawed. Turkey is not a "safe third country" for most Syrian asylum-seekers, especially since the failed coup in July.

What would a comprehensive approach look like? Whatever its final form, it would be built on seven pillars.

First, the EU must take in a substantial number of refugees directly from frontline countries in a secure and orderly manner. This would be far more acceptable to the public than the current disorder. If the EU made a commitment to admit even a mere 300,000 refugees annually, most genuine asylum-seekers would view their odds of reaching their destination as good enough to deter them from seeking to reach Europe illegally - an effort that would disqualify them from legal admission.

Second, the EU must regain control of its borders. There is little that alienates and scares people more than scenes of chaos.

Third, the EU needs to find sufficient funds to finance a comprehensive migration policy. It is estimated that at least €30 billion (S$46 billion) a year would be needed for a number of years, and the benefits of "surge funding" (spending a large amount of money upfront, rather than the same amount over several years) are enormous.

Fourth, the EU must build common mechanisms for protecting borders, determining asylum claims and relocating refugees. A single European asylum process would remove the incentives for asylum shopping and rebuild trust among member states.

Fifth, a voluntary matching mechanism for relocating refugees is needed. The EU cannot coerce member states to accept refugees they do not want, or refugees to go where they are not wanted. A scheme like the one used by Canada could elicit and match the preferences of both refugees and receiving communities.

Sixth, the EU must offer far greater support to countries that host refugees, and it must be more generous in its approach to Africa. Instead of using development funds to serve its own needs, the EU should offer a genuine grand bargain focused on the needs of recipient countries. This means creating jobs in refugees' home countries, which would reduce the pressure to migrate to Europe.

The final pillar is the eventual creation of a welcoming environment for economic migrants. Given Europe's ageing population, the benefits that migration brings far outweigh the costs of integrating immigrants. All the evidence supports the conclusion that migrants can contribute significantly to innovation and development if they are given a chance to do so.

Pursuing these seven principles is essential in order to calm public fears, reduce chaotic flows of asylum-seekers, ensure that newcomers are fully integrated, establish mutually beneficial relations with countries in the Middle East and Africa, and meet Europe's international humanitarian obligations.

The refugee crisis is not the only crisis that Europe has to face, but it is the most pressing. And if significant progress could be made on the refugee issue, it would make the other issues - from the continuing Greek debt crisis to the fallout from Brexit to the challenge posed by Russia - easier to tackle.

All the pieces need to fit together, and the chances of success remain slim. But as long as there is a strategy that might succeed, everyone who wants the EU to survive should rally behind it.


  • The writer, chairman of Soros Fund Management and of the Open Society Foundations, is the author of The Tragedy Of The European Union: Disintegration Or Revival?
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2016, with the headline 'Saving refugees to save Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe