Ana Maria Luca

When a lot is not enough

The European Union has donated billions for the Syrian crisis, but its migration policy is still criticized

Some 500 Syrian would be immigrants arrive aboard the Ezadeen ship at Corigliano harbour on January 2, 2015. (AFP/Alfonso di Vincenzo)

In early February, over 300 people died in the Mediterranean Sea’s freezing waters, trying to make their way to Italy from North Africa. Some of them came from Sub-Saharan Africa; many were Syrians chased away by the civil war and poor conditions for war refugees in neighboring states.


In the wake of the tragedy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sent a letter to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, with the aim of pushing for a new plan on the redistribution of asylum seekers and refugees from the EU’s southern countries to the rest of Europe. “UNHCR is proposing a pilot project for the relocation of Syrian refugees who are rescued at sea in Greece and Italy to different countries across Europe, based on a fair distribution system,” a UNHCR press release reads.


Also in the wake of the tragedy, the latest of many in recent years, the EU ministers of justice and foreign affairs were set to meet in July to discuss a proposal to set up offshore asylum claims to centers in northern Africa. The proposal was made by Italy, as the country that deals most with shipwrecks and rescue operations. Until recently, Italy was investing $10.2 million per month in its Mare Nostrum search and rescue program. Mare Nostrum has been replaced with an EU effort called Triton, coordinated by Frontext, the EU border agency, because other EU states refused to help Italy financially. Triton, however, is a much smaller program—it costs only $ 4.2 million a month and does not operate in international waters.


The proposal was discussed on Monday, 16 March, at a meeting of foreign affairs ministers in Brussels. The meeting ended with a decision to set another meeting.


How much is the EU really doing to manage the Syrian crisis? Critics say too little, while EU officials say the EU is doing a great deal given political circumstances. Human rights activists who work with Syrian refugees say they sometimes have no choice but risk their lives.



When paperwork fails, they choose the sea


It is those who are not registered with the United Nations who risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean. Nabil Halabi, a Lebanese lawyer and activist who has been working with Syrian refugees since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, says that many have no choice.


“Most Syrians ask for asylum in Europe through the UNHCR. They know that some countries in the EU, such as Germany, Austria and Sweden, have shown willingness to accept asylum seekers,” Halabi told NOW. “But it is the UNHCR who decides who is eligible for asylum,” he said, adding that many Syrians question the professionalism of the process. “They are not giving priority to people who really are in danger. As human rights groups working on such issues, we noticed that some people who are in desperate need of asylum were simply not chosen.”


Under such conditions, many Syrians choose to pay smugglers to take them illegally from Turkey to Greece or from Egypt and Libya to Italy. “These are people who are registered by UNHCR and have no choice. Moreover, the EU countries ask only for, let’s say, 5,000 refugees but we have millions. What can they do?” Most refugees aim, indeed, for Sweden and Germany, Halabi explains, because they “choose countries where their rights are more likely to be safe.”



Who receives how many?


Critics of the EU’s policy towards the Syrian crisis are many. Amnesty International (AI) has been criticizing the EU for years, accusing Brussels of failing the plight of Syrian refugees. According to an AI report released at the end of last year, Germany had pledged 30,000 places for Syrian refugees through its humanitarian admission program—nearly half the global total of resettlement for Syrian refugees and 82% of the EU total. Germany and Sweden together received 96,500 new Syrian asylum applications between 2011 and 2014—64% of all such applications in the EU. “Excluding Germany and Sweden, the remaining 26 EU countries have pledged a mere 5,105 resettlement places, or 0.13%, of Syrian refugees in the main host countries,” the report stated.


According to UNHCR, several countries raised their humanitarian asylum quotas for 2015 in order to accommodate more refugees. Among those countries was Finland, which raised the number from 750 to 1,050.



Help the region help itself


But the European Union’s response to the crisis in the area, especially in Syria, goes further than just the problem of the asylum seekers and the Mediterranean, officials say. EU officials argue that the sum of money the bloc has allocated to managing the crisis in Syria and the refugee problem are not at all negligible. One just has to look elsewhere.


In recent years the EU has signed protocols of cooperation with several countries in the region, including Lebanon and Jordan, allowing them access to programs and agencies in Brussels in order to develop infrastructure as well as access to technical support and governance assistance within the European Neighborhood Policy.


Angelina Eichhorst the head of the European Commission Delegation in Lebanon, told NOW the EU delegation in Lebanon itself has 320 ongoing operations with expenses totaling EUR 530 million. In December 2014, the EU and Lebanon launched the Dialogue on Migration, Mobility and Security, a framework that organizes and facilitates legal migration and mobility, and prevents and reduces illegal migration and human trafficking. 


“Today, the member states within the EU have their own set agreement on what the maximum they can do for the refugees is,” explained Eichhorst. “We have agreed on that with UNHCR, we are talking about 100,000 people across the EU, maybe a little more. Countries have taken emergency cases and a number of countries—Germany and Sweden—have increased the number of people. But this is the political reality today and we have to work with that reality.” Eichhorst also says that the EU can assist the government in Lebanon, which hosts the highest number of refugees, in dealing with these matters “to give every refugee protection and assistance according to transparent criteria.”



A big humanitarian donor


Ramona Manescu, member of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee and vice-chair of the Delegation for relations with the Mashreq countries, told NOW that there is a mistaken perception in the Middle East that Europe is afraid of receiving refugees in general, and Syrian refugees in particular. “I don’t think it’s true. From the beginning of the war in Syria, the EU paid EUR 3.35 billion. The EU is among the biggest donors of humanitarian aid. But maybe that is not so visible because we don’t have direct mechanisms to intervene and provide humanitarian aid and services related to humanitarian aid. We’re donating through the United Nations. On the ground, people see the UN agencies. But they receive money from the EU.”


Manescu says that EU has allocated a total of $1 billion for the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis in 2015. “This is only humanitarian aid. We haven’t yet counted the money [the EU could offer] for reconstruction. It obviously shows that we’re not reluctant, we are not afraid; we want to settle refugees in Europe and we are doing it.” 


According to the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection – European Commission, the EU and its member states are collectively leading the international response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. More than EUR 3.35 billion has been mobilized for relief and recovery assistance to Syrians in their country and to refugees and their host communities in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.



Two foreign policy views and a possible shift


On 4 March, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn launched an idea paper on the EU strategy towards its neighbors in the east and south, and in April announced consultations between the EU bloc and the southern neighborhood in Barcelona. The eastern Neighborhood consultation will take place in Riga, in May, followed by a new strategy in Fall 2015. The EU "needs to move from an approach very much based on the evaluation of progress to a more political approach," said Mogherini.


Manescu says she supports the initiative, citing two main positions at the EU level towards the Syrian crisis. One—the position of NGOs and EU member states, press, analysts and the UN—is that there is a need to focus on humanitarian aid and accept more refugees into Europe. “We are involved in humanitarian aid; we encourage the member states to receive refugees. The member states that receive refugees also receive some aid from the EU to be able to deal with the matter,” she told NOW.


“There is a second position, also expressed by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, that we should be focused more on restoring peace, on enforcing sanctions. And I do agree with this. We need to focus on this aspect, to help Syria to recover and be a home for the millions of refugees again.”


Manescu recently visited Lebanon and Jordan to assess the humanitarian crisis and what exactly the EU can do. She said that it was obvious that most Syrian refugees don’t want to leave the region and need humanitarian aid to be delivered in the host countries. “They want to stay in the region because they believe and hope that they might be able to go back home one day.”


Ana Maria Luca Tweets @aml1609.

Some 500 Syrian would be immigrants arrive aboard the Ezadeen ship at Corigliano harbour on January 2, 2015. (AFP/Alfonso di Vincenzo)

From the beginning of the war in Syria, the EU paid EUR 3.35 billion. Then EU is among the biggest donors of humanitarian aid. But maybe that is not so visible because we don’t have direct mechanisms to intervene and provide humanitarian aid and services related to humanitarian aid. We’re donating through the United Nations. On the ground, people see the UN agencies. But they receive money from the EU.”

  • FredTheBarber

    Why don't they go to Saudi Arabia?

    September 24, 2015