Wed

Jul

1508:40

Refugees: “Exploiting a grey area”

 
There are now more people displaced by war and conflict than at any time since World War II. Refugee researcher Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen argues that instead of trying to restrict migration flows, we should introduce a new global refugee programme

“We have the most displaced people in over sixty years, but contrary to public perception Europe only receives a small fraction of the world’s refugees,” says Gammeltoft-Hansen, Research Director at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

“Right now Denmark and other EU countries are employing the ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ policy and simply improving their own nation’s economy at the cost of others.”

Gammeltoft-Hansen has been contributing to the academic debate on refugees and asylum seekers for more than a decade. Along with advising a number of national authorities and international organisations, he has been interviewed by the likes of The New York Times, The Huffington Post and a range of other media outlets for his insight on the growing crisis.

“In a way, we have to respect the current political situation – if there were an easy solution, they would’ve found it,” he explains. “Right now, the situation in Denmark is dictated by a number of factors, of which economic concerns and a general fear of globalisation are among the strongest. It’s hard for many to see refugees as a part of our society because we’re so far removed from the situation. But we have to remember that they’re real people and not just images in the media.”

While the strict immigration policies in Denmark are designed to maintain social cohesion, Gammeltoft-Hansen believes they could prove problematic for Denmark in the future.

“The political discussion is very much framed in an introspective way, with governments asking themselves, ‘how will this affect us now?’ But diverting most refugees to other nations doesn’t solve the problem, particularly if they aren’t equipped to take them. Without proper support, these countries will buckle under pressure and will then push even more refugees towards Europe – we can either address the problem now or wait for the crisis to worsen.”

Global distribution problem
As a liberal nation with a strong economy, Denmark should be leading by example, argues Gammeltoft-Hansen. But this unwillingness to take in and distribute responsibility for refugees stretches across Europe, and is absolutely dire.

“In terms of capacity, we have a small resettlement quota, and Denmark is taking its share – but we could take a lot more. From a distribution perspective, just look at Lebanon. They have a population about of 4.8 million and a smaller landmass than Denmark – and they’ve taken in more than 1.5 million refugees.”

Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Northern Iraq have taken in more than three million Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Meanwhile, under 150,000 Syrians have declared asylum in the European Union.

Bulgaria – one of the main access channels to Europe – has also been under immense pressure for some time. But since it is the poorest country in the European Union, Gammeltoft-Hansen is concerned that its asylum system won’t be able to sustain the rapid flow of asylum seekers, and others will eventually have to step in.

“Many of these nations on the front line in Southern Europe may crack under pressure if we can’t effectively reroute the flow,” he explained. “The situation in Italy is getting worse every day.”

The growing number of people risking their lives on the Mediterranean has captured media attention this year, particularly after the drowning of over 1,700 migrants in April alone. The dangerous Mediterranean route has always been used by human smugglers, but its increasing popularity has less to do with calm seas and more to do with a lack of other options.

“We’re now in a real crisis, with conflicts raging in many parts of the world. The capacity in the regions of origins is simply maxed out,” he explained. “To get to Europe, refugees used to go through Turkey and Greece, and before that the Canary Islands in Western Africa, but sea patrol and security have been slowly beefed up.”

“If you stop the flow in a number of places, of course the pressure will mount somewhere else – the Mediterranean is a particularly dangerous route, but it’s virtually the only one left from Africa,” he added.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 38 European countries recorded 264,000 asylum applications in 2014, an increase of 24 percent compared to the same period in 2013. Even so, these figures don’t account for all those arriving undetected or residing in Europe illegally.

Germany continues to receive the largest number of asylum applications, followed by France, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom, the agency reports.

Although many nations in Europe may formally meet their legal requirements for accepting refugees, Gammeltoft-Hansen says the issue of human rights with respect to immigration remains charged.

“States are increasingly trying to exploit the gaps and grey areas in the respect to refugee and human rights. The most recent amendment to the Danish Asylum and Immigration Act provides many Syrian refugees with a lower class of protection and no family reunification during the first year. The latter is possible because family reunification is a different legal regime, not explicitly addressed to refugees. But these people need protection just as much as their spouses who made it here already. So the law is clearly intended to deter refugees from arriving in Denmark, hoping that they will apply somewhere else instead.”

New models for Europe
Gammeltoft-Hansen says the only way forward is the development of new strategic alternatives to relieve the pressure on irregular migration and create a more equal distribution of refugees.

“If countries that can sustainably support more refugees adopt even harsher measures, it will only create a downward spiral,” he explains. “The most sustainable solution is going to be a cross-regional system.”

Such a regime should include access to safer migration channels, along with more clearly-defined commitments to provide both economic assistance and resettlement quotas, he argues. But for such a regime to work, the majority of Europe will need to opt in.

“If we want developing countries to continue to shoulder the vast majority of the world’s refugees, we need to show both economic and political solidarity. Countries like Lebanon and Jordan not only need funding, but also a helping hand in terms of resettling the smaller portion of refugees who will not be able to find protection in these countries. We also need to send a strong signal that we are not simply abandoning the Refugee Convention in Europe.”

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By Lesley Price

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