The UN has drawn up radical plans for an “orderly relocation” of thousands of Syrian refugees from southern Europe to richer countries in the north, and is pressing the EU to agree to a year-long pilot programme.
On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, and with ever greater numbers of refugees arriving in southern European countries, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has approached senior EU figures to get backing for its pilot programme.
The proposal, outlined in a letter to the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the commissioner for home affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, is a radical departure from current EU policy, which forces asylum seekers to apply for asylum in their first country of entry, under legislation known as the Dublin law.
The director of the UNHCR’s Europe bureau, Vincent Cochetel, told the Guardian that new approaches, which could be achieved within the existing Dublin framework, were urgently needed: “We are concerned that when the boat arrivals resume on a large scale in April, not all the lessons learned from last year have been drawn by EU member states,” Cochetel said.
“More than two-thirds of those disembarked in Italy moved on without fingerprinting or proper identification,” he added. “At a time of increased security concerns over movements from Libya, this situation is abnormal. Not all those saying that they are Syrians or Palestinians are Syrians or Palestinians. And not all of them are refugees.”
The Syrian conflict has exacerbated a refugee crisis in north Africa and the Middle East. More than 3 million people are estimated to have fled the country in the past four years, and although the vast majority have remained in neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – thousands have tried to make the perilous journey to Europe.
Most of those who survive the Mediterranean crossing – and more than 3,000 died last year – end up in Italy and Greece. More than 42,000 Syrians ended up in Italy in 2014 alone. EU rules mean migrants should apply for asylum in their country of arrival. But only a tiny minority do. In practice, many migrants simply slip through the net and move, vulnerably, around Europe.
Cochetel said the huge numbers of Syrians who chose to move irregularly across Europe could be reduced if people were allowed to legally travel onwards to join family or move to countries where they have language skills or work opportunities.
“We need to convince them that it is better to go legally, that there is an alternative to months of suffering,” he said. “When I see a Syrian arrive in Italy who has relatives in the Netherlands who are not close enough to be eligible for reunion under the family directive, for example an 18-year-old with a brother in the Netherlands, the choice for policymakers is that he either moves illegally or legally. The person is going to move.”
The proposed relocation, which would start as a one-year pilot programme, would focus only on Syrians who have been recognised as refugees in Italy and Greece and would depend on an initial voluntary commitment from member states. But previous attempts to reform the Dublin law have been met with fierce resistance during internal EU discussions.
The UK and other northern European countries have fought in both domestic and European courts to defend the right to return asylum seekers to their first country of entry, despite lawyers and human rights groups arguing that protection and accommodation conditions in Italy and Greece are inadequate.
Asked whether there is internal support for the proposal, Natasha Bertaud, European commission spokeswoman for migration, home affairs and citizenship stressed the importance of states upholding the Dublin regulations.
“Regarding Syrian migrants, they should be invited to lodge requests for international protection in whichever member state they arrive. The member state concerned is obliged to comply fully with its legal obligations in accordance with the provisions of the [appropriate EU law, including the Dublin Regulation].”
Bertaud said the EU would continue to focus on tackling the refugee crisis through direct resettlement of vulnerable refugees from camps, not through any change in policy on arrivals at EU borders.
“EU member states have offered over 36,300 resettlement places so far, with Germany offering the majority, at over 30,000 places.
“Right now, the commission is discussing with the member states on how to ensure a more balanced distribution of resettled refugees among all member states. We will soon elaborate on the proposal for a pilot project on resettlement in which all member states and associated states could take part.”
Cochetel acknowledged that only a significant interest in building a new system would create a change in behaviour among desperate migrants, but pointed out that pressure outside Europe’s borders made it an urgent task.
“Last month Turkey become the largest country of asylum in the world – very few people take notice of this. [The pilot project] will need to be large enough to constitute a credible alternative to what we have experienced so far: massive irregular secondary movements feeding trafficking, leading to human suffering and exploitation.”
Source: The Guardian