The European refugee crisis is officially over. That was the message of the European Commission when it presented its annual progress report on migration in Brussels earlier this month. “For 3 consecutive years, arrivals figures have been steadily falling, and current levels are a mere 10% of what they were at their peak in 2015,” the Commission wrote.
Although the Commission still speaks about possible “migratory pressure” in the near future, it seems quite content with the policy measures adopted by the EU since the arrival of more than 1 million refugees, mainly fleeing war in Syria, in the summer and fall of 2015. A key part of these measures was the so-called EU-Turkey Deal (or EU-Turkey Statement). In early March 2016, after months of negotiations, the EU’s 28 heads of states reached an agreement with the Turkish government to slow the refugee influx into Europe. The so-called 1:1 plan — for each undocumented migrant Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU would take one refugee from Turkey — went into effect on March 20, 2016. Under the terms of the deal, the EU would give Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to support refugee hosting and also revisit the country’s stalled efforts to join the EU.
At the time, critics pointed out that the plan violated principles of international law, which guarantee individual review of asylum applications. Three of the most prominent humanitarian agencies, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, called the deal illegal and harmful to refugees. In the deal’s wake, however, these criticisms waned, as fewer migrants crossed the Aegean from Turkey — decreasing from 853,650 in 2015 to 173,614 in 2016, and 29,515 in 2017, according to the UN migration agency IOM. The number of migrants who died or went missing while crossing to Greece also dropped dramatically.
Yet critics were correct that, in entering the deal, the EU was primarily focused on keeping refugees and other migrants out of Fortress Europe and less interested in addressing the structural causes of the Syrian refugee crisis or managing migration in accordance with the requirements of international law. Since the deal, for example, the EU has failed to create any new legal pathways to asylum. In fact, the number of refugees accepted for resettlement — other than in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, which have taken in the largest number of refugees — has dropped globally by 46% from 2016 to 2018, with the United States accepting only 17,112 refugees while the EU agreed to resettle only 50,000 refugees in 2018 and 2019.
The EU’s most ambitious refugee policy effort was its two-year emergency relocation program, which launched in September 2015. Under this scheme, EU member states committed to relocating 160,000 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. In particular, the program would have allowed the 60,000-odd refugees stuck in Greece, after the border with Macedonia was closed in March 2016, to leave. The program’s implementation was slow, however, and there was much resistance from Central European governments to “quota refugees”, as well as logistical hurdles. Only 31,500 asylum-seekers had found refuge in an EU country when the program ended in September 2017. Meanwhile, in 2018 alone, 50,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Greece, according to UNHCR, and are still lingering in improvised camps on the Greek islands, along with the tens of thousands others who have been stuck in Greece since the border closure.
On March 18, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) called on European countries to take their fair share of responsibility for the refugees, instead of leaving the task to overstretched Turkey and Greece. “Three years after the EU-Turkey statement was agreed, Europe is neither providing sufficient support to refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries, nor giving people necessary protection within its borders,” Edouard Rodier, Director of NRC Europe, said.
Engrossed in the ongoing Brexit battle and upcoming elections for the European Parliament, the European Commission may have wished for the refugee crisis to have ended, but the facts on the ground indicate otherwise.