Refugees and the EU Response

With the Syrian war already raging, ISIS took Iraq by storm in 2014. The country was ill-prepared to deal with the jihadist fighters and even less prepared to grapple with the ensuing humanitarian crises that would ripple out from their marauding violence. ISIS and the Iraqi government’s response are the principle reasons why hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes and sought passage to Europe. Europe is in the midst of this crisis. The European Union (EU) and all member states must now confront the realities of the situations in Iraq and Syria. As such, the EU’s plan to take in refugees will now be put to the test.

People fleeing the violence and strife of the Middle East have begun to overwhelm European borders as they look for safety. Data from the International Organization of Migration shows that more than 1 million asylum seekers came to Europe in 2015. 972,500 people have arrived by sea and 34,000 people have crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land.  In Iraq specifically, since 2014, more than 18,800 civilians have lost their lives and approximately 36,200 have been injured.

Refugees are risking their lives to come to Europe to escape the devastating violence and bloodshed that have left Syria and Iraq in ruins. In order to confront the challenges that the refugees are posing, the EU has principles and legislation that will be used to deal with the massive influx of people. The principle of solidarity and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union Article 78, paragraph 3, require that almost all EU member states must take part in the refugee crisis. The EU asylum system consists of five different acts of legislation: the Dublin Regulation, the Asylum Procedures Directive, the Qualification Directive, the Reception Conditions Directive and the European fingerprint database for identifying asylum seekers and irregular border-crossers (EURODAC). Each member state has the right to temporarily abandon the refugee reception process, by paying 0.002% of its GDP to the EU budget.

European Commission President Junker’s proposed mechanism provides that within two years, around 120,000 refugees will be divided throughout the EU. Initially, they will be moved from Italy and Greece and then dispersed to the rest of the EU member states. Countries participating in the implementation of this program, will be paid EUR 6,000 per refugee.

As the Syrian conflict is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent years, the European Union intends to allocate  of 4.2 billion euros to resolve this issue.

In September 2015, the European Parliament supported the European Commission’s plan on the basis of European Commission President Juncker’s speech, “The State of the European Union.” The proposals include that the first 120,000 people will be transferred from Greece, Italy and Hungary, because they are receiving the most refugees. An EU crisis mechanism provides that every EU member state must participate in this mission; of course, the EU member states which are receiving refugees must be prepared to accomodate and assist the refugees, so the European Parliament must carefully examine each member state’s ability to provide the necessary services. For the health and safety of the refugees, each member state should provide refugee support measures yet each country varies in its willingness and ability to provide such assistance. In June, the European Council invited the European Commission to establish “a special European return program,” that would urge the EU to prepare a safe return policy for people who want to return to their home country, including Syria and Iraq.

The German Situation:

In February of this year, Turkey and Germany agreed on a package of measures to be enacted to alleviate the refugee crisis in Syria. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, stated that she was appalled by the Russian air strikes in Syria. Merkel also called on all parties to immediately cease attacks on civilians which are a leading cause of displacement and people choosing to flee from Syria.

Turkey has felt tremendous pressure recently from European politicians, who have called for Turkey to open part of its border for 35,000 civilians from Syria, who are seeking safe passage from Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey announced that it has no capacity to accommodate these refugees now, as it has already taken in close to 2 million people from Syria.

German Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Zigmārs Gabriel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered a plan for solving the refugee crisis in regard to the European Commission’s crisis plan. Their plan includes a 10 point system that should be fulfilled by the EU and its member states in order to successfully meet the demands of the humanitarian situation.

The elements of the plan are:

  1. Refugees should be placed in humane conditions in line with EU standards.
  2. The Common European Asylum Code is applied in all EU countries ensures that refugees in need of protection will receive protection.
  3. There should be a fair distribution of refugees throughout the EU.
  4. The EU must develop a common border management system, which provides for the registration and care of refugees.
  5. The EU must provide assistance to the most congested EU member states.
  6. The lives of refugees should not be put at risk and EU governments should participate in rescue operations.
  7. In the long run, the EU will aid only those refugees who are genuinely in need of protection, others will return to their country of origin. Therefore, it is necessary to adopt plan a safe return policy for refugees.
  8. Those countries that have offered their assistance will be given the opportunity to become an EU member. Every country that accepts refugees, must be able to safely and appropriately accomdate them.
  9. German immigration law in relation to asylum seekers should be improved and better regulated. This would allow refugees and asylum seekers to legally enter the labor market and receive proper assistance.
  10. Create new policy initiatives to combat the causes of the strife in the Middle East and African countries. State stabilization, violence and civil war reduction should be addressed in parallel with the joint efforts of genuine economic development and social programs focusing on helping young people living in the countries of origin.

Germany, last year, announced that it had taken in a record number of refugees – 1.1 million people. In relation to concerns about the number of refugees that Germany has allowed to enter, Merkel declared that it was important to stress that most refugees had only been allowed to stay for a limited period.

“We need … to say to people that this is a temporary residential status and we expect that, once there is peace in Syria again, once IS has been defeated in Iraq, that you go back to your home country with the knowledge that you have gained,” she told a regional meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Merkel’s statement was meant to soothe the growing criticism of the open door policy that had been implemented to deal with the high number of refugees. While the German effort is laudable, it remains to be seen how and when the refugees would return to their countries of origin and under what conditions.

Latvia’s Plan:

According to data from the Latvian Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, in 2015, Latvia received 201 asylum seeker applications. Asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq make up the minority, with the majority coming from Georgia and Ukraine. Latvia has stated that it is willing and able to receive more refugees in coordination with EU policy.

In describing the current humanitarian situation in Syria, Latvian Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs stated that the humanitarian aid that has been provided thusfare is insufficient and that the refugee camps in the region lack sufficient food, medicine and financial support. The Latvian government has also pushed for a rapid and responsible political resolution to the Syrian conflict.

As as EU member state, Latvia has developed a plan to receive its share of the refugees.

In November 2015, the State Secretary of the Latvian Ministry of Culture Uldis Lielpētere and the Director of the Department of Education State Secretary Evia Papule informed the public about the plan of action for the relocation and hosting of asylum seekers in Latvia.

The plan outlines that in 2017, assisting and accomodating the asylum seekers will cost 14,994,027 euros, of which Latvia will receive 6.5 million from EU Funds and the remaining 8.4 million will come from the state budget.

The Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Welfare, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Justice will all be involved in the plan in order to ensure a whole of government response.

The first phase of the plan requires representatives from Latvia to visit Greece and Italy to process asylum seekers in order to transfer them to Latvia and coordinate their admission, housing and security.

On the Latvian process State Secretary  of Ministry of Interior Ilze Pētersone-Godmane said, “In October there was the first visit of an expert, a colleague had gone to Italy, he met with EU contacts, met with people. When we declared our willingness to accept asylum seekers, then we started the operation. If we do so in the foreseeable future – a few weeks, then to winter or winter during the first asylum seekers and will welcome.”

In the second phase, the Latvian government decided it would place refugees in Mucenieki for their first few months and to begin education and integration services.

Mucenieki, a former Soviet military base, is a center for asylum seekers, which is located 17 km from Rīga. The center’s current capacity can accomodate 150 individuals but because this is insuffficient for future demands, the Latvian government decided to build two more blocks to accomodate increased numbers of refugees. The main task for the Mucenieki Center is to provide asylum seekers with housing while their cases are heard and deliberated on in asylum proceedings. The center will also facilitate their adaptation to Latvian society.

In Mucenieki, refugees will receive medical care, education, employment assistance, and social rehabilitation. Latvian mentors will also help refugees with ther integration into society.

Latvia, although with a fraction of the resources of Germany, has developed a plan and vision for receiving refugees and integrating them into Latvian society. Whether it is Latvia or Germany or another EU member state, the intake process will require sustained effort, cooperation, and communication between government and civil society to ensure that all parties are respectfully operating in the interest of this humanitarian campaign. With support from the European Union, Latvia has the chance to help many families who are desperate to find a new home.

PAFI’s View:

While the EU now tries to coordinate assistance for the refugees crisis, it is important to keep in mind that the best solution for the refugees, Europe and the international community is to solve the problems of violence at their source. Cessation of hostilities, improved governance and security should be the highest priorities for governments in the region. This is undoubtedly a difficult task, but until peace and stability is achieved in Syria and Iraq, there will continue to be people risking their lives to flee their homelands for safety.

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