18 September 2015
For the UK, there are few alternatives than to seek common ground with its European partners in forging a multifaceted approach to managing inward refugee flows.
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


David Cameron meets children at the Za'atri refugee camp in Amman, Jordan on 14 September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
David Cameron meets children at the Za'atri refugee camp in Amman, Jordan on 14 September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.


David Cameron’s visit to refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan this week barely offset the British refusal to take in any of the Syrian refugees to have reached Hungary, Greece and Italy. The government’s wider strategy has no legs if the prime minister cannot win the argument with others in Europe. His plan, announced ahead of the European Commission’s own proposals, will see 20,000 refugees from camps in the region accepted into the UK over a four-year period. This excludes the 160,000 already in Europe for whom European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gained majority approval to relocate on a quota basis this week, but whose fate has been deferred to a further European Council meeting in October.

Unlike the Schengen Area states of continental Europe, the UK is under no obligation to accept Commission quotas, at a time when 57 per cent of UK citizens recently polled wish to see fewer migrants and refugees accepted into Britain. However, European public debate has polarized over Germany’s open-door acceptance of up to 800,000 people this year, which German federal state governments are now struggling to accommodate. The urgency of European burden-sharing in processing asylum claims has led to heated clashes where 72 per cent of demands for asylum in Europe fell on five European states alone last year. Instead, Germany’s most recent closure of its border with Austria has led to barricades and border controls going up between contiguous Schengen Area states across Europe.

In the midst of this irresolution, the challenge for the UK is that its principal arguments are neither being widely heard nor supported elsewhere in Europe. Yet they need European buy-in to succeed.

Contrary to continental Europe, the UK holds that the main thrust of European humanitarian action should be in the Middle East itself. Refugees to have reached Europe represent only three per cent of Syrians displaced internally and externally since 2011; the other 97 per cent (four million Syrians taking refuge in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and eight million displaced internally within Syria) risk being overshadowed by Europe’s focus on those who have already left the region. Better, in the British view, to keep people closer to their places of origin, as well as tackling at the source the ‘pull factor’ for those now seeking refuge in Europe.

The appeal of such arguments might be stronger if the UK were on the front line of large refugee arrivals on its own shores. So far they are small comfort for Greece and Italy facing the immediate crisis, and the transition states, such as Hungary and Serbia where refugee groups are now stuck.

The British government’s next line of argument is that Europe needs to direct more bilateral aid to UN appeals in support of regional refugee camps. The UK rightly prides itself on being the second highest bilateral contributor, after the US, in contributing £1 billion since 2011 to UN-led appeals to feed and house Syrians lodged in refugee camps and overcrowded towns in neighbouring states; £60 million of British aid will now be spent in Syria itself.

Beyond joint European Commission funding, however, other European states have been slow to make up the shortfalls in UN humanitarian appeals which are regularly only one-third met. Amidst dwindling food and medical supplies, the key drivers behind Syrian refugees leaving the camps this year are their unmet demands for jobs, educational facilities, and longer-term security. The loss of hope that living conditions will improve is now driving larger numbers of refugees into the hands of people-traffickers and the risky passage across the Mediterranean. The UNHCR cites 2,870 people as having drowned or disappeared along Mediterranean routes this year.

Under-cutting the traffickers is the third plank of British policy which has been only partially addressed in a European context. The UK has led on efforts at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to secure a resolution allowing the EU Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) mission established in June to use more robust military means to combat traffickers on the Libya-Italy route across the Mediterranean. Until now, the draft resolution has been blocked at the UN by Libyan concerns that EU naval intercepts will stray into their sovereign waters, or even into Libyan territory itself.

Since early summer, however, the main route into Europe for Syrian refugees has shifted eastwards, from Turkey to Greece and northwards through the Balkans towards Central Europe. A revised UNSC resolution should ideally extend the EUNAVFOR mandate to routes further east, but it seems unlikely: the Commission President was trenchant in his critique last week that the Balkans route ‘has clearly been neglected by all policy-makers’.

The most recent European Council conclusions on trafficking and migration of 20 July commit all 28 EU members to engaging third party governments in putting a stop to people smuggling. But there are few signs that anyone has taken this up at a high level with the Turkish government, above all. Regional networks of people-traffickers have been proliferating as fast as the demand for their services, along with the multi-million dollar profits they have extracted from Syrian and other refugees and migrants since 2011. Stemming the demand is clearly as important as detaining and prosecuting the perpetrators, but jobs and education for Syrians trapped in regional refugee camps cannot be provided in the timescale needed to address their increasing desperation. The much feared ‘pull-factor’ into Europe, in other words, will continue to drive population movements for some time to come, regardless of how many of the current refugees are taken in around Europe.     

For the UK, there are few alternatives than to seek common ground with its European partners in forging a multifaceted approach to managing inward refugee flows. The added urgency is that the key players are precisely those - Germany, France, Spain and Italy – that David Cameron needs to bring onside his reform agenda ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. It may be difficult to convince the Eurosceptics, but unless David Cameron  heeds the UN secretary-general’s personal appeal to him last week to do more to share the European refugee burden, the wider costs to the UK’s isolation within Europe may be felt sooner than anticipated.

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