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Responding to the refugee crisis with humanitarian governance

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Justine Dodgen

For anyone reading the news the past couple weeks, it has been hard to ignore the staggering and often heart wrenching news about the refugee* crisis facing the European Union as thousands of people seek asylum within its borders, many of them fleeing the war in Syria. In June and July alone, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the number of Syrian asylum cases in the EU to be 60,000, the largest wave of refugees to enter Europe since World War II. Germany alone estimates that it will receive as many as 800,000 asylum cases in 2015. Many of these refugees have traveled for several weeks across Turkey and the Balkans to reach EU borders.

"Refugees Budapest Keleti railway station 2015-09-04" by Rebecca Harms from Wendland, Germany - Ungarn September 2015.

“Refugees Budapest Keleti railway station 2015-09-04” by Rebecca Harms

EU states have been divided over how to respond to the growing number of refugees, which has quickly surpassed expectations and many nations’ normal capacities for asylum cases. Hungary, on the front lines as refugees seek to enter the EU from the southeast, has been overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of people, and recently began refusing to let refugees continue on to Austria and built a wall to keep more refugees from coming in. Denmark and Germany have also started to restrict travel and review passports at their borders.

So what will the EU do? International refugee law states that refugees cannot be sent back to places where their lives would be in danger, but says little about what should be done by countries receiving refugees and asylum cases. European leaders have been debating the issue for a few weeks now, with EU President Jean-Claude Juncker urging a binding quota system that would distribute 120,000 additional asylum seekers among EU nations. Some European nations oppose such a mandate, citing economic hardship and capacity constraints.


Photo by Joachim Seidler

On the Brookings Institute blog Kemal Kiri?ci writes, “It is a sad time for international humanitarian governance.” But what, exactly, should the humanitarian response be? How many refugees and asylum cases should the EU (and each country therein) agree to accept? The answers to these questions depend on one’s ethics, and as in all ethical questions, there isn’t necessarily a right answer.

Luay al-Khatteeb, a former refugee, asks, “Isn’t the level of democratic nation to be judged by how it protects and enforces the legal rights of its minorities (which would include refugees)?” He reminds us of one of the founding principles of democratic nations, that such nations have an obligation to recognize and uphold the rights of all, no matter how small or large the faction.

_85445644_european_commission_quotas-01_v2With this in mind, it seems the humanitarian and ethical governance response should be to acknowledge a moral obligation and share responsibility for those fleeing prosecution and hardship. Member states will have to determine the most equitable way to structure the quotas, but this acknowledgement is an important first step. Given the need for an immediate response, the EU can pursue good governance by increasing their quotas and helping those who are already en route or in Europe (the same can be said for the US.) And to put this idea in perspective, President Juncker’s proposal observes that 120,000 additional cases would represent just 0.11% of the EU’s population. The refugee population in Lebanon is currently 25%.

In the longer term, European nations and the United States could support humanitarian governance by working with the UN to create safe spaces for refugees and promote stability and economic opportunity in the region. In both the short and long term, such plans will require political and economic investments, but as Juncker reminded listeners in his state of the union address:

“We Europeans should remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Our common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from war, dictatorship, or oppression. […] We Europeans should know and should never forget why giving refuge and complying with the fundamental right to asylum is so important.”

The same is true for many of us Americans, so let us not forget to pay forward the opportunities that were given to us. (If you’re interested in what individuals can do, some ideas for how you can help.)

*There has been some debate over whether the term “migrant” or “refugee” should be used to describe the people coming to Europe, predominately from Syria and neighboring countries, to seek asylum. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee “is any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.” I’m using the term refugee in this post.

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