On 2 March 2016, the European Commission announced a new plan to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees within the European Union. This will allow the EU to provide emergency financial support for “urgently needed life-saving and humanitarian relief operations”. The plan foresees that some €700 million will be committed over the next three years in order to address humanitarian needs in Europe, particularly in EU countries along the Western Balkans route. While, reportedly, the funds will not be diverted from the EU’s external humanitarian aid programmes, they will of course imply transfers within the EU’s existing multi-year budget, and therefore affect other EU policy areas.
Although its rationale can certainly not be challenged as such, particularly in the context of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, is the new plan a fair and sufficient response to the expanding refugee crisis?
In terms of fairness, the first point that needs to be stressed is that the establishment of a dedicated Fund covering for the first time in post-World War II history humanitarian needs within the EU, only comes as a response to the insufficient efforts expended so far by the member states themselves to address the refugee crisis in an EU equitable manner. The establishment of this Fund must indeed be seen in the light of the EU’s aborted efforts to encourage or impose intra-EU solidarity and therefore to reduce the need for the mobilisation of additional resources.
What is striking to any EU migration policy observer is that, to date, no serious consideration appears to have ever been given to imposing sanctions on those member states that, in breach of the principle of intra-EU solidarity enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), have foregone their duty to share responsibility for the expanding refugee crisis, either by closing their national borders or by not allocating the number of agreed relocation places. Would it not have been conceivable that such member states be asked to contribute at least financially to the refugee crisis, for example through a reduction in the amount of EU structural funds and other aid they receive? And would this not have been at least as fair and justified a move as the European Commission’s decision to reduce budget resources in other policy areas in order to compensate for the insufficient political and financial willingness of member states in the field of refugee policy?
The second point that needs to be emphasised relates to the apparent failure of the EU to exert sufficient political pressure on major non-EU immigration countries to step up their resettlement efforts for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The figures in this area speak for themselves. For example in the United States, no more than 10,000 Syrian refugees are due to be resettled during 2016, amounting to some 0.003% of the country’s population. Other countries such as Canada (50,000 Syrians, 0.14% of the national population), Australia (12,000, 0.05% of the national population), and New Zealand (600, 0.01% of the national population) appear to be following a similar route. Should these figures not be compared with EU member states such as Greece which, in 2015, received over 800,000 refugees, amounting to over 7% of its national population?
The same point can also be made in relation to the EU’s efforts to exert sufficient pressure on, and/or to offer sufficient incentives for source countries that continue to limit the return and readmission of their nationals in an irregular situation. Reducing the numbers of ‘unreturnable’ irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers in the EU would no doubt contribute to a significant reduction in the cost of the current refugee crisis.
However, leaving aside the above considerations, is the new EU humanitarian plan at least sufficient in financial terms?
In a recent report presented by the governor of the Bank of Greece to the European Central Bank’s General Council, it was estimated that the increased public spending to absorb the thousands of refugees arriving on Greece’s shores every day will amount to 0.3 percent of GDP, or 600 million euros, only this year. This is excluding the additional impact on the Greek tourism industry and on international trade, which relies on unrestricted access to Greek sea lanes.
Furthermore, while the new humanitarian assistance plan foresees a commitment of 300 million euros this year, most of which is designed to benefit UN agencies and NGOs, the proportion to be earmarked for Greece does not appear to have been decided yet. At any rate, the planned allocation for 2016 must be compared with Greece’s recent appeal for around 480 million euros to help shelter 100,000 refugees.
So, what the above developments suggest is that new means to alleviate the financial and political burden of the current refugee crisis remain to be invented. While options do not abound, one possible avenue would be the development of Private Refugee Sponsorship programmes, along the lines of the very successful programme that has been implemented by Canada since 1978.
Private sponsorship programmes, which in Europe are only being implemented by 15 German Lander, although they are also currently being considered by the United Kingdom, rely on both organizations and smaller groups taking responsibility for refugees entering the country, both financially and through other contributions (e.g. filling out the initial paperwork and coaching refugees through the screening process and initial reception and integration process). In Canada, between 5,000 and 20,000 refugees are privately sponsored each year. Establishing such a system throughout the EU would clearly contribute to extending the burden for the refugee crisis to the private and non-governmental sector. It would also incite more EU member states to engage in refugee resettlement, since only 14 EU Member States are currently implementing annual resettlement programmes.
Another option would be to establish a business-led relocation system, enabling employers in the EU to fill their skilled labour shortages by tapping into selected segments of the refugee population in the EU. This would run parallel to the existing EU Relocation Plan, which to date has proved so unsuccessful, and would establish for the first time a purely demand-driven instrument to distribute refugees across the EU.