How Europe Can Solve a Global Crisis
How Europe Can Solve a Global Crisis
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Normalising Relations with Syria: How Significant?
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

How Europe Can Solve a Global Crisis

Left unresolved, the refugee crisis may in itself cause new cycles of conflict.

Two simple truths are often overlooked in debates about today’s global refugee crisis: The principal driver of the exodus is, above all, the recent rise in the spread of deadly conflict in the Middle East; and what opened the way to this disorder is the breakdown of an international system we had built over the past 70 years.

Because of our failure to end wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, we are collectively responsible for more than half of the estimated 20 million refugees. Globally, another 40 million people have been displaced within their own countries.

Resolving these conflicts may seem like a daunting challenge when we are already struggling to cope with a high influx of refugees. Haunted by indelible images — refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats, a small boy lying dead on a beach, survivors making their arduous journey across the Balkans — Europeans, in their shock, believe this to be a European crisis about absorption capacity and identity.  

States can build walls and erect bureaucratic obstacles of every kind, but this is all pointless unless political leaders get serious about what drives human migration on such an epic scale. The real crisis is in the nature of Europe’s response, which has been unable to solve the long-term nature of a worldwide threat.

Responding with unilateralism or scattered, reactive air strikes will not defeat the so-called Islamic State. Collective military engagement beyond our own borders may be necessary, but not as a neo-colonial adventure, or to bomb terrorists out of existence. Any engagement should be explicitly designed to support political processes led by those most directly affected by the conflicts.

European leaders must also face the fact that the refugee crisis has taken a heavy toll on the values that underpin the EU’s political solidarity. The Continent needs to stand united to mitigate the conflicts that are causing people to flee and to craft a longer term, more statesmanlike response.

Europe should invest in greater political and developmental attention to the festering grievances that turn into violence, and to a de-escalation of regional and power rivalries like that between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Any such strategy must include integrating about 20 million Muslims living in the European Union, most of whom come from the Middle East and North Africa. Europe will also have to hold Turkey close; safeguard the freedom of internal movement from which so many social and economic benefits have flowed; build up a joint security response to internal threats; and favour policies of justice and accountability, including a sustainable and substantive Israel-Palestine policy. 

Internationalism is under threat after a decade and a half of poorly thought-out interventions. Isolationism and parochialism may appear increasingly appealing, but they are not an option in a globalized world. If local crises are ignored, they spread, and become global. Legitimate, U.N.-backed engagements, civilian and military — that have internalized the lessons of previous over-ambitious interventions — will be necessary in years to come.

And that’s because the refugee crisis is not just a European problem, nor a Middle Eastern or African problem. It is a global phenomenon, and a result of protracted conflict and war. It requires a coordinated and humane response as well as a more proactive — and yet less militarized — posture to address the world's many crises.

Developing countries, many already under severe economic and political strain, host the vast majority of refugees and displaced people. Western audiences are barely aware of the conditions facing most of the world’s refugees living in Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon — the top three host countries — let alone the 2.5 million more living in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Chad, and Sudan.

Dealing with the root cause doesn’t mean ignoring the here and now of the refugee crisis. States should take immediate measures to speed up asylum processing, improve burden-sharing, and develop flexible strategies to integrate refugees into their host communities.  

Left unresolved, the refugee crisis may in itself cause new cycles of conflict. To take but one example, the tiny state of Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.2 million refugees, more than a quarter of the country’s population. Zoom in closer, to the border town of Arsal, where a community of 30,000 has taken in around 90,000 refugees.

These refugees feel increasingly insecure; many have reported assaults and abuse from both Lebanese security services and civilians. Some have turned to jihadist groups for protection; others have become informants for the security services. These trends feed further distrust and alienation, creating fertile recruiting ground for extremist groups like the Islamic State.

While throwing money at the problem won’t fix it, humanitarian organizations engaged in these regions desperately need more funding. Western governments, in line with their promises, should provide greater financial support to refugees and to the states and the organisations that help them. Of $12 billion pledged at February’s London conference to help Syrian refugees in the Middle East, roughly half has yet to be paid, according to the U.N.

In 2015, shortfalls in funding saw some 1.6 million Syrian refugees get their food rations cut. The refugee response plans for Burundi, Central Africa and Sudan already received a quarter of the necessary funds.

Back-door deals are not the answer either. Last month’s pact between the EU and Turkey “to end irregular migration,” for instance, will do no such thing. Under the terms of the deal, all migrants and refugees crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands will be sent straight back. For every such “irregular” Syrian refugee readmitted by Turkey, another Syrian refugee living in Turkey is to be resettled by an EU member country. The deal is problematic on many levels: legally, morally, and practically. It has been roundly criticized by human rights and humanitarian groups, and may even violate international law.

But the biggest problem of this plan is that it doesn’t address the source of the crisis. That can only be done by rebuilding the international community’s credibility and institutions, and must include a far greater attention to peace-making.

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

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