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European Refugee Policies and Protections

Updated on April 30, 2020
Kent Adams profile image

Nicholas is a student at Georgetown University. He is interested in international relations, global health, history, and literature.

2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency
2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency | Source

“I don't want to return back to my country because they will kill me. Before they send me to my country better I kill myself here, I don't want to be returned back to my country” (Liebling et al. 7). These are the words of one refugee interviewed in the United Kingdom, expressing intense fear of being deported to their home country embroiled in conflict. Over a million refugees have fled their home countries in recent years to reach safety in Europe. Unfortunately, refugees and migrants face complex and hostile government policies, violence from civilians and the state, and a lack of support once they reach the European Union. In essence, Europe’s overarching response to the Syrian refugee crisis is containment of refugees in the countries neighboring Syria (Orchard & Miller 7). Despite a few exceptions, the EU is not living up to their commitments to human rights and international humanitarian law.

Photo of Syrian Refugees from Getty Images
Photo of Syrian Refugees from Getty Images | Source

Fleeing through Europe

Refugees and migrants endure excessive violence while travelling through Europe, primarily in the Balkan states. Just between 2015 and 2016, over a million migrants have transited Balkan countries to arrive in Europe and 27% of the surveyed migrants/refugees experienced violence on their journeys (Arsenijevic et al. 1). 65% of the reported violence was perpetrated by state authorities and involves the actions of police, razor wire fences, and border closures along the Balkan route (Arsenijevic et al. 2). One disabled migrant attempting to cross from Serbia to Hungary reported the police kicked and pepper sprayed him, and civilians beat him as well (Ibid. 6). This violence at the hands of the state is compounded by all the other hardships involved with fleeing armed conflict or persecution. Additionally, Greece and Bulgaria have forcibly removed and detained asylum seekers, violating human rights in some instances with insufficient food provisions and a lack of medical care (Orchard & Miller 7). Countries like Greece, Italy, and Bulgaria may be the first that refugees reach, but often they wish to continue further into Europe for greater safety and opportunities. Many refugees are forced to cross the Mediterranean sea in order to reach Europe and over 3,455 people died in the waters as of 2015 (Human Rights Watch 5). There is no easy route into Europe for these refugees and even if they are fortunate enough to be approved for asylum, there is a severe lack of support upon arrival.

European Union Regulations

The Dublin Regulation has important direct effects on the lives of refugees arriving in Europe and has caused myriad issues. The regulation, which “places primary responsibility for asylum applications on the first EU country of entry, is based on the false promise of harmonized standards and conditions” (Human Rights Watch 16). No matter where refugees end up in Europe, the country responsible for processing asylum is the first one the refugees arrive in. This places an unequal burden on external EU border countries and is also intertwined with the fact that many of these countries closer to the conflict like Greece and Italy have the least welcoming asylum regulations. Replacing the Dublin Regulation with a more rational and fair way to determine the EU member state in charge of examining a specific international protection application is just one way in which Europe’s asylum system must be improved (Human Rights Watch 3). The Dublin Regulation has been updated thrice, but not to the degree it must be improved to respect human rights and international law.


Specific Country Responses to Refugee Crises

In terms of the Syrian refugee crisis, it is generally agreed that Germany’s Temporary Humanitarian Admission Programme is the most extensive and supportive in Europe. The country pledged admission to 20,000 Syrian refugees in 2013 and 2014 and facilitated 5,500 private sponsorship admissions (Orchard & Miller 77). Thus, Orchard and Miller recommend following Germany’s example and expanding upon it across Europe. Additionally, expanding the EU Temporary Protection Directive is a good first step as it is more politically viable than other immediate changes (Orchard & Miller 9). Providing temporary protection to asylum seekers is only the tip of the iceberg, but it will stabilize the situation and ensure the safety of refugees until resettlement systems are improved. Sweden and Norway also deserve praise for the amount of humanitarian aid they provide and the ease of their asylum process, but it is uncommon for refugees to reach these countries (Ibid. 59-62). There is no denying that asylum seekers have come to Europe for safety and not financial gain, but they are often met with hostility and poor support systems that cause mental health issues and isolation (Liebling et al. 19). Host communities are plagued by xenophobia and resentment to other countries or areas not playing their part in welcoming refugees. By signing the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the status of Refugees and other European asylum systems, these European countries in question “implicitly acknowledged the moral, humanitarian, and practical imperative of offering protection to refugees within their territories” (Orchard & Miller 8). While the German response is the best in Europe, it still falls short of addressing the vastness of this complex issue.

How the EU Should Fix the Response

In general, the EU should heed UNHCR calls for a more humane and legal response to the refugee crisis. It is important that humanitarian admission and at the very least temporary protection be expanded, while improving the legal routes for refugees to seek asylum (Orchard & Miller 9). The status quo of discouraging and preventing refugees from making it to the EU and deportation cannot go on in order to mitigate the crisis. The Human Rights Watch pushes for four main areas of action: reduce the need for perilous journeys, address crises at the borders of Europe, fix the broken asylum system, and ensure EU cooperation with other countries to improve refugee protection and respect for human rights (Human Rights Watch 2). There is no foreseeable end to the armed conflict and political turmoil, so the situation will only continue to deteriorate if nothing is done. Besides halting police and state’s violent treatment of migrants, safety can also be assured at sea by expanding upon rescue aid like Operation Poseidon (Ibid. 5). The member states of the EU are political actors and are even involved in the international proxy war in Syria to some extent. Thus, political action must address the root causes of the crisis including armed fighting, human rights abuses, weak governance, and systemic poverty (Ibid. 22).

The Balkan Route for some Refugees, DW
The Balkan Route for some Refugees, DW | Source

Concluding Thoughts

The Syrian refugee crisis and political turmoil, persecution, and war in other areas of the world have left many people without a safe and secure place to live. The wealthier countries of the world have a moral responsibility and legal international obligation to protect and support refugees. European and other Western nations are not blameless in these conflicts; for decades they have meddled in lower income nations and advanced their interests in the Middle East. Now it is time to address the root causes of displacement and improve the disgraceful status quo response to the influx of migration. Closing borders will further destabilize regions already in disharmony and potentially far reaching regions as well (Orchard & Miller 8). The example of Germany should be followed and built upon, with overarching reforms that change the entire European response to the situation.

Works Cited

Liebling, Helen, Shani Burke, Simon Goodman, Daniel Zasada, (2014) "Understanding the experiences of asylum seekers", International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care,10: 4.

Arsenijević J, Schillberg E, Ponthieu A, et al. (2017) A crisis of protection and safe passage: violence experienced by migrants/refugees travelling along the Western Balkan corridor to Northern Europe. Conflict and Health, Vol.11, No.6,

Orchard, C. And Miller, A. (2014) Forced Migration Policy Briefing 10: Protection in Europe for Refugees from Syria. Refugee Studies Centre Oxford Department of International Development University of Oxford

Human Rights Watch. (2015) Europe’s Refugee Crisis: An Agenda for Action.


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