Why are we talking about this?
On 9th September 2020, a devastating fire completely wiped out huts and tents used to shelter migrants in the overcrowded Moria camp, located on a small island of Lesbos in Eastern Greece.
What’s the problem?
Around 13,000 people ‒ more than 4 times the designed capacity of the camp ‒ were left without shelter. These migrants in Lesbos consist of refugees who escaped civil wars in their home countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, slowly waiting for their asylum applications to be processed on the mainland.
By law, the EU Member State where the asylum seeker first enters is responsible for processing the applications. This has put a strain on countries near the external border of the EU such as Greece and Italy.
To ease the burden on these countries that have received a disproportionate number of refugees, the EU devised a mandatory scheme in 2015 to redistribute refugees among EU countries based on each member state's population size and gross domestic product.
This decision sparked polarising debates over whether all EU countries should be responsible for taking in the refugees.
The question is...
The Moria camp fire tragedy has resurfaced these arguments, but should EU countries be obliged to accept the refugees?
Before we begin, let us help you understand the terminologies…
Now, let's dive right into each side of the argument.
The former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy compared the EU migrant plan as being similar to “mending a burst water pipe by pouring water around the house”.
What does it mean?
Instead of enforcing its borders to only allow entry of refugees who can no longer return to their home countries (not irregular migrants), the EU refugee relocation scheme promotes more irregular migrants to enter the countries at the external border of the EU because they know they could be relocated to an EU country.
A higher influx of irregular migrants will slow down the application process for refugees who are the actual ones in need.
What can be done?
Critics against the EU refugee relocation model argue that resources should be spent on cracking down on the irregular migrant network, similar to what was done in Spain. Spain’s efforts with Morocco to stop irregular migrants, who pay smugglers for a boat trip across the Strait of Gibraltar, has prevented 89,000 irregular migrants from entering Spain in 2018.
This could be a more effective long-term solution to reduce the number of irregular migrants and help the refugees who are desperate for help.
The rise of populist and nationalist parties in countries like Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland led to strong opposition against the relocation of refugees. Despite the EU’s mandatory scheme, Czech Republic took in just 12 asylum seekers, while Hungary and Poland refused to take a single person. Yes, you read that correctly...
Why they are unwilling to take in refugees...
The government of countries that oppose the mandatory relocation of refugees claim the refugees’ cultures are not aligned with theirs. This stems from the difference in religious beliefs; most refugees are Muslims whereas European countries’ citizens are predominantly Christians.
The anti-immigrants claim that the irregular immigrants who capitalise on the loose structure of the EU refugee relocation scheme cause problems to their society ‒ crime against its citizens, additional cost to integrate these refugees etc.
According to a survey conducted by Pew Research, in 8 of the 10 European nations surveyed, more than 50% believed incoming refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country.
This begs the question: If the governments’ job is to keep the interests of the citizens at heart, why is it wrong to protect their own borders?
1. Harsh living conditions for refugees
The refugees are forced out of their home countries, travel thousands of miles in crammed boats, and settle in densely populated camps like Moria camp while waiting for their asylum applications to be approved. These refugees are considered the ‘lucky’ ones who made it alive to the camps.
The UN Refugee Agency reported that more than 1000 migrants and refugees have died each year for 6 years in a row during their treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. This includes children ‒ some who are found washed up on a beach, some never to be found.
Is that it...?
No, the nightmare is not over when the refugees arrive at the camp. There is no electricity, not enough water and rivers of mud and rubbish that run through their makeshift tents.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the overcrowded conditions in the refugee camps make it difficult to introduce social distancing. The refugees do not have an option but to share the same restrooms and showers, which ultimately leads to the spread of the virus.
Without the EU refugee relocation scheme, these camps will have to continue to accommodate new refugees with dwindling resources to support them.
2. Disproportionate strain on some countries
EU countries that receive an influx of refugees are unfairly forced to take in refugees who arrived at their borders. These countries have to dedicate extra financial, physical and human resources to support refugees from their asylum application process up to when they enter the workforce.
Greece was recovering ‒ still is ‒ from an economic depression at the height of the crisis when 1 million refugees fled to Europe in a year. On top of building the infrastructure to support the refugees, Greece had to spend money on enhancing border control and integrating the accepted refugees into the society.
Are there any external support?
While there are funds like the Asylum Migration Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) set up by the European Commission to support these needs, the resources needed to support a refugee goes far beyond just financial means.
A more equitable responsibility-sharing system of refugees will alleviate the burden on the affected countries.
Collaboration among EU member states could potentially speed up the asylum process of sending refugees to safer places and reuniting with their families, in line with the EU values of promoting peace, sharing responsibilities and protecting the weakest.
A question for you: While the EU refugee relocation scheme aims to alleviate the burden of the refugees and the countries that receive a disproportionate flow of refugees, country leaders have to balance solving the refugee crisis with the interest of their citizens. Do you think there is a more effective way to handle this issue that blends social, political and human rights aspects?