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Refugee and Migrant Crisis: EU at a Crossroads

Original Broadcast Date:
May 21, 2016(UTC)

Since 2011, Syria has been wracked by a civil war that has some 4.8 million men, women, and children take the decision to flee the country, caught between the oppressive regime of the Assad government and the brutal fundamentalism of ISIS.

Some of those who passed into neighboring Turkey have since crossed the Mediterranean Sea, arriving in Greece, with the ultimate aim of reaching prosperous European societies such as Germany and Sweden, where these people fleeing the horrors of their homeland hope to find the opportunity to rebuild their shattered lives.

But not all of the people flowing into Europe have come from Syria. There are also numerous refugees fleeing the continuing conflicts and terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a great many economic migrants from Africa and elsewhere. The resulting perception among some European citizens that many of these would be settlers are mere opportunists, and several nations have responded to this influx by tightening their border controls, stopping these refugees in their tracks.

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel has urged fair division of responsibility among EU members and stressed the importance of human rights with over a million refugees and migrants arriving in 2015. Yet even as various European nations struggle to respond, the number of refugees and migrants continues to increase, and public opinion in the countries at the heart of this crisis is divided. Opposition to the influx is building as right-wing political parties seize the opportunity to play on the fears of the electorate. How should Europe and the rest of the world deal with this predicament?

This was the topic we addressed on this edition of Global Agenda, in a discussion took place in the United Kingdom, at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, more commonly known as Chatham House. This center for research into fields such as international diplomacy and security and defense policy has almost a century of history, and more recently has also advised the British Government on the current refugee crisis.

Our panel included experts from a range of fields, for a debate encompassing diverse views. Gunilla Carlsson is Sweden's former Minister for International Development Cooperation, and has visited numerous refugee camps around Africa and the Middle East. She was joined by Nikola Poposki, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Macedonia, one of the Baltic States that has become a staging post for migrants seeking to travel deeper into Europe. A German perspective was provided by Christine Hoffman, Deputy Head of the Berlin bureau of major national newspaper Der Spiegel. Gulwali Passarlay meanwhile brought his own very personal tale of having escaped his own war-torn country of Afghanistan for a new life in the UK. Japanese national Shoko Shimozawa represented the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, one of the key aid agencies in the current crisis. The moderator was political scientist and director of Chatham House Robin Niblett.

The discussion began with some thoughts on the importance of distinguishing between refugees in dire need of assistance and economic migrants, while simultaneously recognizing the potential contribution that newcomers can make to their adopted society as global citizens. Poposki drew parallels with the situation faced in Eastern Europe through decades of civil conflict, but concluded that one key difference now was that the refugees had travelled from further afield and were less likely to return to their homeland once the conflict there had subsided. The general preparedness of countries like Germany to accept so many migrants in such a short period was also considered.

In the program's second section, the panel dissected the disparity in responsibility accepted by various European states, with a unified, organized response seen as crucial to preventing the genesis of a new "fortress Europe," in which the continent might re-introduce tighter border controls and abandon the ideals of openness and unity that have brought decades of peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War. The individual responses of Germany, Greece, and Sweden were also considered, along with the key role of Turkey. Passarlay sounded a note of caution on the risks of succumbing to the "politics of fear," and offered a reminder that the refugees were people who had no choice but to leave their home countries.

The third section further analyzed the disparities between the response of individual nations. Hoffman was optimistic about Germany's abiding egalitarian spirit, positing that key changes in approach could subdue rising support for rightist parties. Carlsson saw the situation in Sweden as a similar one, and highlighted the potential benefits of well-integrated migrants to European societies facing demographic challenges due to aging, or, as in many Baltic countries, the emigration of young workers to other EU member states in search of better opportunities. The importance of a political resolution in Syria itself was recognized, while Poposki stressed the importance of ensuring the war-torn nation did not lose its entire skilled workforce, as potentially beneficial as such educated individuals could be to their new countries of residence.

The final section addressed the response beyond Europe from the wider international community. Shimozawa highlighted the generous response of many Gulf States, which she felt was underreported within Europe. Wealthy nations such as Japan and the USA were also urged to do more, while future means by which policy within Europe could evolve beyond the Geneva convention to address the "new normal" were also proposed. In his own closing statement, Passarlay made a plea for compassion: "We should not judge people based on the nationality, the passport they hold. We should just look at people as people and treat them as people with dignity and respect they all deserve."


Gunilla Carlsson

Former Minister for International Development Cooperation, Sweden

Nikola Poposki

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Macedonia

Christiane Hoffmann

Deputy Head, Berlin Office of Der Spiegel

Gulwali Passarlay

Afghan political refugee
Political activist for refugees' rights

Shoko Shimozawa

Deputy Director, Bureau for the Middle East and North Africa, UNHCR


Robin Niblett

Director, Chatham House