J: How do you assess the policy response of the European Union, United States, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the refugee crisis?

SA: EU leaders have proposed accepting no more than 160,000 refugees between them as part of “mandatory quotas”, which if accepted would be a very small step in the right direction. Taking into account the huge numbers that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have been hosting since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 this number, to be allocated amongst the far larger and wealthier EU states, represents a tiny percentage of the Syrian refugee flow of about four million. The EU states are overwhelmingly parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and a series of refugee, subsidiary and temporary protection directives that require responsibility sharing amongst them for refugees and persons in “refugee-like” situations which prohibit their deportation to their home countries. It is unclear to me why the EU bodies have not triggered, for example, the EU 2001 Temporary Protection (TP) Directive, which would require all member states to accept persons meeting the criteria for at least one year under the TP framework, and provide them the right to work and assistance pending resolution of the conflict.

AJ: Responses to the global refugee crisis and the recent surge in Middle Eastern refugees has been at best half -hearted. While Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) have accepted most recent refugees, Europe, North America and Australia have avoided opening their borders or considering accepting large numbers of refugees.

Within Europe responses are varied. Southern European countries Italy and especially Greece, being the point of entry to the EU, have had to deal with thousands of refugees on a daily basis despite their own harsh financial circumstances.

Northern European countries have reacted positively to the refugee crisis by opening their borders and welcoming refugees. For instance, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced the acceptance of up to 800,000 refugees. However, in addition to slashing benefits and adopting tough measures to facilitate deportations, as of 12 September 2015 Germany closed its borders. Sweden started taking in Syrian refugees in 2013. In 2014 it accepted 100,000, and continues to remain a welcoming place for refugees. It is a different story in the case of Central European countries such as Hungary and Romania. The journey through these countries to get to Germany or Sweden remains perilous.  Central European countries are acting as gatekeepers for Europe’s Schengen area (within which EU citizens can move freely without passport checks). The treatment of refugees in run-down World War II era camps and cages in these countries is raising serious concern about the human rights of refugees and the responsibility of EU member states, the United Nations (UN) and North American governments to protect refugees. What is even more alarming is the xenophobia and anti-Muslim discourse of officials who openly state they will not accept Muslims or allow them to pass through their territory. Hungary sees its role as the protector of a Christian Europe.

With Sweden, Germany and Greece remaining the exceptions, most other countries in the EU and North America view refugees, especially those from Arab and/or Muslim countries, through the lens of the war on terror and thus treat them as unworthy victims. The Anglophone countries (the United Kingdom, US, Canada, Australia) have a bad track record when it comes to refugees’ treatment and acceptance rate. The UK government for instance initially refused entry to refugees despite public pressure. The government has publicly defended this policy by shifting attention to their aid policy for refugees in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Under pressure from the EU and the United Nations, the UK has agreed to absorb 20,000 refugees over the next five-year period. A reflection of its anti-refugee policy, the UK’s most recent response has been to deploy a Royal Navy frigate to “board, seize and divert” refugee boats in the Mediterranean. This will make refugees’ life more difficult, forcing them to pursue land routes.

The hysteria of European leaders against refugees is completely misplaced given the low numbers that have applied for asylum in EU member states.  Only 0.25 percent of Syrian refugees, or 250,000, have applied for asylum in the EU. Denmark has engaged in an aggressive anti-refugee propaganda campaign and policy reforms to discourage refugees from arriving. France too has embraced a policy of limiting refugee access to services and amenities in France.

Shifting the focus back to the Anglophone countries of Australia, US and Canada, their collective response towards refugees has been dismal and pathetic. The US, which has been directly involved in military interventions that have produced the uprooting of populations in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, has not been welcoming to refugees from these countries.  Given the size of its economy, the US could easily absorb a significant number of refugees. Faith-based groups have started campaigning to bring 100,000 refugees to the US. Global pressure and coverage of the plight of refugees has forced even the US to reconsider their refugee policy. However, the most recent decision of Barack Obama, to admit 10,000 Syrians over the next year, falls short. Since the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, the United States has  accepted only 1,700 Syrians.

The Canadian government’s response was brought to the fore with the death of Aylan Kurdi, whose family had expressed a desire to resettle in Canada. The Canadian government changed its laws, which made it very difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to be accepted in the country, ranking Canada fifteenth in terms of treatment of asylum seekers. The Canadian government had agreed to admit 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, but public pressure after the death of Aylan forced the government to increase that number by another 10,000.

Australia’s response to the global refugee crisis has been to erect camps on its own territory as well as in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Refugees whose asylum cases are rejected are then deported from these camps. Refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Sri Lanka and Iraq arrive by sea, many losing their lives and falling into heavy debts. Australia refers to refugees as “illegal maritime arrivals,” a phrase that not only criminalizes them but also takes away from the urgency of their circumstances and their need for asylum. Concerns have also been raised by critics about Australia’s treatment of refugees in detention camps.

In the Middle East, GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been heavily involved in the Syrian conflict through their support for the Syrian opposition, have decided to keep their borders closed to refugees even though financially these countries can easily accommodate large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis. Instead, Saudi Arabia has stated that it will do its part by providing humanitarian for other Arab host countries.

Until recently, most media have represented refugees as poor, helpless individuals and families who want to settle in Europe and live on welfare, fanning xenophobia, racism and intolerance against refugees. The truth, as many of the refugees themselves have indicated, is that what draws them to Europe is the opportunity for work, a better education system and a future for their children. Restricting the free movement of people, whether they are fleeing war or economic hardship, will not make the problem go away. Desperate people will continue to risk their lives to get to Europe and secure a better life.

MAN: The EU and US responses have reflected their general approach to Syria since 2011: confused and contradictory. Germany has welcomed large numbers of refugees and pledged to accept more, only to recently shut its borders to manage the flow. Sweden by contrast was and continues to be considered a welcoming destination. Each European country has different policies. They don’t know what to do and the crisis is overwhelming them.  It bears recalling that the EU was considering preventing refugees from crossing the Mediterranean by bombing smuggling boats docked on the Libyan coast. Since 2012, Italy has stopped registering refugees and allowed them to continue to other EU states.

Given the way the refuges crisis is developing, we shouldn’t expect a common EU response to materialize anytime soon. Every country has different needs and absorptive capacities, and differing socio-political trends that may be more or less welcoming to refugees. Greece is financially bankrupt and Greeks might even soon join the stream of people flowing from Asia and Africa towards northern Europe.

As for the GCC countries they also bear responsibility in creating this massive refugee crisis; the millions of petrodollars they poured into the Syrian conflict displaced millions of Syrians. GCC funding of the war in Syria is disproportional in comparison with their contribution to aid and relief programs. Their reluctance to take in refugees reflects the fact that GCC countries have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and, thus, place severe restrictions on any foreign resident, refugee or otherwise.

YAS: In assessing the policy (non-)responses of the European Union, United States, and GCC, the first thing that strikes me is the incredible similarity of the anti-refugee discourse in all of these regions.  They all speak of the various “threats” the refugee/migrant population pose to their societies, from security to economic to cultural.

The misery and destruction that fuels “refugeeness” cannot be disconnected from the political, economic, and military policies pursued by the EU, US, and GCC. This does not mean the Syrian regime and its allies do not share responsibility. They do, big time. But let us concentrate on the EU, US ,and GCC. What should be clear by now is that their policies towards Syria have prolonged the war in that country, while they have sought to ensure the fallout (in whatever form) does not reach their neighborhood. This is why, for example, they are obsessed with emphasizing the “large” amounts of aid they have been supplying to Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey.

This question actually touches on what should be very important issues for the twenty-first century: identity; the sustainability of borders and freedom of mobility for people; the need to scrutinize foreign policies consumed by militarization and the war on terror; and the destructive nature of the international capitalist system among other pressing questions. These questions have either been avoided on account of vested political/economic interests, or have been shelved due to incompetence or lack of political will.

What should also be noted is that the policies of the EU, US, and GCC are not really that new. They have always been hostile towards hosting refugee populations, thereby placing most of the burden on the “Global South”.