Discussing the European Refugee ‘Crisis’ and the UK’s Responsibilities.

We had a very well attended fringe meeting in Bournemouth on this important issue – helped and sustained by the great Dorset  High Tea, kindly provided by Liberal Democrat Voice.

There are over 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, 22 million of whom are refugees who have left their country of origin. Over half of refugees are children. Nearly 90% of refugees currently reside in states bordering conflict zones in the global south. A relatively minimal amount have sought and been granted safety in western European states. This insightful and fascinating fringe event explored and analysed the European response to refugee flows and the UK’s involvement in that response and their policies towards refugees.

Professor Brad Blitz, Professor of International Politics at Middlesex university, opened the discussion with the serious concern that there is very little critical evaluation or accountability of the EU and UK policies towards refugees. Aid and humanitarian polices are not currently based on enough evidence of effectiveness, and decision-making is poorly informed. Numerous reports have condemned French and in particular UK policies as failing to protect refugee children, failing to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants, and the failure of EU’s policy of containment.

Professor Blitz emphasised a note of caution in using the term European refugee ‘crisis’ as it fails to acknowledge that crossings of the Mediterranean and informal settlements have been occurring for over a decade, and the term can invite a reactionary ill-informed response rather than a well-considered and sustainable legal and political framework through which to aid and settle refugees.

A reactionary response aptly describes the majority of EU states’ policies towards the influx of refugees and migrants from 2015-2016 (Germany being a notable exception). European states responded with border enforcement, increased passport control between Schengen area countries, and the construction of fences (notable examples being the 180km fences on the Hungarian border as well as like blockades at Idomeni and Calais). These measures reflect an ‘inhospitality towards migrants’, leave thousands of refugees and migrants stranded on borders. They also have a knock on effect on Lebanon and Jordan who have similarly reinforced border controls in relation to Syrians. 

Professor Blitz drew attention to the controversial EU-Turkey ‘statement’ which, though not an official legally binding agreement, sees the forced relocation of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe to Turkey in return for billions of Euros. This deal has displaced thousands to Turkey which is becoming increasingly authoritarian, has a questionable human rights record, has limited ability to adequately support and protect basic human needs of refugees and provides severely limited access to the labour market which can result in destitution.

Professor Blitz suggested that he EU has ‘not been an exercise in refugee protection but an exercise in border management’.  There has been a failure of responsibility sharing as states push refugees from one state to another and policies have closed off opportunities for refugee protection. EU states have responded not on the basis of a humanitarian duty but on the basis of border security. Professor Blitz emphasised the need to decouple humanitarian policy from security policy, to design UK humanitarian policy on the basis of evidence, and to continue to advocate for safe and legal routes and humanitarian visas for refugees as an alternative to dangerous sea and border crossings.  You can see the slides of Professor Blitz’s presentation here.

Dr Ruvi Ziegler Associate Professor in International Refugee Law at the University of Reading then spoke about the framework of the EU asylum policies and the (non-constructive) role of the UK. Dr Ziegler highlighted that EU states can return refugees and migrants back to the first EU state of entry, normally Greece or Italy, pursuant to the Dublin regulation. This is clearly not an equitable system of responsibility-sharing and places significant pressure on the asylum systems of those countries. EU states differ in their acceptance of the need for a truly common European asylum system. Some states, such as the Visegrad group (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) opposed the temporary relocation scheme agreed by a qualified majority vote in the EU Council. There are also differences between EU states asylum and integration models. The German model of immediate access to integration facilities, language tuition, a right to work after six months, and support networks is successful and should provide an example of how EU states can effectively manage and support refugees. This is contrasted with the UK system which detain more migrants than any other EU state has minimal language or community support and refuse access to work for 12 months for asylum seekers or until their claim is granted.

Dr. Ziegler expressed fear and concern that the UK is not playing its role in the European asylum system or providing solutions and is increasingly excluded from summits. It is also concerning that Theresa May has shown little interest in being included and taking on responsibilities and in fact shows signs of wanting to restrict obligations to refugees. The lack of political will from the UK to provide a more engaged and humanitarian response to refugees must be addressed. Dr. Ziegler therefore argued that the UK’s involvement in the EU response has been inadequate and that the EU response itself has been inconsistent and not-satisfactorily sharing the responsibility to settle and integrate refugees.

The fringe event concluded with the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the UK giving an update on the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have crossed from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the past few weeks. There are serious concerns about the ability to meet their basic humanitarian needs of food, water and shelter.

The central message from the fringe event then seemed to be that as we are currently witnessing the largest number of refugees ever recorded globally, responding to refugee flows will be a prominent challenge for the foreseeable future which requires durable solutions. It is essential to design sustainable political policies and legal frameworks to be able to respond in a way that protects the rights and wellbeing of refugees and reach fair responsibility-sharing agreements between states. It is clear that the EU-wide and UK policy has failed in this respect, is ineffective, costly and has not been based on evidence or humanitarian ideals. The discussion has revealed that there are feasible and more humane alternatives to our current response. Therefore in imposing the current system we avoidably deny the opportunities for refugees, who have legitimate claims, to reach and enjoy safety. It is clear then that European states, individually and collectively, can and ought to do more to aid and settle refugees. Professor Blitz suggests that we ought to continue to advance the moral argument for reform towards policies that protect the well-being and dignity of refugees and keep up public pressure on politicians who, as polls have shown, are less sympathetic towards refugees than the general public. Mobilisation of this public support for a more humane and evidence-based refugee policy is necessary to bring about change.


* Bradley is an active member of the Lib Dems as a council member for both the SLF and LD4SOS, standing for local elections in 2014 and 2016 and as borough organiser for Camden in 2016. He also has a leading role in the Lib Dem campaign to raise donations for refugees and lobbying the government to settle more refugees. He is currently studying for his PhD in moral and political philosophy specialising in the philosophy of migration, borders and refugees.

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  • William Fowler 29th Sep '17 - 9:38am

    Current refugee crisis is small beer compared to what is going to happen in the future, not just melting ice-caps taking out huge chunks of countries but some super strains of stuff like Ebola making whole continents go on the run – be interesting to know LibDem policy on mass influx of refugees carrying a modern, untreatable version of the plague? Reality at the moment is that Nature is fighting back against mass overpopulation etc so you can expect disaster after disaster.

  • suzanne Fletcher 29th Sep '17 - 2:38pm

    you are right, William Fowler, the impact of climate change will be massive, and there will inevitable be huge population shifts, not likely to be managed or planned, either.
    What are Lib Dems saying about it ? there was a big policy debate with strong recommendations at our conference on the Saturday, and further work is going to be done in this. we can only hope that other parties will pick this up too and take forward.
    Climate change is already affecting many very poor countries already, thinking of Bangladesh where there are devastating effects of flooding caused by climate change.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Sep '17 - 7:34pm

    The UK should help Bangladesh. Either Boris goes there with his chequebook, or there should be a motion in the House of Commons to reduce his salary.

  • Richard Underhill, Boris doesn’t have “his” chequebook he has “our” chequebook.

  • This is a complicated issue. Surely, immigration without somewhere to go to is to be avoided if possible. I would see a greater role for embassies and online applications.
    Crossing borders is somewhere that some control can be gained. Taking the immigrants’ goals, the situation on the ground in that preferred destination and avoiding the need to travel are all important. Some sort of online clearing system for intending migrants would seem sensible.

  • Clive Sneddon 3rd Oct '17 - 2:38pm

    What I take from William Fowler’s comment is the reality of human disasters coming from climate change as well as war, and total disbelief that anyone can do anything about alleviating disaster. The Lib Dems I know want help to be available to all those we can help, whether in Britain or their home country. That means accepting those who suffer disaster as fellow human beings, whom we should listen to, and try to help. For those who want to come to Britain, a small minority of all refugees, we should be supporting legal ways for them to travel here, and then seek to settle them and allow them to work as soon as possible. Helping people when they need help is also what we seek to do for everyone born in Britain.

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