The European ‘refugee crisis’ and the UK’s responsibilities

More than 65.3 million people are displaced globally, including 21.3 million refugees (UNHCR data); yet the vast majority are in ‘Global South’ countries. The ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe is really a crisis of solidarity.

It is a story of the inequity of the Dublin regulation, which operates as a counter-burden sharing mechanism between frontier countries, such as Italy and Greece, and far-flung places such as the UK. Britain opted into Dublin (which enables it to return asylum-seekers to their first port of EU entry) whilst opting out of other components of the Common European Asylum System that it considers less desirable.

Crisis of solidarity, because the (commendable) attempt by the Council to adopt in September 2015 a temporary emergency relocation scheme from Greece and Italy to other EU Member States faced vociferous opposition from the ‘Visegrad Group’. In June, the EU Commission opened Infringement proceedings against Czech republic, Hungary, Poland for non-compliance with their obligations. But most other Member States, while not flagrantly rejecting the scheme, are dragging their feet: two years in, only 44,334 places (out of 160,000 envisaged) have been formally pledged. There are also post-recognition challenges arising for beneficiaries of international protection (see my recent post).

Meanwhile, realising that her praiseworthy approach to absorbing refugees in Germany has not been followed by other leading EU Member States, the German Chancellor played a leading role in reaching the legally questionable EU-Turkey statement in March 2016, turning several Greek islands into de facto detention centres for asylum-seekers whose legal status and protection in Turkey were precarious.

The reduction in crossing from Turkey to Greece following the ‘statement’ was substituted by an increase in crossings from Libya to Italy. 101,210 persons arrived irregularly in Europe via the Mediterranean in the first half of 2017. UNHCR notes that, since September 2015, at least 8,500 persons have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean. In response, the Italian government has recently announced that it will send naval forces to Libya to help reduce the flow of ‘illegal’ migration, based on an agreement with Libya’s National Consensus Government.

Why do refugees arrive in European countries illegally? First and foremost, because absent humanitarian visas, they cannot arrive legally. In X and X v. Belgium, the ECJ held that Member States are not required, under EU law, to grant humanitarian visas to persons who wish to enter their territory in order to apply for asylum (though they remain free to do so based on their national law). The Christian family from Aleppo that was refused a humanitarian visa by the Belgian embassy in Beirut will need to find an (illegal) way to reach safety. Regrettably, the ECJ did not follow Advocate General Mengozzi’s compassionate interpretation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, contending that the right to asylum under the Charter must be effective.

Worse still, an international carrier failing to check that a traveller holds a valid visa is liable to sanctions under EU law, so an airline would not fly an Eritrean to Rome without one. Did you ever ask yourself why you and I can pay less than 100£ to cross the Mediterranean safely, but refugees pay smugglers thousands of pounds for a precarious crossing on a rubber dinghy?

Where does the UK come in? This readership will be aware of the government’s unmet obligations to absorb 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees under the ‘Dubs amendment’ (section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016). The Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary’s (LD4SOS) mini-manifesto for the 2017 General Election called to ‘offer safe and legal routes to the UK for refugees to prevent them from making dangerous journeys, which too often result in the loss of life’ and to ‘participate in EU search and rescue operations’. Regrettably, In her speech in the UN General Assembly in New York last year following the high-level meeting on refugees and migrants, the Prime Minister’s main offering was a call for stricter interpretation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, introducing a ‘safe first country’ approach that would increase the disproportionate burden already borne (in respect of Syrians) by countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. May was not invited to attend the recent Summit that President Macron held in Paris with European and African leaders to address protection needs. Was this due to her unconstructive approach to refugee protection? to Brexit? or to both?

LD4SOS will host a fringe meeting at the Autumn conference (17th September, 1945-2100, Branksome room, BIC) to discuss failed and successful approaches to refugee protection,. Professor Brad Blitz, Middlesex University, founder of the Migration Observatory in Malta, which published policy briefings based on data collection in Greece, Italy and Malta, and yours truly will chat with (hopefully) many of you. The event is kindly sponsored by LDV.

* Dr. Ruvi Ziegler is Associate Professor in International Refugee Law at the University of Reading. He is an Advisory Council member of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The migration crisis in Europe was, I believe, an influential factor in the Brexit referendum. It is still in its early stages. Tens of millions more are expected to make their way to Europe over the coming years for a variety of reasons — demography, poverty, climate change, political and ethnic strife.
    We need to recognise that mass migration is here to stay – not only or even mainly refugees, but mostly economic migrants. We will have to begin to develop policies that recognise these realities of the modern world. I look forward to attending the LD4SOS fringe at Bournemouth.

  • Hear hear Joe B. No country – no, not even an island – can pull up the drawbridges and exclude the world because some people are a bit frightened of it. The Soviet Union for many years tried that – in the end the outside world got in, and because it was uncontrolled, often the worst tendencies had the most control (see oligarchs etc). The modern world has so many sophisticated ways of getting in using modern communications anyway.

    Agree with you, Joe, that the fear of refugees / economic migrants (unlike many people I think there is a huge area of overlap between these groups) caused some people to vote Leave. People were influenced by that horrible Leave.EU poster, of course. Giving a little thought to it, surely, would say to people that a problem shared is a lot nearer being solved than a policy of the 3 Wise Monkeys!

  • Whilst I am most sympathetic to the sentiments expressed in this lead article – it has one noticeable flaw : it demonstrates the party’s fixation with all things European – but there is no mention of the plight of the Rohingya in Burma (at one time part of the Britiish Empire)

    Today’s ‘Independent carries graphic accounts of children being ‘beheaded and burned alive’ as refugees continue to flood into Bangladesh (another former part of the British Empire) to escape violence.

    Has the party nothing to say about this ?

  • Arnold Kiel 5th Sep '17 - 5:30pm

    More than a solidarity chrisis; Noam Chomsky refers to the refugee crisis as a moral crisis of the western world. Not only because of our inadequate reaction to involuntary mass migration, but also, and more importantly, because of our responsibility for it (Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia are just the most recent cases).

    He opened my eyes with the following simple truth: the USA are the result of first mass emigration, then genozide on the indigenous population, and thirdly slavery. The latter produced the raw material (cotton) which formed the basis of the British industrial revolution. This historic context underlines the shamefulness of the fate of the Dubs amendment.

  • It is unfair to criticise the lack of specific mention of Rohingya, although they are a good example of the ‘global south’ refugees referred to in the first paragraph. They have almost no chance of reaching the UK without passing through a ‘safe third country’, given how poor they are and that most have no papers. The current rules will not normally require them to be granted asylum (although they may well be required not to be returned). Neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and India are deporting them back to Myanmar, so it really is an appalling situation but hard for the UK to solve without cooperation even if it wanted to (and the current May government doesn’t want to).

  • @ Jim ” It is unfair to criticise the lack of specific mention of Rohingya ”

    No it’s not. It’s about getting the EU only blinkers off and looking at issues outside the EU. It’s not just about who to admit to the UK – it’s a question of human rights, foreign aid and diplomacy.

    The issue of Rohingya was raised forcibly today in the Commons by Labour MP after Labour MP who gave the junior Foreign Office Minister a torrid time when he waffled. Didn’t hear any Lib Dem input. We used to be a Liberal Party not a one trick pony.

    It was Emily Hobhouse who got Campbell Bannerman to talk about ‘methods of Barbarism’ in South Africa.

    It was Gladstone who said of Afghanistan, “Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, are as sacred in the eye of Almighty God as are your own. Remember that He who has united you together as human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love, that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation, that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its wide scope.”

    Come on Lib Dems – rediscover your Liberalism.

  • All this is just talk. You do know that there are much lauded eu and other ie British citizens who are working on nmw for 18 months without a contract. If you can’t fulfil their dreams why accept more?

  • Richard Underhill 6th Sep '17 - 10:18am

    We should distinguish Dublin 1 from Dublin 2 and not forget to blame Margaret Thatcher and her usually uncooperative attitude to consensual agreements.
    This is an agreement that works in theory but not in practice. With great efficiency Austria stamped passports and kept records etcetera of people coming from further east. There were lots of court cases trying to decide the principle as to whether a country such as France was currently a “safe country”.
    We should also remember that an Italian leader did a deal with Gadaffi in which people transiting Libya were detained indefinitely and not allowed to return to their country of nationality.
    A priority for the UK government should be help for Bangladesh in terms of money and other resources. It is often the poorest countries in the world that understand the problems best, Tanzania for instance.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Sep '17 - 10:22am

    President Obama helped the dreamers. Donald Trump has reversed their dreams.

  • David Evershed 6th Sep '17 - 12:47pm

    There are many poor countries in the world with populations of billions of people.

    The solution is not to enable their populations to move as economic migrants to the richer countries but to improve the governance and economics of the poor countries.

  • JoeB “We need to recognise that mass migration is here to stay – not only or even mainly refugees, but mostly economic migrants.”

    I disagree. Current levels of mass migration are wildly unsustainable both economically and politically. Infrastructure, public services and housing are all tight as a drum and it’s simply not possible to build our way out of trouble on any of them given the number of would-be migrants; many of our fellow citizens are experiencing the harms arising from this, particularly those in more precarious circumstances.

    So politically, if sane people do not come up with good answers then insane people will come up with bad ones. Welcome to Brexit.

    The 1951 Refugee Convention, largely based on the experience of handling the huge numbers displaced in Europe in the closing stages of WW2, was a wonderfully humane and pragmatic approach to refugees. But the world has moved on; many who call themselves ‘refugees’ but who are in fact economic migrants are dying in large numbers (and not just crossing the Mediterranean – perhaps as many again perish in the Sahara etc.) to reach countries that do not want them.

    So, we must think of ways to preserve the best of the 1951 Convention while adapting it to current circumstances. We must not close our minds to the unsustainability of current trends.

  • Ruvi Ziegler 7th Sep '17 - 10:51am

    Many thanks for engaging thoughtfully and constructively with my article. A few succinct responses.

    First, an update re the EU relocation scheme: the ECJ has (correctly, IMHO) rejected the Polish and Hungarian claims that the scheme is illegal, paving the way for hopefully effective infringement proceedings against them for their non-compliance. See the ECJ press release:

    Regarding David Raw’s comment on the plight of the Rohingya in Burma: you make a valuable point which, due to the topic of this article and its context (as a precursor to the fringe meeting) I only hinted at, pointing the fact that most refugees are in global south countries. Now, while (unlike in the European space) there is no global refugee court or enforcement mechanisms save for the (never used) Article 38 referral to the ICJ, all signatories to the 1951 Convention have recognised its global nature and the responsibilities that ensue (see the Preamble). The UK can and should make its voice heard in condemnation of the treatment of the Rohingya. I should hope that our Lib Dem MPs and Peers will do so.
    Critically, the UK should not take the view these are internal matters; readers will recall that this was the PM’s reaction to the so-called travel ban instituted by President Trump in January 2017 to the detriment of refugees from 7, then 6 countries in the middle east.

    Regarding JoeB’s comment: I look forward to your participation in our fringe session at Conference. It is hard to contest the fact that (more) of the world is on the move and that we are witnessing mixed migration flows. Nevertheless, we should be careful not to throw the (refugee convention) baby with the broader (migration causes) bathwater. If we do so, the likes of Mrs May and Mr Orban will push (as they already do) for a more restrictive approach. I agree (I think) with Tim13 on this front.

    Regarding Richard’s comment: you are absolutely right to note that the Italian cooperation with the Libyan authorities is a (more sophisticated, probably in anticipation of judicial challenges) incarnation of the agreement with Gaddafi (which included interdictions at sea, found to be in breach of the ECHR in Hirsi v Italy.

  • Ruvi Ziegler 7th Sep '17 - 11:17pm

    * correction to my comment above: the ECJ cases were brought by Slovakia and Hungary. Poland, nevertheless, came out strongly in support of the Hungarian position and (as noted above) is subject to EC infringement proceedings.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Sep '17 - 4:02pm

    Apart from humanitarian considerations, the UK’s approach to immigration seems like much of its stance to Brexit to underscore that we do not understand that in order to gain from international agreements, we must also shoulder our responsibilities. Trying to negotiate our position without this sense of fairness is what is driving the EU hard response to our negotiations. Give and take is an essential part of any negotiation and we do not seem to be too keen on the giving.

  • David Raw,

    After the British conquest of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) in 1825, the province and Burma were administered as part of British India, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis (or “Chittagonians” as the British called them) flooded into Arakan to work.

    This mass immigration boosted the colonial economy, but local Arakanese bitterly resented it. They had no control over it, believing that their jobs and land were being taken over by people whom they still call “illegal immigrants”, or just (pejoratively) “Bengalis”. Relations further soured during the second world war when the retreating British armed some Muslims to fight against the Rakhine, who largely sided with the Japanese.

    In post-war Burma, the Rakhine, like the other 135 officially recognised ethnic groups of the country such as the Kachin, Karen and Chin, were discriminated against by the Burmese military governments. As one Rakhine politician puts it, “we are therefore the victims of Muslimisation and Burmese chauvinism”. Myanmar’s post-independence governments, in turn, saw themselves as the victims of British colonial oppression, so both the Rakhine and the Burmese authorities have been more concerned with their own sense of victimhood than any claims of the Rohingyas. This is why Myanmar’s governments have never granted them citizenship or even recognised them as an indigenous ethnic group.

    Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Burma and a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.says there are no quick answers on Burma’s Ronhingya’s as Aung San Suu Kyi is finding out

  • Ruvi Ziegler 10th Sep '17 - 6:51pm

    Good evening,
    Re the Rohingya, my colleague Suzanne Fletcher has turned my attention to an EDM co-initiated by Tom Brake MP on 26th January 2017. I am not aware of any newer development. The EDM is available here:
    It reads:
    ‘That this House expresses deep concern at ongoing human rights violations being committed against the Rohingya by the Burmese Army and security forces, including rape, executions, torture, mass arrests and the burning of villages; further expresses concern that lifesaving aid is being blocked to more than 100,000 displaced Rohingya; notes that the government and military are denying human rights violations are taking place; agrees with the conclusion of the Government that the interim report of the investigation commission established by the Government of Burma is not credible; calls therefore on the Government to support a genuinely independent UN Commission of Inquiry into the totality of the situation in Rakhine State; and further requests that the Government asks the UN Secretary General to personally go to Burma to lead negotiations to allow unfettered humanitarian aid access.’

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • George Thomas
    Didn't the Tories (as part of coalition) cut top rate of tax from 50% to 45% during middle of need to raise money/in wider world of economic crisis? Coalition o...
  • Steven
    I agree Jason Connor. Those electors who want PR can't really trust Labour to deliver upon it. I would want a manifesto pledge to be written in blood before I b...
  • Steven
    On the United Kingdom mainland only Scotland's Holyrood and the London Assembly can be described as being described as being proper, full examples of Proportion...
  • Steven
    Unfortunately, FPTP single member constituencies produce such huge levels of disproportionality of election results that in mixed PR AMS systems you need to hav...
  • Jason Connor
    I don't understand why people are so easily taken in by the Labour party on electoral reform. They want power at any cost and would only remotely consider it if...