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There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the European refugee crisis

Who is welcome as a refugee, and who is not? And how is that decided? What role do humanitarian organisations play in the debate surrounding refugees? Doctoral candidate Teuntje Vosters is investigating the influence Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) exert on European policy on migration and refugees.

‘During my work placement with the American International Rescue Committee, I would go to the airport to pick people up who had been living in a refugee camp,’ Vosters relates. ‘They were the “lucky” ones, the ones the American government had invited to start a new life in America. I helped them with the essentials, the things you need to sort out first when you’re in that situation: a house, a job, a bank account, that kind of thing. In that one-to-one contact with refugees, I kept asking myself how the resettlement of refugees works; who decides what will happen to which refugees, and how is that decision made?’ She decided to devote the rest of her master’s degree in Migration and Global Interdependence at Leiden University to issues relating to migration and refugees. That programme later gained her a place as a doctoral candidate at Leiden University.

NGOs have the power to influence how we think about refugees

Vosters discovered that the influence of NGOs such as OXFAM International and Save the Children plays an important role in determining policy around migration and refugees. ‘NGOs have the power to influence how we think about refugees,’ Vosters explains, ‘not least through the media. They can bring certain debates about migration and refugees into the public or political conversation. That way, they take the initiative and set the agenda; they determine what’s important and what gets talked about.’ Why do they do that? ‘Because they want to change things,’ says Vosters. ‘They’re experts on refugees – because they literally work with refugees – so they have detailed knowledge of what’s going on and what is needed. Policy makers and politicians study the documents NGOs put out and base their policy decisions on those publications. In that sense, input from NGOs is crucial.’

Migration is not a recent phenomenon

Vosters proposed her PhD research topic in 2015. That year saw a peak in the number of refugees entering Europe, which caused a political crisis. As Vosters explains, ‘It’s important to me that we realise that the current refugee debate is nothing new. When you’ve done a master’s degree in History, you know that politicians and the public have faced refugee crises before. The current debate is one more time when the issue has become relevant.’ Vosters feels that the current public debate lacks a sound knowledge of history – even though it’s useful to know how these kinds of issues have happened in the past, and how they were dealt with. 

Vosters is researching the influence of NGOs by studying four key moments in history, in the hope that she can give NGOs and policy makers more insight into the processes they are dealing with today: influencing policy and making policy. Building a historical narrative can illustrate why NGOs were sometimes able to influence policy, and sometimes were not: offering an explanation. ‘Influence itself is very difficult to measure, but it’s something you can explain, something you can help people understand better. That’s what I’m trying to do with my research,’ Vosters explains.

Doing research all over the world

Vosters did a large part of her research in the international archives of the NGOs she is studying. ‘My research there involved reading correspondence, reports, minutes of all kinds of meetings, internal evaluations, that kind of thing. My research took me to New York, Geneva and the United Kingdom. It was fantastic to do research in so many different places.’

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the refugee crisis

Vosters’ research shows how complex the refugee crisis is – especially at a European level – and how many different actors are involved. ‘In the debate today we talk about it in very simplistic terms and we think in terms of fairly “simple” solutions – MORE BORDER CONTROL! PARTNERSHIPS WITH THIRD COUNTRIES! – in the hope that people will just stay in their own countries,’ Vosters remarks. ‘I don’t think those solutions will be sustainable in the long term; they don’t match the complexity of the debate I’m seeing. If you don’t understand that complexity, you won’t be able to come up with appropriate, longer-term solutions.’

So what is the solution?

‘That’s something I get asked a lot,’ says Vosters. ‘That question is actually at the root of the problem, because there is no simple answer. First you have to realise that the refugee crisis has so many different facets to it. The sheer numbers of actors who want to influence refugee policy are huge: refugees themselves are really important, but so is the media; the various political layers, with their differing interests; international organisations; executive bodies like the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA); religious groups; NGOs, etc., etc. That’s why I think it would be good if we could learn to view the issue in a different way. Improving our understanding of history would be a good start, to gain more insight into the magnitude of an issue like this. That way, maybe we’d stop looking for the one ultimate solution, and start thinking and acting one step at a time. That would make us look at the debate in a totally different way.’

Vosters goes on: ‘I can actually give an example of one successful solution in European history. When I studied the first of my key moments, I saw that around 1.5 million stateless Russian refugees had ended up stuck in refugee camps in Europe. In 1922 the international community created a passport for these people so they could travel safely, to where their families were or somewhere they could find work. The passport didn’t grant citizenship, but it gave them mobility. That was a major international collaboration that tackled the problem of “burden sharing” – the proportionate distribution of responsibilities between EU member states in relation to refugees – in a fair, humane way.’

What I enjoy most is my search for answers

When asked how her research is going, Vosters responded, ‘I’m in a very turbulent phase. Most of the research is finished, but now I have to reach actual conclusions, contextualise everything and place that in the wider debate. Basically, I have to do a lot of writing, and that’s going pretty slowly – not least because I’m not very good at it. But the reason why I started this research is my innate curiosity about the subject. The topic of migration still raises so many questions for me. So what I enjoy most is not so much writing the thesis as my search for answers.’

What's next?

‘I’ll definitely still have a lot of questions, even after I finish my research,’ says Vosters. ‘Right now I’m doing research as an academic discipline, but I can learn a lot from the fields of the various actors who are focused on the same issue as I am: NGOs and the government. I think it would be interesting to explore the questions I’m studying now from their perspective, to look at things through a different lens.’

Lieselotte van de Ven
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