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The migrant problem

The current migration flow into Europa demands effective measures. Leiden experts examine whether these measures are legal and hold up a mirror to policy-makers.

Europe is currently immersed in the migrant problem. Hundreds of thousands of people from countries such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan are leaving for Europe in search of a better life. Migration is currently one of the most hotly debated issue in the political debate.

In the case of the Greek debt crisis, European leaders eventually managed to set aside their individual interests and find a solution. However, the refugee crisis is more difficult to resolve because it involves factors beyond Europe's control.

European member states have reached an agreement in Brussels to resettle refugees, but in practice such an agreement carries very little weight considering how few have been resettled.  In Central Europe fences are even being erected to hold back the enormous flow of migrants. In the heat of the debate it is sometimes easy to lose sight of fundamental rights, particularly those of the migrants; Leiden researchers aim to hold up a mirror to the policy-makers. Jorrit Rijpma, lecturer in European Law, describes the refugee crisis as a crisis of government authority. All too often we see events occurring that are not permissible according to European legal frameworks, such as sending boats back to Libya or Turkey. 

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive in Greece (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The lesson of Vietnam

Leiden historian Irial Glynn compares the political response to boat people in Australia and Italy since 1989. Both countries have experienced similar issues with boat people, but their responses have been very different. Australia has formulated agreements with island states in the Pacific Ocean. In  exchange for financial support, the Australian refugee problem is passed on to these islands, a move that leaves the boat refugees in a legal grey area. In the case of Italy, the country has in its recent history tried to make agreements with Libya, but these were complicated by decisions in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and by escalating problems in North Africa and the Middle East.
Not only can we learn from present-day comparisons, we can also gain important insights from events further back in time. Boat refugees are not a new phenomenon: in the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands people fled from Vietnam. In 1979 an international conference managed to resettle alomst half a million refugees in eighteen months. This kind of historical knowledge can serve as a touchstone in the current migrant crisis. In September 2015, for example, the EU pledged to relocate 160,000 refugees over two years. So far, however, European states have managed to resettle only a tiny fraction of the pledged number.

European security strategy

The  influx of refugees is, of course, also an effect of armed conflicts in different regions around Europe. A significant share of the refugees come from Syria and Iraq, but civil war is also still raging in Libya, and the east of Ukraine is a further area of unrest. Given this unrest, researchers at the Center for Global Affairs believe that Europe needs to review its own security strategy. In a world of scarce raw materials, ‘global warming’ and the formation of new alliances, the division of power has become more diffuse, which makes it important for Europe to act as a single entity on foreign policy. The ‘soft power’ of Europe also has to be supplemented with ‘hard power’ via more trade relations, so that, should circumstances require, Europe will be in a position to take appropriate military action.

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