The European Union (EU) has long been viewed as a liberal, multilateral success story. It has ensured peace in Europe, allowed for free movement of goods and people, and heralded in an age of regional cooperation never before seen. It has also been responsible for helping its members grow economically, and fostered social and economic equality throughout the European continent. Despite this, the European Union’s response to several crises has left much to be desired, particularly the Syrian refugee crisis. A fatal flaw of Europe’s governing body is its inability to turn European values into functional and outward facing policy, and this has been evidenced by its response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The EU has been happy to allow other countries, namely Turkey, to shoulder a disproportionate amount of responsibility in handling Syrian refugees. The European Union should reevaluate its policy toward refugees from Syria, and do more to share the burden held by Turkey in accommodating some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, millions of Syrians have been displaced from their homes. The situation peaked in 2015, when there were over three million Syrians requesting refugee status in Europe, and another four million people internally displaced within Syria. Many of the people seeking to reach Europe began their journey by crossing Syria’s border with Turkey, which struggled to accommodate them. As a result, the European Union and Turkey came to an agreement in 2016 that sought to make refugee travel safer and easier to track. During the peak of the refugee crisis, many refugees were making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean on makeshift rafts from Turkey to the Greek Isles, which is the closest European territory. Under the terms of the 2016 agreement, Turkey would seek to discourage refugees from making illegal crossings to Greece and would accept the return of any refugee who was caught in Greece without the proper documentation. In exchange, the European Union would accept one refugee from Turkey for every one person returned to Turkey from Greece. The European Union also agreed to provide funding to Turkey that would be used to improve the humanitarian conditions for refugees still in Turkey. The logic behind the agreement was to discourage refugees from entering the European Union unofficially, and to ensure that refugees weren’t taking unnecessary risks to reach Europe.
In reality, the deal halted the progress of refugees, and forced them to stay in Turkey with no means to continue their journey. Despite funding from the EU, Turkey remains ill-equipped to handle the millions of refugees within its borders, of which many of whom have no interest in remaining in Turkey. The European Union as a body abdicated its responsibility to protect refugees in accordance with international law in order to appease certain member states who were popularizing anti-immigrant legislation. The EU leadership in Brussels bowed to pressure from far-right political parties in Austria, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere, despite a European Court of Justice ruling that facilitated the resettlement of refugees in European nations. The European Union was happy to turn a blind eye to the plight of Syrian refugees, and allow Turkey to shoulder the burden of the crisis in 2016, despite the Turkish government having far fewer resources to accommodate refugees than the EU. By failing to adequately address the Syrian refugee situation, the European Union abandoned the principles of liberalism, tolerance, and equality that it was founded on.
While the European Union undoubtedly failed in its response to the refugee crisis in 2016, it has the ability to correct its mistakes. There is another refugee crisis brewing due to the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib. Turkey remains at full capacity of refugees it is able to handle, and the European Union must take proactive measures to ensure that people are able to make it to the European continent. The EU has already enacted measures to deter refugees from entering Greece, and is on the precipice of repeating the same mistakes of 2016. Each EU member state is legally bound to accept a set quota of refugees, and the leadership in Brussels must ensure that these laws are followed. If countries such as Austria, Poland, and Slovakia once again revolt against refugee resettlement in their countries, the EU leadership in Brussels must take swift and decisive action to ensure its laws are being followed, and take action against countries who place themselves in opposition. The European Union is quick to condemn human rights abuses by authoritarian leaders, and rightly so, but its support to victims of such abuse leaves much to be desired. Thousands of Syrians have died trying to reach Europe while fleeing what the EU has called an “unacceptable” situation. The European Union finds itself in a position to end needless violence and provide a safe haven to vulnerable people. It made a grave error in 2016, and cannot afford to repeat its mistakes now.