EU’s response to migration crisis is too little, too late

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, March 2014. (Photo: European People's Party)
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, March 2014. (Photo: European People’s Party)

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Katie Rashid is a writer specializing in the Middle East and International Migration. She has an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and formerly worked for the Arab Studies Institute and Northwestern University’s MENA Program.

The refugee crisis splashed across the news daily is not new. While it has certainly taken a new turn—the International Organization for Migration estimated 350,000 detected migrants at the borders of the EU between January and August of 2015, up from 280,000 in 2014—it is rooted in years of violence and war around the world. It did not start a few months ago with the increase in the number of arrivals and an increase in capsizing boats. Refugees fleeing from war, violence and repression in Syria, Eritrea, the DRC, Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria, just to name a few, are all victims of conflicts in unstable states that have been raging for many years.  According to Eurostat’s May 2015 report, there were 431,000 asylum applications filed in the European Union in 2013, and 626,000 in 2014. In 2014, asylum applications from Syria alone reached 122,000. From 2000 to 2014, the IOM reported that 22,000 migrants died in an effort to reach Europe.

Earlier this month, the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker called for the implementation of a quota system in which each member state would be responsible for resettling the 160,000 people currently in Greece, Hungary and Italy. According to this plan, the number of people accepted would be based on each country’s current population, economic strength, unemployment rate and the number of asylum applications approved over the past five years. In his State of the European Union speech on September 9, Juncker warned, “Do not underestimate the urgency. Do not underestimate our imperative to act.” Yet, despite Juncker’s strong call to action, Germany so far has been unable to persuade Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland to accept the system.

The question we are left with is why the EU has been so late to take action. With more than 430,000 asylum applications filed back in 2013 and the same conflicts raging that have brought in a steady stream of refugees for years, the European Union should have seen this coming. That the EU is only now scrambling to find an approach to this situation with no agreement in sight is just one more disturbing reality of the migration crisis.

Furthermore, whatever the EU comes up with will be just that—an approach. A plan that will allow for its states to simply “do something” with the thousands upon thousands of migrants crossing their borders. Once the EU comes to an agreement on where these individuals should go and how many should be sent, they will then face the even larger task of supporting the refugees in the asylum and integration processes, both immensely complex systems in their own rights.

By reading the signs and anticipating the influx, a sufficient approach could have been constructed years ago that would allow for the support of those seeking refuge. Instead the opposite was done. A glaring example is the termination of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum in October 2014. Responding to the death of 300 migrants off Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian government initiated Mare Nostrum to prevent further migrant deaths at sea. A true search and rescue mission, in its single year of operation it was estimated to have saved around 150,000 people and covered about 70,000 square kilometers of the Mediterranean.

Battling its own recession and trying to absorb what it could of the people landing on its shores, Italy simply could not afford the 9 million euro per month that Mare Nostrum cost. Thus it pulled the reigns and Operation Triton, conducted by Frontex, was implemented in its place. In contrast to Mare Nostrum’s expansive coverage, Triton extends only 30 nautical miles from the Italian coast and has a budget of 2.9 million euro per month. It is meant not to be search and rescue operation but merely a border protection system. Within the first few months of 2015, Triton saw a dramatic rise in deaths at sea. In April, the EU heads of state attempted to bolster the operation, tripling its financial resources and adding more vessels, but its impact still cannot be compared to that of Mare Nostrum.

The equation is simple: those fleeing war and escaping conflict and human rights abuses at home will continue to arrive in Europe as long as these dangers persist. However, rather than anticipating the increase in refugees seeking safety via a perilous journey at sea, Italy and the rest of the EU replaced an operation that saved about 150,000 lives throughout its life cycle with one that has a much more limited capacity. Lessons were clearly not learned from the migrant influx at Italy’s southern border over the past two years, and they were certainly not passed along to the rest of Europe.

Now, with the problem exacerbated into a true crisis, Hungary has responded by building a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia and Germany is instituting temporary border controls with Austria. All the while, EU ministers scratch their heads. Perhaps the EU’s inability to plan for this crisis is a precursor to what will happen in the coming weeks and months—continued chaos at the hands of inadequate policies, a lack of unity and more unnecessary deaths.

PS21 is a nonpartisan, nongovernmental, nonideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Dangerous crossing: Only seven EU patrol boats, two planes, one helicopter on watch for migrants in Mediterranean

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Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent, currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). He tweets at @pete_apps

After as many as 900 people died when a ship carrying migrants sank in the Mediterranean this weekend, the decision of European nations to dial back search and rescue operations in the region has been heavily criticized.

Had more dedicated rescue ships reached the disaster site sooner, critics say, fewer people might have died.

The truth, however, is that European nations face a difficult dilemma, one that challenged them well before this week’s disaster. Humanitarian groups and politicians are split on the best way to handle the migrant crisis.

The international life-saving presence, some argue, makes it even easier for human traffickers to persuade desperate migrants to risk crossing the Mediterranean. In November, a British Foreign Office minister said the UK believed that the international search rescue effort had become “an unintended ‘pull factor’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

On Monday European Union foreign ministers proposed doubling the size of the EU “Triton” mission that replaced a larger Italian naval search and rescue operation in November. The massive Italian naval operation dubbed “Mare Nostrum” was designed to save lives after the deaths of 360 migrants off the island of Lampedeusa in October 2013. It provided a literal lifeline to migrants, helping an estimated 150,000 reach shore safely.

But in the year it was operational, the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean soared — and with it, the number of deaths. The United Nations estimates 219,000 people crossed in 2014, well over three times the 60,000 migrants who crossed the previous year. An additional 3,500 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year, compared to 600 in 2013. If that death toll had occurred in a war, it would have been the tenth bloodiest of 2014.

Yet cutting back rescue efforts, UNHCR says, has sent the death toll skyrocketing further. Of the 36,000 who have tried to cross this year, 1,800 are believed to have died, according to the agency. Based on that figure, one in 18 migrants died this year, compared to one in 50 last year.

The EU “Triton” mission currently has only seven relatively small patrol vessels, two planes and one helicopter. Its $3.12 million monthly budget was only a third of the previous Italian operation. It can only patrol close to the Mediterranean coastline of Italy and Malta — unlike “Mare Nostrum,” which deployed Italian warships close to the Libyan coast.

The primary focus of the Triton mission — run by EU border organization Frontex — was never search and rescue but tracking and monitoring, its leader said this week.


The only ships available for rescue now are passing merchant vessels and a much smaller number of Italian and other warships on other missions. That means the time it takes to reach a vessel in distress can be significantly longer. The Italian Navy says it will still answer distress calls, but no longer has the funds to conduct patrols and actively look for craft in trouble.

In the case of the April 18 disaster, Amnesty International says it appears the fatalities were caused by the boat overturning as a passing commercial vessel attempted to carry out a rescue. The merchant ship was simply unable to deal with the number of casualties in the water. Even before last week’s disaster, the shipping industry was arguing its vessels — which often run with small crews — were ill-prepared to deal with mass rescue and that dedicated warships or rescue craft were needed.

Just as important as rescue operations, European governments say, is managing the situation in North Africa, clamping down on organized smuggling gangs and reducing the number of small craft available to make the crossing.

Stopping migrants in Libya before they took to the Mediterranean was a key part of the West’s deal with Libya dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Since his fall, however, the country has again become a hotbed for human trafficking.

Such is the instability in Libya that significant progress is unlikely — although a Libyan security official said on Tuesday the country had turned back several boats in the last three days, containing more than 600 migrants.

Like those from South and Central America who flee to the United States, migrants heading to Europe are largely motivated by the stark difference between living standards in the European Union and the countries they are leaving behind. As border controls in Turkey and, to a lesser extent Greece, have tightened, the Mediterranean has emerged as the key route out for those who wish to leave Africa and the Middle East.

In the Caribbean, the main maritime route to the United States, U.S. Coast Guard patrols primarily aimed at drug smuggling have long rescued Cuban and other potential migrants. Those intercepted at sea, however, are returned to their point of origin.

Some kind of similar approach might offer a way forward in Europe. Some European officials favor creating specific camps in the Middle East and Africa where potential migrants can register for asylum without having to make the crossing. As it stands now, most who make it across the Italy are able to “disappear” into Europe, often heading to other countries.

In the short term, however, European states face some difficult choices — and no obvious answer.

The article was first published on Reuters on 23 April 2014.

After Arab Spring, Challenges for Islamic NGOs

Children in Yemen reading pamphlets about an Islamic Relief program to improve access to education
Children in Yemen reading pamphlets about an Islamic Relief program to improve access to education (Photo:

Pronter-friendly version here. Amjad Saleem is a political analyst and thematic expert for the World Humanitarian Summit. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21. Follow him on Twitter: @corporatesufi

Egypt’s revolution and the wider unrest following the Arab Spring produced a backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates. Caught in that were several leading Islamic charities, groups that had emerged into the mainstream international development world in the previous decade despite facing their own challenges from the West following the events of 2001.

In early November the UAE Government released its terror watch list. There were few surprises on the list, which included the likes of organisations like Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. What did raise a few eyebrows was the inclusion of several civil rights organisations, think tanks, and charities based in the US and UK.

The highest profile was Islamic Relief, the world’s largest Muslim Humanitarian Organisation, headquartered in Birmingham, UK. The ‘proscription’ prompted the British Government to ask for details on the proscription, whilst Islamic Relief subsequently released the results of an ‘audit’ which it claimed proved any innocence of wrong doing. Though not directly done in response to the UAE ruling, the audit arguably made it harder for anyone to be suspicious about the activities of the organisation and also cleared doubts raised by the Israeli government about its activities in Palestine.

The ruling signifies a change in the whole narrative regarding the Arab Spring moving from the realm of political and religious ideology to the realm of charity and civil society. How and why did these few organisations end up on such a list? The former may be easier to articulate whilst the latter is perhaps more up to speculation.

More important is the ramifications with regard to the politicisation of humanitarian action and the future of the international humanitarian system. Pressure on the charities had been building for a while. Several of the British charities had been part of the UK Government’s review of Muslim Brotherhood activities in the UK, conducted at the start of 2014. The review itself was controversial, rumored to have been done at the behest of the governments of UAE and Saudi Arabia. Relations between both governments and the Muslim Brotherhood worsened. The final report is yet to be published, but leaked transcripts show little for proscription. but its felt that the UK government is under pressure from its gulf partners to act strongly on the report.

Adding the charities to the UAE terror list, some suspect, was specifically designed to prompt greater British action. The most important point is that Islamic Relief has no direct link to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an apolitical International Humanitarian Organisation with a good track record of working with various western governments in responding to some of the most acute humanitarian disasters.

The ruling fails to distinguish between the affiliations of individuals and the vision & mission of the organisation. Though there may be individuals linked to some of these organisations who have sympathy for the Brotherhood, or a wider sympathy for the ideology of the Brotherhood (like a lot of UK based organisations and charities), this does not mean organisations like Islamic Relief are Muslim Brotherhood or even close to be equated with the likes of Al Qaeda. This is almost akin to accusing a UN organisation of being communist because a few of its members may be sympathetic to the principles of communism.

By labelling Islamic Relief, the UAE government has politicised even further the humanitarian sphere. It appears to be deliberately bringing Islamic Relief into the ideologically and geopolitically challenged sphere around the Arab Spring. It sends a signal as to what supposed ideological leanings are acceptable or unacceptable. This further complicates an already difficult scenario for Muslim charities. What effectively amounts to a proscription of Islamic Relief, adds a new chapter to the challenges facing Muslim charities. That is especially true for those based in Western countries who have already suffered from an increasingly securitised agenda post 9/11.

Counter-terrorism laws & other measures have already had a significant impact on humanitarian action (Humanitarian Policy Brief 2011), particularly provisions criminalising the transfer of resources to terrorist-linked groups or individuals. Those restrictions are irrespective of the humanitarian character of such actions or the absence of any intention to support terrorist acts. Thus there are ramifications for not only fundraising and disbursement but has actually led to a scenario of conditional humanitarian funding from donor governments, based on assurances that it is not benefiting listed individuals or organisations, and that greater security checks are being placed on local partners and implementing actors.

Unfortunately, the co-option of humanitarian actors into counter- terrorism efforts directed against one party to a conflict can undermine the principles of impartiality and neutrality. Counter-terrorism laws and other measures have also increased operating costs, slowed down administrative functions and operational response, curtailed funding and undermined humanitarian partnerships. They have also prevented access and altered the quality and coordination of assistance.

Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)
Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)

Another aspect of the securitised agenda has been the investigation and the shutting down of charities. For example, in the US without notice, and through the use of secret evidence and non-transparent procedures, the Department of the Treasury has closed six U.S.- based, American Muslim charities to date by designating them as terrorist organizations (CSN 2011). The consequences of designation include the seizure and freezing of all financial and tangible assets, as well as significant civil and criminal penalties (ACLU 2009). The federal government closed down a further seventh U.S.-based, American Muslim charity by declaring the charity to be “under investigation” and freezing all its assets.

Thus one of the consequences of this which leads to another challenge is that as Islamic charities have come under intense scrutiny, we see contributions to them and from them decrease.  In the midst of all this was a possible saving grace that financial support would stem from the Gulf countries. With the new list by the UAE government, this has now closed the door for that option and Islamic charities may be forced to rethink the ways to fundraise and disburse their funds. The rise of suspicions around the role of established Islamic charities has also altered the way Muslims (particularly in the West) will give to charity. Since they are obliged by their faith to give, they will increasingly be forced into informal means of discharging their Zakah, often through donations to unrecognised ‘charities’ and fundraisers at local mosques and community centres. “Ironically, attempts to close down or control formal charities may have had precisely the opposite effect by forcing charitable giving into less regulated channels.” (Kroessin 2007) Ultimately, the biggest irony in the securitization of aid debate (which has not been helped by the UAE ruling) and the increased pressure and scrutiny of Muslim charities is no doubt the fact that those who lose out most are the benefactors of the charity themselves. Excessive security crackdowns are counterproductive. The ultimate cost of measures such as these is borne by beneficiaries.

The ruling by the UAE government doesn’t serve anything apart from a political causes. It just further hinders the operations of organisations such as Islamic Relief who have used the UAE as a gateway and transit for the transfer of supply during complex emergencies. It will also further complicate their effectiveness and efficiency. The politicisation of the Islamic humanitarian sphere with the narrative arising from the Arab Spring ultimately poses problems.

By the virtue of this classification, it opens the door for many Islamic charities (including those from within the Gulf) to be labelled as well. This is because most Islamic charities will show a convergence on operations around Islamic education, Ramadan food aid, Qurban (and other programs which allow Muslim donors to fulfil their spiritual duties). The only difference is who the donors and supporters are of the different charities.

By placing Islamic global charities on such lists, it also casts aspersions on other non Muslim humanitarian partners who work with such organisations as well as the international humanitarian system that these organisations are plugged into. By virtue of guilt of association with said organisations means that many of these international organisations could be disqualified from engaging or operating within these regions.

By casting aspersions on the system it will mean that local and national charities from the region will have to respond in the absence of a ‘credible’ international humanitarian system that is tainted with its association with organisations on the list. Thus these local and national organisations have to dramatically scale up to adhere to internationally held Humanitarian Principles (Independence, Impartiality, Neutrality, Accountability) as well as IFRC codes of conduct and so on, if they have to credibly fill that gap. These standards commonly held within the international system go beyond what is acceptable in the Muslim world and pose all sorts of operational issues.

With the experience of many of the Gulf charities in places like Myanmar, Somalia and Syria, it appears that there is a long way to go before a similar standard of professionalism held by the likes of Islamic Relief is achieved. Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture, and faith-based organizations will continue to thrive as part of civil society.

Muslim charities such as Islamic Relief are not part of the problem but with the opportunities they offer can be part of the solution in not only addressing poverty and development but countering some of the radicalization narrative that governments like the UAE are worried about. In the complexities of the post 9/11 world, Islamic non-governmental organisations figure amongst the global casualties of the war of terror. This has also meant an effect on the beneficiaries of humanitarian and social welfare programmes which sets a vicious cycle of radicalisation, violence, conflict, humanitarian needs and so on.

There is hence a need to remain committed to engineering the software needed to work effectively in a range of situation. We need to create the very ‘ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become’. Engagement and partnership is needed with a variety of stakeholders including government / other (faith and non-faith) humanitarian actors / private sector and so on. A dialogue is needed between NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian donors and governments such as the UAE in order to ensure that counter-terrorism objectives do not undermine humanitarian commitment.

This requires greater clarity from donor on the scope and applicability of counter terrorism laws and measures and the development of common principled positions among humanitarian actors. Governments can not be allowed to cast aspersions on reputable global charities without going through due process. The ostracising of Islamic NGOs previously from a Western context has meant a loss of contact with their Western counterparts, widening the gap between them. With the UAE ruling, this loss of contact could be made even worse.

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Cover design by Kristen Radtke.