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Europe continues to struggle with its response to the refugee crisis

Brexit is not the only issue on the lips of Brussels political elite as EU political leaders travel to Brussels for what is sure to be a memorable Council meeting. Also today, the European Council meets to assess the progress made towards the implementation of the decisions taken in reaction to the migrant crisis. After many high-level meetings with external partners, such as Turkey and the Balkan States, EU leaders remain in search for a common strategy. Complicating the issue – Turkish officials who should also have been in Brussels to discuss their contributions to prevent irregular migration, have cancelled their visit following last night’s terrorist attack in Ankara.

After spending a year on top of the EU’s agenda, being the focus of many summits and high-level meetings, the refugee crisis is far from being over as asylum seekers keep reaching European soil. In 2016 alone, over 80,000 refugees and migrants have arrived by sea, mostly through Greece, according to the latest update from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The measures agreed on by the European Council, last September, were promising. The picture of Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi did much to overcome European apathy and increased the pressure to find a solution. However, the balance tipped after a wave of sexual assaults in Germany over the New Year and Carnival season – erroneously ascribed to asylum seekers in the majority of cases by national media on overdrive. EU leaders nominally approved the European Commission’s proposal to relocate 160,000 people in need of international protection. However, that commitment is yet still to be fulfilled by the majority of Member States. Indeed, several member states are now pursuing the matter through the courts.

As of February 10th, just a few Member States have started to implement the relocation plan. Only 497 persons have been repositioned to 12 Member States, 279 from Italy and 218 from Greece. Even finding possible candidates for relocation is difficult, as the so-called ‘Hot Spots’ to register asylum seekers on site in Greece are still not fully functional. While EU leaders advocate that partners outside the EU shoulder greater responsibility, it is essential to remember that Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have welcomed the highest number of migrants and refugees. There is a clear “delivery deficit” from Member States, as stressed by European Council President Donald Tusk, but not only in terms of relocation. Despite the urgency, many of the commitments made by EU leaders have not been met.

Member States agreed to deploy national funding. Yet, a large number of countries still need to match EU economic aid (€500 million) for the UNHCR, World Food Programme and other relevant organisations, the EU Regional Trust Fund for Syria (€1 billion with some WFP funding) and the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (€1.8 billion). In addition, the European Commission will spend a total €9.2 billion on the refugee crisis in 2016.

The refugee and migration crisis is not the only topic on this week’s Summit agenda. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has shown concern that the U.K.’s membership issue would dominate the two-day meeting and leaders would not be able to discuss the migration issue in sufficient depth. A Summit focused on migration will take place in March. Yet, time is running out for Europe to give a coordinated and appropriate response to this crisis. Particularly as the seasonal respite from waves of migration will soon end – spring is coming.

From an EU vantage point, the migration crisis has seemingly taken on an enormous Euro-centric dimension. It’s important to understand that this is a worldwide challenge and global cooperation is key. Migration flows will continue in the future as we deal with a growing number of conflicts and face climate change. EU leaders need to find consensus on an approach to migration – and consider how best to engage reluctant, but geo-strategically critical neighbours such as Turkey. Nevertheless a European migration policy is as necessary and as urgently needed as global engagement. 

Ana Eira, Communications Officer, YPFP Brussels

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.