News 2010

Back Europe should accept more refugees in need of safe resettlement

Human Rights Comment

European countries are closing their borders to migrants, arguing that they have room only for “genuine” refugees, who cannot return to their home countries without risking their lives or freedom. Yet Europe’s role to help such refugees into safety is relatively small. More ought to be done in cooperation with the United Nations’ refugee agency to offer resettlement to individuals stranded in refugee camps the world over.

Each of these refugees is in need of protection. Many of them live in camps not far from their country of origin. Some of these refugees are in need of resettlement, as they cannot return to their country of origin and local integration cannot be provided.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, estimates that the global resettlement needs amount presently to some 800 000 refugees. For 2011 the agency has concluded that 172 300 refugees must be resettled. They are the most vulnerable, and include persons who have survived violence and torture, women and girls who are at risk of violence and refugees with medical needs.

Nine out of ten are doomed to wait

Sadly, the majority of the refugees in need of resettlement appear to be doomed to continue waiting in the camps. The present situation is that all governments together are offering to receive no more than some 80 000 such refugees annually.

The total of the current quotas would therefore leave ninety per cent of the 800 000 refugees where they are. If the present trend continues it would take ten years before all of them are resettled – and in the meantime we will have to expect additional similar cases. It is very likely that not even some of the most acute cases for 2011 will be resettled.

The USA, Canada and Australia have been more responsive to the appeals from UNHCR and have implemented significant resettlement programmes, which involve the transfer of refugees from first countries in which they sought asylum to their territory. There they are granted permanent settlement and a life in dignity and safety.

Such resettlement is not only a tool to protect the most vulnerable amongst the refugees and a means to offer them a durable solution; it is also an expression of burden-sharing between the richer industrialized countries and the poorer developing countries. The latter host the large majority of refugees in often precarious conditions.

USA receives seven times more than Europe

While these three countries received 62 000; 6 500 and 6 700 respectively, the European countries together welcomed less than 9 000 under UNHCR resettlement programmes. Among them some have continuous resettlement programmes, under which they take annual quota of refugees: Sweden has a yearly quota of 1900 refugees and Norway accepts 1400 refugees per year.

The other European countries with annual quota are Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Portugal. In addition, there are countries that have accepted refugees in “ad hoc” programmes. Most notably Germany accepted 2500 refugees from Iraq in 2008 and 2009, while other “ad hoc” programmes were implemented by Italy, Luxembourg and Belgium.

Of course, the capacity to receive refugees for resettlement depends on a number of factors, including the number of asylum seekers coming directly to the country. In general, however, it is not true that Europe as a continent is “flooded” by spontaneous asylum seekers. Their number has in fact gone down in recent years. It is also sobering to know that some African states host more refugees on their territory than all of the European states taken together.

The European Commission has recently proposed the establishment of a Joint EU Resettlement Programme, where member states would receive financial assistance for resettling refugees and which would facilitate further cooperation in resettlement. This is a good initiative, which will hopefully be approved and implemented soon.

Europe should act swiftly

In the meantime the individual European governments should assist UNHCR to overcome the present crisis and increase their annual quotas. European states have a duty to help persons who are entitled to protection under international law.

They should share responsibility with countries hosting much larger refugee populations. We must not leave refugees and their families in camps or poor and squalid urban areas for endless periods of time, putting their lives on hold and with no other choice than to wait. Refugees need to receive our support quickly, that is their right.

Thomas Hammarberg

Strasbourg 23/11/2010
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