Focus on Europe Neglects the Syrian Refugee Crisis Commentary
Focus on Europe Neglects the Syrian Refugee Crisis
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JURIST Guest Columnist Tendayi Achiume of UCLA School of Law discusses how the media’s disproportionate focus on the European dimensions of the plight of Syrian refugees…

For four years, much of the world has ignored the Syrian refugee crisis. In light of this, recent media attention on the plight of Syrians seeking refuge in Europe is an important shift. Admittedly, the plight of Syrian refugees traveling to Europe, and the challenges this movement poses for Europe are complex and worthy of attention. However, without more, the disproportionate focus on the European dimensions of the refugee crisis puts the cart before the horse. It does not do enough to bring closer the one thing that could meaningfully mitigate the refugee crisis—robust international cooperation to share the cost of and responsibility for protecting Syrian refugees.

There are now over four million Syrian refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom remain in Syria’s vicinity and at risk of death from violence, grinding poverty or both. This refugee crisis has been a slow motion crisis—steadily destroying the lives of many since the conflict began in 2011. In addition to this humanitarian devastation, the refugee crisis threatens regional stability and international security. In a forthcoming law review article I propose one possible approach to alleviating the refugee crisis within the governing international law and policy framework. I also document how for the past four years, powerful international actors have obsessed over military intervention and other coercive action in Syria, and at the same time largely neglected the plight of Syrians refugees and the global implications of their displacement. This neglect, which currently persists, is a humanitarian and moral travesty. It is also a very costly strategic mistake. My aim in this comment is to show how the recent international focus on European migration continues the troubling trend of neglecting the Syrian refugee crisis, to explain why this neglect is a problem, and to offer an alternative.

The Current Focus on Europe is Neglect of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Though welcome, much of the recent Western media coverage and policy debate on Syrian refugees has unfortunately focused on the very tip of the iceberg—the so-called European Migration Crisis. By September 2015, more than 487,000 refugees and other forced migrants—the majority fleeing the crisis in Syria—sought refuge in Europe. The number of Syrians that have sought refuge in all of Europe are a mere 12 percent of the over four million refugees currently hosted by Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt (“the regional refugee hosts”).

Turkey, which hosts over two million Syrians, now has the highest population of refugees of any country in the world and has spent over $6 billion on Syrian refugees. Almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population is now Syrian refugees and researchers find that “[m]ore than half of Syrians in Lebanon and one-sixth of refugees in Jordan are living in extreme poverty.” For the most part, the law in regional host countries prohibits Syrian refugees from working. Many depend on humanitarian and other assistance administered under the UN-led relief effort for their survival. As of the second week of October, this relief effort was only 41 percent funded. This funding shortfall has life-threatening implications for refugees in the region. A vivid example is the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan back to Syria—they would rather face the war than die of starvation in Jordan, where the funding shortfall means many are forced to go without food. In short, the more pressing and fundamental refugee crisis is unquestionably in Syria’s immediate vicinity and what we see in Europe is one narrow, if growing dimension of this crisis.

The High Price of the Current Focus on Europe

Myopic focus on Europe comes at a high price from the general perspective of ensuring the well-being of Syrians fleeing the conflict, and even from the narrow perspective of managing European migration. In addition to other factors, the increased media and public attention on refugee flows to the EU have pushed the EU to take some steps to reform its migration and refugee policy. In so far as the focus of this policy is refugees, it is largely refugees arriving in the EU. Although the EU has announced an increase in funding to the UN-led regional relief program, it has not sufficiently prioritized comprehensive engagement with the Syrian refugee crisis as a whole, along the lines I propose below. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, including the fact that the public pressure and other factors that have caused the recent shifts in EU policy are rooted in concern for what happens in the EU. These realities notwithstanding, focusing primarily on Europe is a mistake. It continues a trend of prioritizing the lives of the very small minority that make it to Europe, a minority that many argue systematically excludes the most vulnerable of the refugee population.

Even from the narrower EU migration perspective, subordinating the regional refugee crisis is also imprudent. The most significant recent change in EU refugee policy—an agreement to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from frontier to interior EU countries—is akin to treating a bloody gash with a Band-Aid. Commentators agree that a more robust response it required, in part because researchers predict that the numbers of Syrians and others fleeing to Europe is only likely to increase. My point, however, is that even if Europe were to adopt more comprehensive measures to assist refugees entering the EU, treating the arrival of Syrian refugees on European soil as the priority is a disastrous approach. Among the key drivers of migration to the EU are push factors tied to conditions for Syrian refugees in the regional host countries. These include: (1) the dire circumstances confronting refugees in regional host countries, many of which are now restricting access to their territories on the grounds that they do not have the means to support more refugees, and (2) “the continued lack of opportunities to work or enroll in schools for most refugees[.]” What this means is that neglecting the regional refugee crisis is neglecting the most substantial and explosive part of the problem and instead prioritizing one manifestation of it. Even where the priority is managing European migration, subordinating policy responses to the refugee crisis in Syria’s neighbors is short-sighted.

To be clear, the EU is not alone in effectively relegating the regional refugee crisis in the Middle East to the status of subordinate, auxiliary concern notwithstanding its scale and ramifications. The UN Security Council, the world’s most powerful nations, and even those nations at the center of the proxy war in Syria continue to do the same. And the current media framing of the refugee crisis does little to destabilize this dynamic—its focus on Europe points to the EU and its member states as primarily responsible for developing a response. This implicitly casts the rest of the international community in the role of supporting actors. Coincident with the recent shifts in Europe some non-European countries including the US, have announced marginal increases in the number of Syrian refugees they are willing to resettle. At the same time, however, the UN-led international effort to protect Syrians in the region remains severely underfunded. Thus although attention on Europe may have forced powerful international actors that are central to mitigating the Syrian refugee crisis to engage with a manifestation of this crisis to a greater extent than they did four months ago, there has been no real corresponding pressure on these actors to develop a comprehensive solution.

Before proposing an alternative approach I want to be clear that increased migration to Europe is a product of far more than Syrian displacement. Other factors include, for example, the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/11, and the Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011. Furthermore, the population of migrants comprises far more categories than refugees, which raises a host of other challenges. All this notwithstanding, the regional core of the Syrian refugee crisis must be a top priority for Europe, the Security Council and all the other UN member states with the capacity to assist.

An Alternative Approach

What the Syrian refugee crisis requires is robust international cooperation to share the responsibility and cost of protecting all Syrians fleeing the conflict, not just those that make it to Europe. UN member states must convene a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for the Syrian refugee crisis to develop a sustainable funding regime to assist regional refugee hosting countries. CPAs are platforms that international refugee protection and humanitarian actors—in collaboration with states—have used in the past to coordinate international cooperation for refugee protection. A CPA would prioritize an international commitment to mitigating the refugee crisis in the Middle East; this priority would then dictate the complementary strategies adopted by other regions such as Europe. This would be a change from the current European piecemeal approach that trains attention and policy-responses on symptoms in Europe, at the expense of the core crisis in the Middle East.

How would such cooperation be achieved? The international law regime that currently governs the refugee-specific obligations of states offers no basis for achieving the international cooperation required for an equitable and sustainable distribution of the responsibility and cost of protecting Syrian refugees. Thus even though states beyond the region such as Russia and the US continue to play significant roles in the armed conflict driving Syrian displacement, when Syria’s neighbors request international assistance with refugee protection, there is no international legal obligation that these other states provide this assistance. There is no doubt that the international refugee law regime requires a complete overhaul, and there is equally no doubt that such an overhaul remains highly unlikely. In my article I propose that international actors use the international doctrine of the responsibility to protect (RtoP) to achieve a qualified, but important measure of cooperation to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis. I make the case for RtoP as a basis for anchoring a CPA, providing a concrete alternative to the continuing international neglect of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Tendayi Achiume is Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. Her research and teaching interests lie in international human rights law, international refugee law, comparative immigration law, international criminal justice and property.

Suggested citation: Tendayi Achiume, Focus on Europe Neglects the Syrian Refugee Crisis , JURIST – Forum, Nov. 12, 2015,

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