With an astounding 12 million people in Syria displaced from their homes in a population that numbered about 23 million before its civil war began in full fledge in 2012, the questions that inevitably arise are: Why isn’t the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees more actively involved on the ground in Europe, the destination of hundreds of thousands of exiles; and why aren’t European countries being creative enough in employing their considerable immigration expertise?
The need to address the refugee flow will be even greater as Russia’s bombing strikes terror in what were relatively secure places in western Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad appears to be focused on eliminating even moderate opponents to his regime, according to refugee experts.
“What we would do in Western countries would depend very much on the ability of a country to deliver, and what space they want to give to UNHCR,” said Michel Gabaudan, a more than 25-year veteran of the UN refugee agency who is now president of Refugees International. Gabaudan, who worked on six continents in refugee assistance and policy over his career, said in an interview with PassBlue that Europe is far from having such desperate needs as Africa and Asia. When countries are wealthy, he said, the UNHCR has been reluctant to spend operational money, which is severely stretched. “So, the idea is not to spend funds, but mostly to act as a best practice adviser to the government.”
In countries where systems are in place and working — he cited Britain and France — the UN refugee agency is poised to advise on legislation and be critical when laws do not meet accepted humanitarian standards. In France, he said, giving one example, UNHCR representatives “can sit in on an appeal for refugee determination.” But this cooperation is possible only when countries have functioning refugee and asylum policies and established practices, which many nations in the world do not. The result is ad hoc reaction, sometimes out of momentary panic. This is evident even on the European continent in the current refugee influx.
“When you come to Eastern Europe, it’s a bit more difficult not only because the countries don’t have a clue about asylum procedures, but also because it puts a strain on their budgets,” Gabaudan said. In these cases, he added, it would be his instinct and advice that the UN refugee agency should not be “in the business of administering programs and spending money in countries where basically the EU could do that alone.”
“I know in Greece they have provided some material — tarps, et cetera,” he said. “These are things they have in stock and they can give in an emergency response. But when it comes to running a transit center or something like that, I think these countries should do it with EU money.”
He also said that countries like Britain, France and Sweden, for example, have people with wide experience in refugee and humanitarian work who could help organize humane responses and sift through refugees’ applications with expertise. This is particularly important now, he said.
“One of the issues for UNHCR that is going to be critical right now is their capacity to expend a lot of staff. They are stretched very thin in the Middle East. They are stretched extremely thin in Africa. There are problems arising now in Asia. UNHCR should really use its resources where there are no resources at all — in Africa and the Middle East, where there’s no tradition of asylum.”
Since 1999, the European Union has been working to create a common European asylum system that guarantees, among other provisions, humane treatment, screening for terrorists and better-aligned legislation across the continent, according to the European Commission, which functions as a multinational government, or cabinet, for Europe.
In Washington, the Migration Policy Institute, which tracks and analyzes movements of people worldwide, published a report on Sept. 24 by two global specialists on European responses toward migrants not only from Syria but also from Africa, Asia and elsewhere. The study, by Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director of the Institute’s international program, and Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst and program coordinator for the group, noted an uneven ability within Europe to deal with the recent influx.
“With the unprecedented volumes of new arrivals, even the best-prepared European countries have reached a breaking point in their ability to meet European Union standards for receiving and processing applicants,” the authors wrote in the report, “Europe’s Migration Crisis in Context: Why Now and What’s Next.”
“Those with less experience managing immigration or hosting asylum seekers have given in at times to rash or counterproductive impulses,” the report said. “The question of who is responsible for those arriving has reignited deep internal divisions between member states.”
At Refugees International, which is also based in Washington, Michel Gabaudan has spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill discussing the European refugee crisis with members of Congress or their staffs. He said he was concerned that some good American instincts are getting in the way of understanding the situation and how the United States should react.
“When we discuss the level of resettlement, they say we take the most vulnerable,” Gabaudan said. “But the people who are leaving [Syria] now are not the most vulnerable. They are people who still have some money. They are not the poorest who are suffering in Turkey, in Jordan, because they cannot afford to pay the smugglers. So, what you have is the elite among the refugees, those who are among the educated middle class who can afford to make the trip. They are willing to take this tremendous risk because they are worried about the future of their families.”
From this educated middle class could have come a future Syria, but as Russian attacks reach the once relatively safe cities where many of them have lived, the latest development only reinforces the sense that the Assad regime, suffering setbacks, is now determined to destroy everyone who may appear to pose a threat.
As an American senator asked Gabaudan: Why does Assad do that? “Dictators are totally abhorrent of the idea that their people can rebel against them,” he said he told the senator.
“I spent a lot of time with refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, and the drivers of exile of most people have been the military conflict led by Assad, the advent of the extremists and the deterioration of social and economic conditions,” Gabaudan said. “All these contribute to people leaving. But if you ask the majority of refugees what is the single most issue that they are escaping, they all tell you: It is the barrel bombing of Assad. It is the absolute and total fear of Assad that is driving most of the people out.”
If the Russian intervention is to lead to anything positive, he said, it will be the insistence, as a first condition in internationally supported negotiations, that Assad end the barrel-bombing. These “bombs” are crude, indiscriminate weapons made of oil barrels or other containers filled with flammable fuel, explosives and shrapnel of all kinds. Assad’s forces began using them three years ago, often rolled out of helicopters, according to a report by the BBC.
“I’m not talking about collateral damage,” he said. “I’m talking about the deliberate targeting of civilians. Only the Russians would have the power to stop that.” Not only would a stop to the use of this virtual weapon of mass destruction save many lives and help make talks credible to other governments, he said. “It could bring some people from the regime to the negotiating table.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.