How to Solve the European Refugee Crisis and Tackle Populism – Draft V1

Ever wondered why no one has solved Europe’s so-called refugee crisis yet? For a whole bunch of reasons, including that it is a very complex problem, that it involves such a range of myths believed by refugees, liberals, and conservatives, and that there is no leadership towards constructive solutions. However, the reason it has not been solved is not that it would be unsolvable.

Technical and policy solutions to the problems associated with Europe’s response to rising asylum seeker numbers are available. They are no panaceas, but promising solutions. They have not been implemented because European national governments are preoccupied with the rise of populism, which has chosen refugees and asylum seekers as its scapegoat.populism091714

I have the honour of being part of an ambitious policy initiative this year: 80 young people from across the European continent drawing up a policy proposal on how to tackle populism, to be presented at the European Parliament in October 2017. Because, hey, it appears like all those people in suits in the Brussels bubble could do with a little help; on the possibly most pressing problems the continent has faced in 70 years. Because those voices calling for the closure of borders, the return to nationalist policies, the restriction of fundamental rights, those voices using “alternative facts” and cleverly skewed versions of statistics and narratives, they need an appropriate response. A response that tackles the underlying political and social issues, bridges divides, and prevents the erosion of the freedoms and peace that EU citizens have enjoyed for decades.

We kicked off this little megalomaniac task this week, as you can follow here, and here. My panel was concerned with “Solving the “Refugee Crisis””, and we had some pretty good ideas. What I am sharing here is by definition a very rough draft, it will need a lot of further research and notably engagement with the targeted audience i.e. politicians at different levels, and the majority in the middle of the political spectrum.

1 A Vision to Believe In

Populists have proven very skilled at making their story attractive. They have tapped into the fears and needs of Europe’s lower middle and working classes, showed concern for people’s lack of job security and fear of terrorism, and played the “identity card” by depicting a threat against the core of people’s definition of themselves. They told those that felt left behind exactly what they wanted to hear by giving them a scapegoat, thus making the solution to everyone’s problems look like the eviction of these scapegoats.

Progressives, liberals, or whatever you want to call those valuing minority rights and open borders, have had little to respond. They mainly acted defensively, accusing the other side of lying and priding themselves on sticking to facts. That does not inspire anyone, and it does not provide an attractive vision and reason for people to believe in progressive values. What use is it to a middle-aged family father in post-industrial England fearing for his job that he lives in a union of states talking about the importance of human rights?

What we would need is a believable vision of Europe that keeps fundamental rights and democracy at its centre, that shows a positive picture in which both concerned EU citizens and immigrants have a valued place. A vision that is an alternative, and more attractive, future to the closed borders, nationalist policies and nostalgically conservative values promoted by populists. For example, how about presenting the story of “Europe protecting refugees” as “Europe protecting families”, to appeal to conservative values? How about making the protection of refugees in Europe an integral part of the strategy to combat terrorism, rather than the perceived opposite?sampaio-europe-integration_1

In a world in which everyone can make their own facts, we need a story that people want to follow, an idea that shows people how their problems can be solved and what they can do to achieve that. Those of us believing in human rights and freedoms need to sell their ideas better to those attracted by the cheap solutions of the other side.

2 Leaders to Follow

Everyone can name Europe’s most prominent populists. Who are the outstanding leaders of the opposing side? We need more of them, better ones, leaders that can inspire and promote constructive solutions. The vision sketched above would need to be promoted across the continent through real leadership and personal networks. This cannot be a simple EU press release or a few government statements, this needs to be a story told by local councilors, by business leaders, by journalists, by teachers, told through personal and online interactions. That vision would have to be flexible enough to appeal to a broad audience, and be adapted to local contexts in terms of framing.

Both of the above would then hopefully make the following policy changes possible, by reducing the animosity towards any measures protecting refugees.

3 Legal Systems that Work

Now to the technical part: fixing the EU’s malfunctioning legal system on asylum.

The Dublin Regulation has  always been flawed. It mandates that every asylum seeker applies for asylum in the country of the EU they first set foot in. With flights being off limits to asylum seekers, this means large numbers of entries in Italy and Greece, overstretching resources and leading to chaos. We decided to scrap it entirely and replace it with a “Matching” system (not our idea but a seriously good one). Under this system, refugees are allocated to their new home location in Europe based on their needs, preferences, skill sets, family ties, allocated to the local authority that most closely corresponds to those. As we recently found out, the idea is being discussed in Brussels.

A refugee camp in Greece, consequence of closed borders and the Dublin Regulation. From Amnesty International.

We also placed a strong focus on making asylum a local, rather than a nationally controlled matter. National governments appear more beholden to populist threat perceptions. We can observe this as some local councils for example in Spain and Germany want to welcome refugees but are prohibited to do so by their national government. Giving local authorities more decision-making power on this matter would be fair, as the practical matters around asylum are their responsibility in any case.

Our approach is to make funding available from the EU in connection with accepting asylum seekers, thus allowing local councils to voluntarily apply and take in a self-determined number of them. Such funding should also allow for better service provision and reduce the levels of destitution faced by some refugees in some local constituencies. In combination with the matching system, this promises an allocation of refugees to places where they are more likely to be met by appropriate reception conditions, to be needed as part of the work force, and therefore to stay and to integrate. In addition, member states’ concerns with “secondary movement” would be eliminated, together with the enormous costs of current allocation and relocation schemes.

Concerning the decision on whether or not an applicant should receive refugee or another protection status, we debated the option of a European body taking responsibility, such as the new EU Asylum Agency. This would ensure a unified approach to protection across the union, eliminating the much debated “asylum shopping” and infringements of international law (1951 Geneva Convention) on the part of member states. While this is not contrary to the EU’s current trajectory, it would probably take significant negotiation power to convince member states to give up this most sensitive power to the union. Another option would be to make that decision a local council responsibility.

4 People to Talk to

A central focus during and after the asylum application process must be integration.

We are not the first ones to call for access to language classes, skills training, and most importantly to interactions with local EU citizens for asylum seekers from as early on as possible. Current asylum seeker accommodation is frequently provided in centres far away from the nearest city centre, and – apart from the fact that conditions there are sometimes horrific -, this leads to high frustration and prevents any attempts to adjust to the new culture. It also contributes to populism: statistically, the people most opposed to “letting refugees into their country” are those who have never met or had a conversation with an actual refugee. Therefore, we recommend that refugees are accommodated in smaller groups in residential areas, and that interactions with locals are encouraged wherever possible. This could be done through a “buddy scheme”, in which locals help a new arrival find friends, learn the language and adjust, but it could also be done through community, faith group or other projects which the EU should explicitly promote and fund. We are also not the first to point out the benefits of getting refugees into the active work force as quickly as possible, but to reiterate, this would both contribute to solving Europe’s demographic and workforce problems and enable old and new residents to get along better.

So what now?

Our group will continue working on this proposal, doing research, scrapping bits and adding others, until the Summer of 2017. Please comment on this post if there is something specific you want us to consider. Then we will make people in Brussels listen at the European Parliament, and then… well, then it could go the way most good ideas in Brussels go (i.e. into endless bureaucracy and political haggling).

However, this is not just about what people in suits in Brussels are deciding. This is about everyone who has any kind of power, voters, influencers, local and regional politicians, and whatever you can think of. This is about people who care about protecting the freedom and peace on this continent and beyond. Making change happen means making sure that these ideas, the policies and ways forward, are on the relevant people’s minds and can be implemented when a window of opportunity opens up, at whatever level.

This is not just about whether or not we like refugees. This is about what it means to be European and what it means to value fundamental rights and freedoms. We cannot let closed borders, nationalist ideologies, discrimination, and hate become the new normal in international politics. The simple, and potentially disastrous, solutions proposed by populists are only popular because of our failure to provide viable solutions to the many crises perceived by the West. It’s about time we work on better ones, together.


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