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Domestic And Supranational European Responses To The Syrian Refugee Crisis

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On June 20th, 2016, World Refugee Day, the United Nations Refugee Agency released its annual report on global trends in 2015. Since 2014, the European “migration or refugee crisis’ is at the centre of attention, becoming a priority on the political agenda. The Eurocentrist focus of the debate has masked the real impact of migration at the European level, generally overating the number of arrivals. Nevertheless, the migratory pressure on Europe is significant. The number of displaced people is at its highest since the Second World War. In 2015, more than 1 million people arrived in Europe, and more than 224,000 people arrived on the shores of the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2016 (UNHCR, 2016).

Let’s specify some effects of the use of the phrase “refugee crisis” in the migratory context. First, EU legislation distinguishes a migrant who is supposed to make a voluntary migration for economic, political or cultural reasons (and is subject to national law), the refugee is forced to migrates because of the situation in the country of departure and its status is governed by international law and is specified by the Geneva Refugee Convention (1951) protecting him from being returned to its country. Second, the use of the term “crisis” prevents from determining the human and political reasons for which people leave their country and denies their need for protection. Hence, referring to the “refugee crisis” stresses that European countries are affected by conflicts and wars that are taking place ‘elsewhere’ by removing the responsibility of European politicians and institutions in particular in their responses to the situation. Furthermore, talking about the “refugee crisis” affects the nature of these responses, calling for urgent and exceptional procedures, justifying, for instance, the closure of domestic borders inside the Schengen area in the name of human’s mobility management. Hence, the crisis here is no longer just a disaster, but also touches to the insufficiency of the EU and its Members States to make reasonable and adequate decisions to face this phenomenon. According to the EU commissioner Pierre Moscovici, “this influx of refugees has revealed a deep structural deficiency: we do not have a worthy common policy in Europe in matters of asylum and migration’ (2016, p. 36). Therefore, the so-called refugee ‘crisis’ illustrates an in-depth crisis of European integration in this area.

The migration policy of the Union is legally established by the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997. Decisions concerning migration policy, as well as all matters relating to visas or the right of asylum, have since this Treaty come under the first pillar of the EU (the supranational pillar of the European Communities) and are voted by qualified majority, at the Council of the European Union, with co-decision procedure with the European Parliament. While the Commission has the monopoly of the initiative, this area is considered as a second order policy (Chari, Krintzinger, 2006) in which the transfer of competence has been made slowly and gradually. Regarding the refugee status, harmonization of national standards and practices remains very limited (Fargues & al, 2012, p.9) : each country has its diplomacy, its history, its neighbours, its political and commercial agreements and will not give the same answer to the same applicant according to the risk it presents to make jurisprudence for similar profiles towards this or that European country.

The limits of European policy efficiency in facing the “refugee crisis” reveals a lack of centralisation of the decision-making process in this area in which and the Member States still have the final word.

This paper addresses the domestic and supranational European responses to the Syrian refugee crisis arguing that the effectiveness of the solidarity-based solution (I) have been mainly constrained by the reluctance of the Member States which had influenced supranational institutions toward a “security jump” (II).

The “solidarity-based” responses

For this section, the distinction made by Fargues and Frandrich (2012) between “external” and “internal” solutions, will be used to discuss the “solidarity-based” responses provided to the Syrian refugee crisis.

External responses: humanitarian aid and political transition

From an external perspective, since 2011, Europe (the European Commission and its twenty-eight Member States), have given 8 billion 900 million euros to Syria, thus considered as the “leading international donor” behind the United-States (Fargues & al, 2012 p.8). Among this amount: while 5 billion was dedicated to emergency aid for Syrian people, the rest was mainly devoted to Syria’s neighbouring countries, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, the first countries hosting Syrian refugees. At the Brussels’ Conference held in April 2017, more than 3.4 billion euros were released by the European Union and the international community to help bring for the future of Syria and the countries of the region. Therefore, both at a supranational and domestic level, Europe is not absent in Syria. Still, mostly used to heal the wounds of the conflict, this humanitarian aid does not treat its root causes and illustrates the issue of presenting a common foreign policy at the supranational level (Limon, 2018). In this way, to encourage a Syrian peaceful and democratic political transition, the European Union has transferred its delegation out of Syria and has taken economic restrictive measures against the regime and its allies (Fargues & al, 2012). Moreover, the Foreign Affairs Council (03/04/2017) has finally set the EU’s strategic objectives in Syria : the promotion of liberal democratic values, the support of a process of “national reconciliation” (by supporting a peace agreement and fighting violent extremism), the support of the resilience of the Syrian population and the obligation to respond to war crimes must be promoted to enable transitional justice (Limon, 2018). However, these objectives, necessary to treat the root causes of the refugee crisis in a long-term and in-depth way, had to be supplemented by “internal responses” within the European territory

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Internal responses: the resettlement agreement and its limits

The first difficulty of a solidarity-based internal response has been the fact that European countries have been unequally faced with the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. Due to the massive influx of migrants into Italy and Greece, exceeding the capacity of both countries, a way had to be found to circumvent the ‘Dublin procedure’, which obliges migrants to apply for asylum in the first country where they arrive. The European Commission launched in September 2015 a two-years resettlement program for asylum seekers. The plan was to distribute to the various member states (and other volunteer countries such as Switzerland or Norway) the demands of 160,000 migrants in two years, focusing on those whose asylum applications are almost certain to be accepted, especially Syrians ones. Malta is the only EU country to have welcomed all the people it has committed to relocate. Norway and Liechtenstein, which participate voluntarily in the program, have also achieved their objectives and Finland reached 94% of the requested host quota. (Amnesty, 2017). This system of quotas has, however, demonstrated the limits of European solidarity. Hungary and Slovakia even appealed the European Court of Justice to avoid this program, but their application was rejected at the beginning of September 2017. Similarly, Slovakia has accepted only 16 of its attributed 902 asylum seekers and the Czech Republic 12 out of 2,691. In order to proceed to an equitable distribution of persons requiring international protection, the European Union built ‘hot spots’ (places of reception and retention of newcomers) in the two main countries of arrival, Italy and Greece. The implementation of a resettlement program implies by nature the ability to distinguish migrants from refugees (Wihtol de Wenden, 2016). It is, in particular, the role of the Frontex agents and the European Support Office, to establish this distinction. However, the criteria used are vague as there is no clear legal procedure to control and determine whether a person requires international protection (The Cimade, 2017). Essentially made on a nationality criterion, this determination has been declared contrary to the Geneva Convention (1951), which is based on an individual examination of the asylum seeker (Wihtol de Wenden, 2016).

Therefore, the lack of integration of the EU in this area supplemented by to the reluctance of the Member States prevents the implementation of a necessary common response at an internal level. This inability to adopt genuinely protective emergency solutions led some to talk about a “European solidarity crisis” (Weber, 2013).

The settlement of a “fortress Europe”

Facing an increasingly pressing public opinion, the only common solutions which are still generating consensus of the twenty-eight are those expected to secure the borders of Europe.

The inward-looking logic: EU’s withdrawal

Therefore, the measures taken at a supranational level, demonstrate an ideological conversion to this “logic of withdrawal” (Wihtol de Wenden, 2016 p.10). From this perspective, the fight against illegal immigration is the priority of the EU policy-makers. Hence, the Commission proposed ,mid-December 2016, to multiply the resources and powers of Europe’s coast guards and external border guards , essentially through the Frontex program whose budget has grown exponentially since its creation in 2004 (19 million euros in 2006, 85 million in 2013, 120 million in 2017;, 2018). Other instruments used to control the southern borders of Europe have been bilateral agreements of readmission (third country nationals in an irregular situation) between the European Union and Southern Mediterranean countries (Morocco, Tunisia) tend to make many buffers states the ‘border guards’ of the European area. The main issue is that these agreements can be made with countries that do not respect asylum rights (La Cimade, 2017). Indeed, the EU’s criteria for readmission rely on a list of “safe countries” that should be questioned as it includes countries such as Libya which has not ratified the Geneva Convention (1951). Beyond, those readmission process, upstream agreements have been made with third countries in order to reduce the arrivals within the European territory. Indeed, the Union signed an action plan on November the 29th 2016 with Turkey which pledged to limit the flow of migrants leaving its shores for Greece, against a subsidy, a visa facilitation policy, and the promise of reactivation of its accession process to the Union. Amnesty International made an alarming report one year after the agreement was put in place. While it has reduced the number of arrivals, it is, above all, at the root of many human rights violations in Turkey, but also on the Greek islands where 14,500 refugees and migrants were still stranded one year after the implementation of the agreement (Amnesty, 2017).

Hence, the lack of enthusiasm for the domestic solution among member states has affected European priorities setting at the supranational level: leaving to its neighbours the responsibility of the refugee reception, the EU removed its main focus from solidarity to security concerns. If the fight is claimed to be led against illegal immigration, the actual objective is the decline of migrants’ reception of migrants in general (including refugees). Thus, a common migration policy is solely likely to advance on an ideological cement toward the creation of a “fortress Europe” (Weber, 2013) exactly opposed to EU’s claimed normative values of openness and humanism. Outside the institutional framework of the EU, some Member States that defend a hard securitarian position decided to take actions (“protect themselves”) at a domestic level.

Sovereignists outbursts

‘The willingness to assume common decisions is quite low and the pressure of public opinion is strong” well summarised the Vice-president of the Swiss Federal Council, Simonetta Sommaruga (Ducourtieux, 2016). Indeed, since January 2016, a growing number of governments no longer want to wait for Brussels securitarian solutions considered as too permissive (/indulgent). Some are closing their borders and transgressing European law and the Geneva Conventions (without being punished at a supranational level), responding to a restive public opinion and rising populist parties. Austria has thus introduced a daily quota of 3,200 migrants allowed to pass through its territory. Slovenia has followed suit, setting ‘a ceiling of around 580 migrants a day’ and asking its Croatian neighbour to respect this limit. Moreover, to curb the influx of refugees, and for security reasons, several eastern and northern European countries (Hungaria, Slovenia, Norway, France) have decided to build fences and walls on their borders (Simonneau, 2015) since 2015’s summer. The installation of material borders, not only threatens the freedom of movement within movement the Schengen area but also reinforces “xenophobia outbreaks” symptomatic of the spread “inward-looking logic” among European societies. Gérard Noiriel was already referring to this phenomenon as ‘the national tyranny’ in 1993: the Member States want to show that their sovereignty is still valid by the shielding borders symbolic, in the post-Maastricht area. The activation of this security prism is characteristic to the rising right-wing parties in the EU countries based on a nationalist and Europhobic discourse, constraining further European integration in this area. Some Member states have also negotiated agreements such as the ‘axis Berlin-Vienna-Rome”, gathering the volunteers in the fight against the “illegal immigration’ (08/18). Supported by the Italian and German Interior Ministers and the four countries of the ‘Visegrad Group’ (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic); this project is also well-perceived by the Dutch, Danish, Slovenian.


In sum, torn between domestic pressures toward a fortress project and the humanitarian imperative, European Union has mainly focused on solidarity- based external actions (for a peaceful political transition and humanitarian assistance) and on securitarian internal ones. The supranational institutions have shown difficulties in developing a comprehensive and coordinated response to the so-called “Syrian refugee crisis” constrained by the Member States reluctance in welcoming refugees (mainly affected by their public opinions and elections costs). While many researchers and politicians argue in favour of the implementation of an efficient common migration policy (Moscovici, 2016; Fargues & al 2013), others emphasises the necessity to consider asylum concerns, and more generally the “migration phenomenon” without the sovereign power of States, through the creation a mobility right beyond the asylum ones (Badie & al, 2008). Referring to the Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), according to which “everyone has the right to leave any country” (but the right to settle in another one is not mentioned), they argue in favour of the establishment of global governance in this migration area. This approach attempts to address “migrations” as public goods, through the United Nations Refugee Agencies, the International Organisation for Migration and the less formal Global Migration group. Nevertheless, focusing mainly on humanitarian actions, these organisations, treating the consequences of the problem and not its causes, do not attempt to change the vision of the States on migrations. Therefore, both at the European and the international levels, a real problem persists, the need for a real common policy that would make reluctant states (and their public opinions to change their position on the migration phenomena).

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Domestic And Supranational European Responses To The Syrian Refugee Crisis. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
“Domestic And Supranational European Responses To The Syrian Refugee Crisis.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
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