This essay series explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays explore the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies have hampered the responses to them. See more ...

Europe is struggling to live up to its humanitarian history and standards in the face of both the Syrian exodus and the ‘migrant crisis’ arriving on its shores. The European Union’s challenge is not only to manage the immigrant flow, but also to find a level of interstate collaboration that matches its rhetoric on asylum and immigration. This collaboration must demonstrate that 25 years of working together on harmonization of asylum policies, and the efforts made to develop a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) were not in vain. Not rising to this challenge will not only be a demonstration of how sovereignty trumps solidarity on the asylum issue, but will also risk the collapse of one of the E.U.’s four fundamental freedoms—movement of workers, (i.e., free travel in a frontier free Europe).[1] The failure would also announce that Europe is losing any claim to leadership on human rights and humanitarian issues. How different could things have been if the European Union had a more complete refugee policy, covering all aspects of refugee arrival, reception, and protection?

What Was Achieved?

Relatively little was actually achieved for a quarter of a century of cooperation on asylum—the element of refugee policy on which the E.U. has almost exclusively focused. Success in creating a CEAS has been limited, largely due to the same political barriers to agreement as have been brought starkly into view during the migrant crisis.

Member states did agree on the Dublin Regulation,[2] a tool to determine the state responsible for an asylum claim. Decades of commentary and protestations that the result could only be an overwhelming strain on southern states, in particular Greece (but also Malta and Italy), fell on deaf political ears, until reality hit in summer 2015. Dublin has now been declared dead.

Member states also agreed on a Temporary Protection Directive,[3] largely inspired by the successful Humanitarian Evacuation Programme to support Macedonia during the Kosovar crisis of 1999. This 2001 plan was intended to be the tool to deal with a future large scale influx of people in need of protection, but when that arrived—from 2013 onwards, but in a major way in 2015—the commission decided to shelve the plan, and no member state revived it.[4]

Otherwise, there were minimum standard agreements on the qualification of refugee status,[5] procedures for handling asylum claims,[6] and reception conditions[7]—work on which was revised about a decade after each agreement was reached. In addition the European Asylum Support Office was established in Malta,[8] and the European Refugee Fund played a significant role in adding a European dimension to national projects on reception, integration, and return in particular. However, all of this together added up to efforts on an asylum policy, not a full-blown refugee policy, which would encompass approaches to organized refugee arrivals, support for organizations and states active in regions of origins, and other comprehensive policies.[9]

Avenues of Interest

During the past 25 years there have been several studies conducted, at the European Commission’s request, on measures, which seemed to offer potential in advancing collaboration on refugee protection more broadly. Among these were methods of handling the asylum issue as a collective block to advance solidarity (e.g., joint processing[10] and relocation[11]), novel methods of dealing with protection claims while keeping the number of asylum entrants down (protected entry procedures[12]), and reviving longstanding traditions in refugee protection which would also extend the European Union’s repertoire to make it a global player with a comprehensive refugee protection policy (resettlement[13]). In addition, the Commission embarked on Regional Protection Programmes.[14] So, ideas have been around, and discussed, but no real progress made.

It would be useful to consider how each of these ideas might have changed the course of the ‘migrant crisis’although this requires hindsight, imagination, and a lot of ‘would have, could have, should have’ thinking. If the E.U. survives this crisis and is to move forward on collective refugee protection, then it will be important that the next 25 years involve some more useful and genuine policy-making than the last quarter century produced. Given the confines of a limited essay, as well as the fact that resettlement—the one element on this list that has history—is being implemented in some form by several member states, it will be the focus of reflections below.

Refugee Resettlement

Resettlement is the system whereby refugees are assessed for their protection need while in a country of first asylum. Their transportation to the destination country is organized; they arrive with status and prepared to embark on their new life, with a path to integration and citizenship (although they could choose to return to their country of origin at any time, should the situation allow it).

Since the early 1980s European countries have largely closed off resettlement programs or limited them to very small quotas for medical or extremely vulnerable cases. For what might be called ‘mainstream’ refugee protection, the European model had become asylum—one could almost characterize it as a situation in which a person in need of protection had to prove they had the will and strength to make the journey to Europe, over all the obstacles (geographical and technical), and the fittest were then put through the final test of qualification. In contrast the United States, in particular, but also Canada and Australia have maintained higher numerical level resettlement programs.

Over the past ten years some E.U. member states have either reignited their resettlement programs, or started new ones. In all cases these have remained relatively low level numerically, and largely focused on what are thought of as particularly vulnerable or needy cases, within a broader vulnerable community.

Resettlement Response to Syrian Exodus

In response to the Syrian exodus and linked migrant crisis of arrivals in Europe, some countries have offered larger resettlement over the coming years. For example, the United Kingdom has offered 20,000 places over the next four years. In contrast to Canada’s 30,000 places in the short-term, this U.K. offer is already dwarfed—but in contrast to the arrival of about a million Syrian asylum seekers over the course of a year it is also clearly a drop in the ocean. Even if all E.U. member states offered the same number of places, that would be 560,000 over four years, 140,000 per year—still inadequate to the protection need. The U.K. offer is better than it could be, more than many—but not commensurate to either the crisis of arrivals, or the exodus, or the humanitarian standards the United Kingdom and Europe claim to uphold. In sum, it is too little, too late.

How Might Resettlement Have Helped?

There are at least five ways in which a comprehensive resettlement program operated by some, if not all, E.U. member states could have been a ‘game changer’ in this migrant crisis. These are in the aspects of knowing the refugees arriving; giving hope, potentially cutting asylum arrivals and deaths; support to countries in the region; sending foreign policy signals on the conflict itself; and working together.

1. Know your refugee

One way in which resettlement could have helped, and could even now, is in conducting status determination procedures, and indeed selection on a country-specific basis, the background, intentions and essential character of an individual needing protection can be verified through interviews and, where possible, documentation while s/he is still in the region of origin (be it Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey). One of the major concerns populations and politicians have with regard to Syrians is that Islamic State extremists could be entering the European Union disguised as refugees. They surely could be. The contrast between asylum and resettlement here is that if they arrive today, in a boat, among thousands of others, they are physically present in Europe, and their case must be registered and processed within Europe. In this case, removing them would be very difficult until the conclusion of their asylum procedure and appeals, and by that time they might have disappeared into society or carried out their intended attack. If that same person has to apply for resettlement while in a refugee camp outside the European Union, is interviewed several times there, must wait for adjudication, go through a pre-integration program, arrives on an organized plane, go through immigration procedures again on arrival, and is then housed and guided by a resettlement officer, the chances are greater that someone would spot their intentions, or that they would not try to get into Europe that way at all through fear of being discovered.

After initial displacement across a national frontier, people are likely to hope that the situation they have fled might be resolved quite quickly and that they would then be able to return. The longer people sit in a refugee camp (or remain unintegrated in an urban setting) the more likely they are to lose hope of return, and to start to realize that settling locally is unlikely. That sense would be compounded as more people in the same situation continue to arrive.

Just imagining oneself in this position, one realizes that anyone is going to start looking for an escape. If no obviously safe opportunities present themselves, one will start looking for any opportunities. If given a choice between a potential for leaving a bad situation safely in a reasonable period of time, with an normal life (not easy, but at least something that could be described as ‘normal’), and leaving sooner on a dangerous journey with a chance of death, and the certainty of weeks or months, if not years begging for opportunities and even for basics, then most people would probably choose the safer path.

However, to impact choices people make, and by extension both asylum arrivals and deaths, the odds on achieving resettlement have to be high enough to make it seem more likely than not. For millions of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey (not to mention those who remained in Syria or other countries such as Iraq), there have been about 10,000-15,000 resettlement places to put their hope on annually for the last four years. By January 2016 there were 4.5 million registered Syrian refugees and over 1 million had arrived in Europe in the year.[15] There have been about 125,000 resettlement places specifically targeted at Syrians since 2013.[16] If this averages to just over 30,000 per year (2013-2016) then less than one in 100 refugees can anticipate resettlement in 2016, whereas in 2015 one in five left to seek asylum. Just this crude ‘data grab’ indicates the kind of levels resettlement would need to reach before it would become the opportunity people would wait for, and hope for, rather than choose the path of danger and asylum. Perhaps one in ten would work as well—could 450,000 resettlement places be offered?

One reason for which the E.U. member states did not engage in resettlement in the mid-2000s was that the payoff of lower asylum numbers could not be fully expected or guaranteed. Indeed the levels of resettlement needed to have an impact would need to be higher than the E.U. leaders would find politically expedient: yet organizing resettlement for Syrians in 2013-2014 might have averted the migrant crisis in 2015, and if they could agree to systematically undertake resettlement now it might still change the situation. 450,000 resettlement places for organized arrivals might have seemed preferable to (and looked better than) over a million chaotic asylum arrivals and thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean.

2. Averting deaths

By extension from the point made above, resettlement, as a prospect as well as a reality, might have saved hundreds or thousands of lives.

3. Support to countries in the region

Resettlement at any level demonstrates acknowledgement of the burden that first countries of asylum are undertaking. Significant resettlement would give an entirely different bargaining position in relation to Turkey, for example, than offering cash for them to keep refugees there does. Imagine a situation in which the European Union was offering almost half a million resettlement place to Syrians, supporting countries in the region, and able then to quickly triage residual migrant arrivals for the smaller numbers of Syrians, and other people with a protection need.

4. Working together

Although there is no inherent reason for which E.U. member states would have to collaborate on resettlement, there are various ways in which they could cooperate to their own benefit, and to the benefit of refugees, for the protection system as a whole. Some sort of numerical balance of efforts between member states would be primarily to the E.U.’s own satisfaction in terms of spread and feeling a sense of solidarity with one another. It would only work in favor of the refugees and protection more broadly if the act of balancing of the number of resettlement places offered across member states served to increase the total number of places (e.g., through some kind of ‘auction’ system with bids ever increasing).

However, there are other ways in which the E.U. member states could cooperate on resettlement: supporting one another in the selection process; identifying differing criteria for selection, perhaps with an eye to satisfactory integration in society and the labor force; working together on practical issues such as transportation, as well as security of personnel, and in identifying refugees (and extremists). The list could go on—the point is primarily that taking a positive approach and actively seeking areas of collaboration, while not making that a sine qua non, would enhance both the E.U. approach and its image, and the broader protection regime.

5. Sending a political message to participants in conflict

The very act of offering resettlement to refugees not only assists first countries of asylum; it also sends a powerful message to the participants in a conflict. While refugee protection explicitly should not be a political act in the sense of partiality, it does send an explicit foreign policy signal to say that victims of a conflict are being protected, and that the protecting states thereby are expressing, and explicitly taking on, an interest in the outcome of a crisis.


There is no way in which resettlement alone or alongside broader refugee policies would have averted the Syrian exodus. It might have been able to play a role in limiting or at least altering the migrant crisis by avoiding Syrians’ need to seek out smugglers and set out on dangerous boat journeys. Without this method of large-scale Syrian asylum seeking, it is possible either that other refugees and migrants might not have had the opportunity to join that significant and heart-wrenching movement, or that governments could have exercised greater management by being able to demonstrate that they were dealing with Syrian needs and would do the same for others in need, while returning people with no legitimate right or reason to enter the European Union.

The image of control, or being in charge and on top of the situation, might be the greatest asset a government can have in approaching a crisis (be it of refugee and migrant arrivals or any other crisis). A protection policy tool that puts the authorities in charge of arrivals (in terms of timing and numbers), sees them with a plan in place regarding where refugees will leave and how they will be assisted with integration, and takes the initiative out of the hands of criminals is surely something that all governments should adopt.

[1] Other nails in that coffin include the way in which EU citizen extremists are being able to use free movement to advance their terror goals and the determination of the UK not to extend welfare benefits to large numbers of EU citizen migrant-workers.

[2] Building from the Dublin Convention in 1990, which came into force in 1997, and was subsequently revised into a regulation, which itself was re-cast on two occasions. The system includes the Eurodac database of finger print registration. See

[3] COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 2001/55/EC, of 20 July 2001 on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof, 2001,

[4] Joanne van Selm, “Missing in Action: the Unused Temporary Protection Directive, in Migration Policy and Practice,” Migration Policy Practice, Vol. V, No. 4 (2015), pp. 15-19,

[5] COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 2004/83/EC of 29 April 2004 on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third country nationals or stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection and the content of the protection granted,; and DIRECTIVE 2011/95/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 13 December 2011 on standards for the qualification of third-country nationals or stateless persons as beneficiaries of international protection, for a uniform status for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection, and for the content of the protection granted (recast)

[6] COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 2005/85/EC of 1 December 2005 on minimum standards on procedures in Member States for granting and withdrawing refugee status; and DIRECTIVE 2013/32/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 26 June 2013
on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection (recast)

[7] COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 2003/9/EC of 27 January 2003 laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers; and DIRECTIVE 2013/33/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 26 June 2013 laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection (recast)

[8] EASO: see the agency’s website at

[9] See Joanne van Selm, “European Refugee Policy: is there such a thing?” UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper Series No. 115 (May, 2005),

[10] Helene Urth, Mathilde Heegaard Bausager, Hanna-Maija Kuhn, and Joanne van Selm,Study on the Feasibility and legal and practical implications of establishing a mechanism for the joint processing of asylum applications on the territory of the EU,” February 13, 2013,



[13]  Study on The Feasibility of setting up resettlement schemes in EU Member States or at EU Level, against the background of the Common European Asylum system and the goal of a Common Asylum Procedure, 2003,


[15] UNHCR, Syrian Regional Refugee Response,; and

[16] UNHCR, Resettlement and other forms of Legal Admission for Syrian refugees, The US program is more open-ended, so the total number is ten or twenty thousand higher, but submissions are taking many months to process.

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