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Mediation and Crisis Resolution

Addressing the refugee crisis in Europe

Kofi Annan analyses the current Refugee situation in Europe and calls for international cooperation and dialogue.

Europe is facing the greatest movement of refugees since the Second World War. Though there has been an outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the refugees from Syria, the scale and provenance of the influx of migrants is testing the limits of the European Union’s institutions, solidarity and progressive values.

In my intervention, I will look at the broad trends that have triggered this refugee influx, the challenges and opportunities it presents for Europe and, finally, I will make a few suggestions on how to address its root causes. The refugee crisis is a by-product of at least three broader trends:

First and foremost, it is the result of the breakdown of the authoritarian state order in the Middle East and Africa after the destruction of authoritarian states in Iraq and Libya, as well as the Arab Spring. What we are witnessing today is not just a series of civil wars, but also a geopolitical struggle to redefine the balance of powers in the Middle East.

Second, the inability of the Security Council to find a compromise that can resolve the crisis in Syria has undermined its own authority and perpetuated the conflict. Finally, the growing migratory flows are also compounded by demographic growth in countries in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa that are unable to generate sufficient employment for young people.

The populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East have multiplied by four since 1950 . On current trends, both will double again their 2000 populations by 2050. This underlying trend is exacerbating political instability in the Middle East and Africa and fuelling migration.

Europe sees the massive influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa as a threat.

In reality, it is an endorsement of the European project, an opportunity, but also a challenge that will require decisive action. Europe is a symbol of freedom, prosperity and justice that attracts immigrants. At a time when the EU is not popular within its own borders, Europeans should reflect on the significance of their popularity abroad.

But migrants should not be regarded merely as beneficiaries of Europe’s bounty: they also represent an opportunity for Europe itself. By definition, immigrants are entrepreneurial people.  After all, they have taken huge risks to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that they are over-represented amongst entrepreneurs.  In fact, more than 40 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. I am certain that many of the wealthy philanthropists in this room, like Mr. Arton himself, are immigrants or children of immigrants.

Moreover, immigrants can help to compensate for the ageing population of many European countries, and can therefore help sustain their welfare states into the future. In fact, it is telling that big business is recognising the economic potential of migrants even as public opinion, and the politicians who pander to it, remains tepid .

All that is not to deny that managing the large influx of migrants, some seeking refuge from war, others merely seeking a better life, will be a challenge. Europe is going to have to make big efforts to successfully integrate large populations of foreigners into its economy and societies. This will require reform in at least six areas.

First, EU members states are going to have to agree on a common system for handling asylum seekers, and quickly. The current variety of norms and procedures is leading to unmanageable chaos, as migrants move from one country to another seeking the best rules and conditions, which keep on changing under political pressures. In the absence of a common system deemed as fair and effective by all, borders are coming down all over Europe, and the refugee crisis is becoming a major crisis for the European Union project as a whole.

Second, Europe must persuade the rest of the world to take their fair share of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa. After all, many countries share responsibility for the chaos currently besetting Syria and Iraq, and should therefore also take responsibility for its consequences. That is how the international community finally resolved the refugee crisis in South-East Asia.

Third, Europe will have to invest far more in processing asylum requests quickly and fairly, as close to the countries of provenance as possible, and sending back illegal migrants humanely. The repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and illegal migrants is the sine qua non for securing the political acceptance of the general population to much larger refugee intakes.

Fourth, EU member states will also have to make labour markets more flexible. This has been a recommendation of the OECD for decades, but it is especially vital if Europe is to integrate large influxes of refugees and migrants, who are currently disproportionately unemployed  or working on the black market.

Fifth, European member states will have to boost spending on integration programmes, including language training, apprenticeships and the dispersion of immigrants, as Germany is doing. This farsighted policy should be imitated by all states, many of which have let immigrant ghettos develop in their midst, cut off from the mainstream and breeding grounds for crime and radicalism.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, many European countries are going to have to change their discourse on national identity.

In just a few decades, Europe has become a multicultural continent of immigration. Yet many Europeans cling to monolithic, outdated narratives of who they are, from which immigrants are absent.

As the global citizens here know all too well, however, we all have multiple, changing identities. Europeans will have to get used to the fact that being European no longer necessarily means being Christian or white. By the same token, immigrants have to adapt to the norms and mores of their host countries. You cannot live in Milan as you would in Mogadishu. Otherwise their presence will continue fuelling the rise of anti-immigrant populism.

If the European Union is able to rise to the occasion, the refugee and migration crisis could actually end up strengthening the European project. As difficult as these challenges may seem, they are as nothing compared with the challenge of addressing the root causes of the current crisis.

Many policy-makers may be tempted to try restoring the authoritarian regimes that maintained stability in the Middle East and North Africa for decades. I think this is illusory. Their disgruntled youth are demanding change, and they are too many and too angry to be suppressed forever.

The real solutions will involve the regimes that remain in place becoming more open, inclusive and meritocratic to meet their youths’ aspirations. But the immediate problem is the states that have collapsed, Syria and Libya, or are unravelling, like Iraq and Yemen.

The regional and global powers must find some kind of consensus about the new order that must emerge to stabilise the Middle East. Given the geopolitical rivalries at play, this is a tall order, and is one of the greatest diplomatic challenges of our day. But the alternative is anarchy, and more refugee outflows, as we are seeing today.

Without a clear steer from the world powers, the regional powers are exacerbating sectarian rivalries and waging proxy wars. A reformed and effective Security Council is what the world yearns for. The current disorder is in no global power’s interest in the long run because it jeopardises the world order upon which their legitimacy rests.

Finally, population growth in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa has to be slowed. The good news is that with rising education, particularly of women, birth rates are already falling, particularly in the Middle East. Public policy needs to accelerate this trend through a further push to make girls’ education universal and family planning programmes accessible.

The historic refugee crisis Europe is facing today is so hard to solve because it is not a one-off, humanitarian phenomenon. It is, in fact, a by-product and symptom of much deeper political problems that beset regional and global order.

It will therefore require concerted action not just in and by Europe, but amongst the regional powers of the Middle East, and the global powers of the Security Council. Like climate change, it is one of those issues that epitomise our era of globalisation, when crises in one part of the world can no longer be isolated or ignored by the rest.

Once again, international cooperation and dialogue will be the key to finding solutions. According to an African proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. We have a long way to go; we can only do so if we go together.



Photo: Yuliya Kozel, EDHEC, BBA Financial Markets