Charles Tannock is an MEP for London.
After four years of civil war in Syria it is becoming clear to many people living in refugee camps that the prospects of returning home in the near future are slim. It is understandable that they are seeking a new life for themselves in Europe, making dangerous journeys to countries where the economic prospects are far better. Their current status as refugees or economic migrants is ambiguous.
However, the generous but unrealistic approach taken by Germany, and by the European Commission, has been misguided. Germany has unilaterally suspended the return of asylum seekers to the first safe country – under the Dublin Convention. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to compulsorily relocate 160,000 migrants and refugees to other EU states has faced stiff resistance from some eastern European countries who refuse the imposition of such quotas.
Regardless of the decisions taken, Merkel and Juncker’s actions have sent a signal that Europe is moving towards the establishment of an open-door immigration and asylum policy that could extend well beyond the displaced people from Syria, potentially attracting others from across the developing world, regardless of their political situation or status.
In the short term, pragmatic and humane solutions must be found. Measures should include admitting some genuine refugees and returning others whose primary purpose is economic – but full screening and registration of the migrants is important to determine this. In the longer term, I believe at some stage the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 will also have to be revisited in terms of a stricter definition of the terms used. Some states apply the same convention very differently and there is no presumption that refugees will seek asylum in their own neighbourhood in the first instance, rather than crossing the world through many safe, poorer countries before submitting an asylum application in richer Europe; or that they must return home once security is re-established.
Also, how can it be right that the vast and wealthy Saudi Arabia has refused to sign the Convention or take a single Syrian refugee with whom they share a common culture?
Much of the EU institutions’ response is rooted in the assertion that Europe has an unlimited responsibility to offer save haven for all fleeing war no matter what the numbers or cost may be. Whilst that principle may be right when talking of those facing immediate danger, imprisonment and death, what limits do we place on people who are displaced by instability, but not immediately in danger?
Our immigration policy cannot exist merely on the principle that everyone across the world should automatically be entitled to and have access to the same economic opportunities and social security support that exists in northern Europe. Those who have always advocated an open door policy have been exploiting this crisis to further their ideal, but we must also consider the maintenance of social cohesion, and the risks that ISIS is infiltrating those entering Europe.
Instead of focusing political capital solely on its perceived moral obligation, Europe should also think of its very real political responsibilities, and seeking to stabilise the situations in Iraq and Syria should be the first priority.
The US-led coalition is contributing vital support in its air bombing campaign of ISIS but alone it is not sufficient. As immediate steps, EU Member States and others should provide greater direct military assistance to proven anti-jihadist contributors in the region such as the Kurdish Regional Government’s brave Peshmerga whom I visited recently.
On the diplomatic front, it is time to accept that Bashar al-Assad has survived beyond all expectations. He is a brutal dictator but we do not have the luxury of choosing our potential allies. Faced with the choice of a secular tyrant versus jihadist murderous fanatics, Assad is now to my mind, in the light of the new ISIS terrible global threat, the lesser of two evils who has at least protected minorities including Christians in his secular regime
Following the recent P5+1 nuclear deal we should enlist the help of Iran and tacit support of Russia both in fighting ISIS and cutting a transitional peace deal with Assad. I generally reject impunity for war crimes but in this case we may have no choice but to trade Assad’s immunity and exile in exchange for a handover of power.
Already we are seeing the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announce talks with Russia to coordinate over Syria and the future of Assad. However, stabilising Iraq requires the establishment of an effective Sunni-led coalition of committed Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to fight against ISIS in the liberation of Mosul and the majority Sunni areas.
The Middle East is tearing up its post-World War One Sykes-Picot settlement, redrawing the map as traditional centres of power shift. There is no perfect blueprint for stability but given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, we need to try. We should show compassion to those that fall foul of this instability, but if we are to protect our own safety, we must also tackle the underlying causes of the migration crisis we now face.