Crisis at Europe’s Doorstep: A Conversation with Eugenio Ambrosi about Refugees, Migration, and the European Response

Eugenio Ambrosi is the Regional Director of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Office for the EU, Norway, and Switzerland. Prior to this, he was the Senior Regional Adviser for Europe and Central Asia in the Office of the Director General at the IOM’s Headquarters in Geneva. Ambrosi came to the IOM in 1991, where he has since held senior positions including Director for the Regional Office in Buenos Aires and Director of the Dakar Regional Office. He has extensive experience and knowledge of European issues and IOM policies, programs, and operations, in addition to several years of executive experience with IOM’s Regional Bureau for Africa and the Middle East. Ambrosi holds a Master’s degree in Law and a Post Graduate degree in International Law and Multilateral Diplomacy.

Eugenio Ambrosi is the Regional Director of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Office for the EU, Norway, and Switzerland.

When an image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body, washed up on a Turkish shore, spread across social media and news channels, a moment of silent horror reverberated throughout the world. For the last five years, there have been scores of images capturing desperation and devastation in and outside of Syria, but few of these photos seemed to have broken the callousness surrounding the crisis more than the tragedy of Kurdi and his family. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are seeking asylum and safe passage to Europe by boarding precarious, overcrowded dinghies that too often capsize at sea.

Once on land, another crisis unfolds as European nations struggle to manage the flow of both refugees and migrants. The EU remains paralyzed, as member countries are unable to come to terms on a common policy that shares the distribution of refugees. The issue is further compounded by large flows of migrants that are separate from refugees and also seeking asylum. It is a distinction that Eugenio Ambrosi clarifies in the following conversation, as Europe can no longer avoid the migration crisis that has arrived at its doorstep. According to Ambrosi, Europe has dragged its heels on the subject of migration policy for the last 25 years, and the inevitability of the current crisis should evoke little shock.

Migrants or refugees? How does the IOM classify the desperate arrivals at Europe’s doorstep, and why? There seems to be a lack of consistency in terminology, not only among media outlets but also within the EU member states.

What we define this current flow as is a mixed migration flow. Refugees are in a category that is defined in the 1951 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convention and is based on very specific criteria. A refugee is defined objectively as someone who is fleeing his or her own country of permanent residence due to persecution based on political or religious affiliation or discrimination for belonging to a special social group or minority group.

Refugees are one component of those who are arriving in Europe. These are the people from Syria who are fleeing general violence from war. Then, you have another category of migrants, which are people moving from their countries of origin to another country for a variety of reasons that are not linked to persecution: economic migrants, migration to reunite with family somewhere else in Europe, or migration that is necessary to escape dire consequences generated by environmental degradation. Basically, whatever other reason that is is not linked with personal persecution.

You also have a category of people that are not refugees but are in need of some sort of protection, because they might be victims of trafficking. So, in fact, what we’re seeing in Europe is not just a “refugees versus migrants” issue but a mix of different problems. Some of these are protected by international law and others not. That is why the current situation is complicated.

Do these different categories explain the disparity in the responses across Europe, or why the EU struggles to come to a consensus on the necessary solutions?

Yes. That is part of the problem. An additional aspect is that, since refugee status is a category that exists in the 1951 agreement, there is an internationally accepted framework as to how to deal with this group. The other categories do not have the same legal framework and are not subject to any specific convention. If you go strictly by the law, if you’re not a refugee and you enter irregularly without legal permit, you should be sent back. This is not really a feasible option and an impossibility given the sheer numbers of non-refugees involved currently. That is the central problem Europe is facing. There are no mechanisms to deal with this complexity.

Most recently, EU President Donald Tusk warned that the refugee crisis affecting Europe is the beginning of a real “exodus” that can last for years, given surrounding war-torn countries. What is the current state of refugee and migrant settlement policy within the EU, and what changes must be made to accommodate the influx of refugee and migrant arrivals?

The EU is relatively new to the concept of resettlement, whereas, in the US, resettlement policy has been on the agenda before. The number of refugees the EU has decided to resettle from Syria specifically is very low. We are talking about 20,000 refugees in Europe out of four million refugees spread between Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. 20,000 is a really small number that won’t make too much of a difference. The EU needs to be far more courageous in the number of refugees and migrants that it is willing to accept.

There are two main problems in terms of handling this current flow. The first is that, up until now, EU regulation has left all the responsibility of the flow to countries at the border of the EU. For the last two years, Italy and Greece have shouldered the growing weight of the situation, but the processing of asylum seekers has become too difficult for them. Very recently, a few EU countries have stepped up to offer support. The situation has spiraled out of control.

Secondly, the EU has not had a common asylum or common migration policy. You have 28 countries all responding differently to the situation, and not necessarily in a way that is coordinated or mutually supportive. Fragmentation is what creates confusion. Some countries open up their doors to refugees while others close borders and build fences. This approach makes it difficult to have a Union-like strategy that can ease the response. The overall number of people arriving in Europe is still very low for a union with half a billion people, if the response is unified.

On that point, there are drastically different responses from some countries versus others. For example, Germany is set to take in 800,000 refugees while Hungary has closed its borders and imposed a barbed wire fence to keep refugees out. What are the necessary steps for the EU to create more uniform distribution based on absorption capacity of different EU members?

I think you have too many EU countries that see migrants and refugees arriving as a threat. There is not enough recognition or evidence-based policy discussion to actually frame the question of migrants arriving in Europe in a proper way.

Most EU countries have not accepted the objective fact that they need migration for their own economies and workforces. Migration is not something that needs to be stopped at any cost but rather something that needs to be regulated and managed to allow people to improve their lives. Right now, the issue of migration is purely an electoral issue that is being used to either win or lose an election. The debate is framed without the proper information that is objectively necessary.

The first step for the EU is to have politicians discuss the issue at hand in objective terms rather than in emotional or electoral terms. This is delaying the actual solution necessary to manage this crisis.

Do you think EU member states should have been able to reasonably foresee the current situation? After all, the Syrian civil war has been ravaging the country since March 2011 and has since unraveled, and a steady flow of refugees had already been reaching Europe for asylum. There are indications that this crisis is the defining moment of a much larger issue with immigration policy for the EU that has been sidestepped for the last 25 years or so.

Yes, that is correct. This issue has been around for a long time but not looked at correctly until now. The problem you are seeing now is that the political discussion surrounding migration to Europe is happening under the pressure of a very big migration flow. Therefore, it is not a calm and collected reflection but an emotional one.

There was a definite mistake in overlooking certain situations far away from Europe and assuming that there would be no direct impact. There were all the ingredients in the Syrian crisis to foresee that, sooner or later, these people would leave Syria. People will move for stability, and that is where there has been the greatest miscalculation. Sooner or later in a globalized world, what happens elsewhere affects us here in Europe and beyond.

What would the timeline for a resolution look like?

A lot of discussions happen behind closed doors, so it is difficult to keep a pulse on what the EU will actually decide. What we need right now is to start relocation as fast as possible. We need a better response at the entry points, that is, redistributing refugees entering Greece and Italy in order to ease the burden on that part of the union.

There is also a need to speak up politically and diplomatically with African nations where many migrants are coming from. This should not be a conversation based purely upon how to keep African residents in Africa but rather as to how we can help devise migration mechanisms that are helpful to both Europe and Africa, and ultimately the migrants themselves. Facilitating some level of migration, and opening up some legal channels so individuals can avoid smugglers and traffickers, is key. Hopefully this will be possible in the next three months.

Now, looking forward momentarily, we know that simple resettlement of refugees is just one part of the equation. There will be a need for extensive language and skills training—integration so to speak. How realistic is it for the EU to advocate for these types of programs?

It is important to see integration as a two-way street. You need language training and skills development, but you also need services to help the nationals and residents of the host country accept and manage diversity. The EU is conscious of this fact. We hope that the accent on integration is as strong as it is on border management and security issues.

Why do you think some countries are more open, or understand the necessity of taking in refugees and migrants, versus others?

It is a complexity of issues. Being more or less welcoming is driven in part by demography and economic factors. The union as a whole needs migration for the economy. Individual countries in the EU have different degrees of this need. Certain countries require more migration to sustain their labor forces, and others need less. There are, however, other issues that are harder to digest.

There is also a certain lack of historical memory. Europe is now, in some instances, denying to refugees and migrants the same opportunity that Europeans looked for and obtained after World War II. That was our survival strategy. We wanted that option, and we should remember that before we deny it to others in the same situation.

The bottom line is that we have to move away from blaming migrants and refugees for our problems. Discourses such as, “We can’t have migrants because we have unemployed people,” need to be reevaluated. Unemployment in European countries is not caused by migrants but by other economic factors. By not letting migrants or refugees enter Europe, we won’t suddenly have more employed people. It is a wrong cause and effect situation that is being created. There needs to be a coherent policy that places human rights and European values at the forefront of the issue.

Featured Photo: cc/(EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)

Salwa Shameem
Salwa is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is interested in international development, peace and conflict, and national security. She is currently a producer at Seftel Productions and a media consultant.

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