By storming the barricades at Budapest’s Keleti station and setting out on foot for the Austrian border, Syrian refugees rejected an international refugee system that provides them neither protection nor hope for the future. Thousands have already arrived in Germany as many European citizens rally to their cause.
I was at Vienna’s Prater Stadium on Sunday morning to witness hundreds of volunteers set off for neighboring Hungary in their own vehicles to bring back refugees stranded on the other side of the border. It’s the perfect humanitarian storm with normally cautious politicians and international officials pushed to take extraordinary action by the courage and tragedy of Syrian refugees supported by a critical mass of ordinary people across Europe.
The priority now is to make overdue changes in the way we respond to humanitarian crises. European Union member states have come to recognize the limits of the Dublin regulation that requires people seeking asylum in Europe to do so in the countries they first reach. For Syrian and many other refugees this means countries with a Mediterranean seaboard. But the over-stretched systems in these frontline states are not equipped to deal with the influx. And the refugees, understandably, would rather move further North and West.
While Germany has temporarily ditched the Dublin regulation, it’s a hard slog to get all EU member states to share the burden equitably. Germany and Sweden offer a model to follow and others, such as France and the UK, are tiptoeing up to the plate. Meanwhile, the Union’s more recent members in Central and Eastern Europe have adopted a defiantly rejectionist stance. The east-west divisions are entrenched but the EU must eventually replace today’s smorgasbord of national arrangements with a Europe-wide asylum system that is fit for purpose.
Change is also needed at the international level. In a statement on the refugee crisis issued on September 4, UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres calls for a comprehensive approach to the crisis and bemoans the lack of European solidarity in taking in refugees. But he avoids questioning the international refugee architecture with its poor track record of engaging with the people it serves.
If the UN and other relief agencies had had their collective ear closer to the ground in the refugee camps and communities in the Middle East over recent years, they might have been better placed to discern the mounting pressures behind the exodus to Europe. But beyond the ritualistic rhetoric about the importance of listening there has been no consistent effort to find out whether the modest help refugees get is relevant to their needs, if they trust those helping them, and – crucially in the current context – whether the way relief programs are run enable refugees to make a difference in their own lives.
The events of the past week may herald a departure from humanitarianism as usual. The Syrian refugees have spoken not just for themselves, but for the 59.5 million displaced people languishing in limbo across the world. Many European citizens have responded with sympathy and humanity, pushing governments to follow suit. Public concern, however, is likely to be short-lived. It’s time to give people affected by man-made disasters, like the one in Syria, a bigger say in a humanitarian system that has done too little to engage them or treat them with the respect that a lucky few are now experiencing for the first time.
Nick van Praag directs Ground Truth Solutions which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and DFID.