The Complexities of Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Western nations face thorny legal, humanitarian and practical issues, says human rights law expert

refugees in makeshift camp in Belgrade park

We see them on the nightly TV news and on the front page of the newspaper: thousands of people fleeing war, oppression and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other nations. They pile into rubber dinghies, crowd into train stations or walk hundreds of miles, desperate to make their way to another country in search of safety or a better life. They often pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, who may load them onto rickety boats and then abandon them at sea.

So far this year some 450,000 people have arrived in Europe by boat. Another 3,000 died during the journey or have been reported missing, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The sheer horror of the crisis came in early September, with the release of photographs of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body had washed up on a beach in Turkey. While some countries have agreed to take in migrants, it is not enough to handle the numbers of new people seeking refuge each day.

Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School who focuses on the role of human rights in the international legal and political order, predicts the crisis will intensify. While many migrants are seeking safety, he says, others are looking for economic stability and are using the chaotic situation to make their way to countries where they will find jobs. Sorting through the legal, humanitarian and practical issues will not be easy, Hannum says. He spoke with Tufts Now about the situation on the ground.

Tufts Now: Are the people we see on the news migrants or refugees?

Hurst Hannum: It’s a very important distinction and an area in which the law matters. There are three categories: refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Under general international law, refugees are those who are judged to have a well-founded fear of persecution in the country from which they are fleeing; once they are determined to be refugees, they can usually remain in the country of destination and cannot be returned to the country from which they fled.

Those who seek refugee status but have not been formally determined to fall within the definition are asylum seekers; they, too, are protected from being returned to the country where they allegedly fear persecution. Simply fleeing a war or other dangerous situation is not normally sufficient to gain refugee status, although countries may adopt more liberal policies and admit those escaping conflict on either a temporary or permanent basis.

Hurst HannumHurst Hannum
Migrants are everyone else. They may wish to enter another country for economic or personal reasons, to escape poverty or to escape widespread repression that has not directly targeted them. Countries regulate the admission of migrants according to their own immigration laws.

Only about a third to a half of the people entering Europe are from Syria, according to press reports. The others are from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, North Africa and other parts of the world. They are either seeking refuge or a better life. The latter situation is perfectly understandable, but no country has an obligation to accept people who migrate essentially for economic reasons.

Many of those who seek to get to Germany or Sweden fall between or across these legal categories. They may be fleeing war, but physical safety in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or Greece isn’t enough. Western European countries with good social welfare benefits offer the best economic opportunities to settle and raise a family. This is a perfectly natural motivation, but their desire for a better life—not always their fear of war or persecution—has directly contributed to the current crisis.

What does the refugee crisis mean for European countries?

The European Union is trying to ensure that the people they allow to settle are at least fleeing a crisis as opposed to just wanting a better economic situation. I would think that Germany, or other countries willing to provide a safe haven, would prefer to offer refuge to those who need it, not just to those who want a job in Germany.

Germany has offered to take in several hundred thousand people, in part because it has an aging population and needs labor. This is admirable and fulfills the wishes of many of the migrants. But migrants normally must abide by immigration procedures, and the quandary for Europeans is that masses of people are demanding to go to specific countries, not just requesting safe haven.

At the same time, the scale of the humanitarian disaster is obvious, and Europe and the United States are trying to figure out how to respond to it without encouraging yet more migration or improperly rewarding those who have the resources—many rely on paid smugglers to get them to Greece or Italy, or on tenacity to continue their journey well beyond countries where they are sheltered from war.

Britain made an interesting offer to allow 20,000 people in—a small number—but only directly from camps in Lebanon and Jordan so as not to encourage smugglers or those who have the money to pay a smuggler. This would provide a context in which a country of refuge can do some kind of screening in order to distinguish the needy from the greedy. It is almost certain that the people in the camps are fleeing destructive wars in Syria and Iraq and need safety, whereas that may not be the case for a significant proportion of those who have already arrived in Europe.

Do these people want to settle permanently in another country?

Most people don’t want to leave their homes if they don’t have to, and the best option for those seeking refuge is often the ability to return to their country when danger has passed. However, that can only happen in regard to Syria if the war ends. There seems to be no way to do that without some sort of transitional role for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the people who support him—regrettable though that may be—as well as some assurance that the most extreme elements in Syria are marginalized. That may, in turn, require a coalition against ISIS and Al Qaeda offshoots, but that currently shows little likelihood of developing. Of course, permanent resettlement may be preferable for some.

Has anything on this scale happened before?

The United States and other countries took in more than 1 million people from Vietnam following the end of the war in 1975. This was a long-term effort and reflected the obligation that many Americans felt, given the U.S. role in the war. Today there are millions of people displaced by conflict in Africa, most of them in refugee camps maintained and funded by the international community.

What role is the U.N. playing in the current crisis?

The United Nations is playing an important role, along with many non-governmental organizations, in establishing, running and funding camps in the Middle East, which are housing perhaps 3 million people. The High Commissioner for Refugees is obviously an advocate on behalf of the migrants, but the U.N. in itself doesn’t control any territory and cannot provide permanent solutions. All it can do is make recommendations and plead with countries to assist.

How do you see this playing out?

There will be instability in the Middle East for a long time, and that makes it difficult to develop short-term humanitarian solutions. Egypt may deteriorate. Yemen is already engulfed in war. Who knows how stable Lebanon is? So while most of the West has accepted that it has a humanitarian duty to take in a lot of people, that is unlikely to prevent future migrations from future conflicts. Merely caring for the victims, laudable though that is, may not do much to decrease the number of future victims from a region in chaos.

What more could Europe and the United States do?

I think a Europe of 300 million people could be much more generous, but the sheer number of people stranded or on the move makes quick action difficult. Financial assistance will be needed for many countries that accept migrants, and migrants themselves must accept that they will not all make it to the promised land of Germany. The U.S. has indicated that it will take more people fleeing Syria, but the numbers are quite small.

And if we—or Australia, India, Brazil or other countries—are willing to accept refugees, how will they get here? Do we send boats? Aircraft? Do we take them from camps or from the border of Hungary? There are a lot of practical problems no one yet has addressed.

The question isn’t just whether we respond to the situation, but how we do it. Does responding to our legal, ethical and humanitarian obligations require caring for 10 million Syrians and millions more Afghans and Iraqis? This issue may seem only rhetorical, but answering it requires a much deeper debate about the duty, if any, that the rich and peaceful of the world owe to the poor and endangered.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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