Refugees: Europe is being short-sighted

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch30 Apr 2015Michiel Zonneveld

What would we think if we were to read today’s newspapers in 10 years’ time? We would be amazed. We would see in the Dutch newspapers, for example, that the government had spent many days and nights discussing its ‘bed, bath and bread’ plan to provide the absolute minimum of support for around 500 hundred failed asylum-seekers. While, at the same time, 700 to 900 refugees from North Africa had drowned after their boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea overnight 18-19 April. As we read, we would probably quickly reach the conclusion that the Netherlands is suffering from collective short-sightedness.

Every man for himself

We would most likely also conclude that this short-sightedness is not limited to The Hague. Europe, too, has averted its eyes from the drama unfolding on the waters of the Mediterranean for as long as possible. The past year has shown that precious little remains of the whole idea of the European Union as a common project. The other member states would rather leave it up to the Italians to do all the dirty work. Their major concern has been that the refugees fleeing from Syria, the Sahel countries, and West, East and North Africa would leave Italy and end up in their countries. While hundreds of thousands of refugees find themselves adrift in the EU, Brussels has failed to come up with an adequate response. In ten years’ time, this may be seen as a greater mistake than the EU’s reaction to the crisis in Greece.

Fighting the symptoms

Europe finally seems ready to take action. But now, too, it is not looking far enough. Its strategy is still piecemeal, more of the same: stepping up controls on the EU’s coastal borders, taking further steps to track down human traffickers, and slightly increasing the budget to save refugees. But this is little more than fighting the symptoms and does nothing to tackle the causes of the problem. These are to be found in the countries the waves of refugees are fleeing from.


These inevitable conclusions will confront not only Europe, but the entire international community, with a number of serious dilemmas. The persistent stream of refugees will only decrease if the root causes are addressed, just as two decades ago the flow of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Balkans did not stop until the civil wars in the regions came to an end and the countries embarked on the process of integrating with the expanding EU. Italy and Egypt have already called for intervention in Libya, where a large proportion of the boat refugees leave from. But does that mean military intervention? In the light of recent experiences, there is little enthusiasm for that. And it would only increase the pressure on other trafficking routes.

A regional approach

If we want to stem the flow of refugees in the long term, we will have to look further than Libya. Our Sahel Watch programme and the associated living analysis on Mali show how the problems in the Sahel and West, East and North Africa are increasingly intertwined. The only way forward is therefore a long-term, integrated approach embracing the region as a whole, in which any military intervention must take second place to a diplomatic, political and development-oriented effort.