Benedict Dempsey: Border controls won’t stem tide of refugees

Refugees try to warm up as they wait to cross the Slovenian-Austrian border. Picture: Getty
Refugees try to warm up as they wait to cross the Slovenian-Austrian border. Picture: Getty
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IN THE middle of the night a train arrives in Tabanovce, in the north of Macedonia close to the border with Serbia. Several hundred people, many of them women and children, get off into the cold darkness, a bitter wind driving rain into their faces. They ask local volunteers and NGO workers – including Mercy Corps staff – where they are.

When they hear the Serbian border is a five to ten-minute walk away, they start walking along the train tracks. The tracks are dangerous, but the path to the side of the tracks is muddy and their clothes and shoes are not equipped for the weather. They have had only limited access to basic hygiene, and they are hungry and exhausted. Once in Serbia, they need to travel another 9km to the registration centre. The train could have taken them there, but because of international border politics, it didn’t.

This scene is playing out across Europe’s borders, from the Greek islands to Calais. The EU is talking to Turkey about a deal to tighten its control of people leaving for Greece. All the while, the journey being made by desperate people – many of whom have already escaped violent conflict at home – is made more difficult and more dangerous.

This crisis poses a challenge to Europe and the rest of the world. But, are the current measures to restrict refugee movement an effective way to meet it? No. And they will probably make the problems worse.

For many years Mercy Corps has worked in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – places where many of these refugees are from, or have moved through. We focus on working with youth, a demographic that makes up more than two-thirds of the people arriving in Europe. In September this year, we conducted new research with people arriving in Lesbos, Greece, set out in our report “Behind them, a homeland in ruins: the youth of Europe’s refugee crisis.” As a result, we have some insight into why these young people are moving.

We know they are fleeing instability and violence at home and that, in the short term at least, they won’t stop coming. For many, particularly from Syria, it seems a tipping point has been reached and they have given up hope of ever going home. As one 19-year-old Syrian told us: “We’ll take any risk. You have to understand how bad it is back there. We have no alternative. We have to get to Europe. If you were me, you would do the same.”

We also know, though, that most young refugees are motivated by hope and a desire to build a better life in a new country. They see no prospect 
of doing that in overcrowded and ­underfunded camps or host com­munities in the Middle East where they cannot work. They are aspirational and want to work or get an education. They have much to offer Europe.

With many having already fled violent conflict, tighter border controls will not dissuade them from travelling. Rather, it will make them try somewhere else and take even greater risks. What, then, should be done?

First, to stop this chaotic and dangerous movement of people, world leaders need to negotiate a comprehensive plan of action for resettling large numbers of refugees – not just to Europe but to other countries too. The more countries involved, the smaller the number each would need to take. Only when people are offered a legitimate path to a safe future will they be likely to stop making dangerous informal journeys.

Second, countries in the Middle East, supported by wealthy nations, should enable refugees there to work. Access to an income and greater dignity would reduce the push factors driving people further afield.

Third, those countries receiving refugees should put in place programmes to meet the particular needs of young people – helping them to integrate with training opportunities and community projects.

These measures should be a moral and legal obligation to people driven from their homes by war – but they are also likely to be the most effective way of bringing this crisis under control. In contrast, if Europe chooses to exclude and marginalise people seeking help, pushing them from border to border as winter draws in, it may foster the kind of resentment and conflict we all want to avoid. «