Refugee crisis: Another summit, another action plan

Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

On Sunday, European leaders met for yet another summit on the refugee crisis, which shows no signs of abating as winter draws in, and agreed to yet another action plan.

This time the focus was on the Western Balkans, which remains the major corridor for migrants and refugees heading for destinations in northern Europe after they travel through Greece.

The 17-point plan pledges to increase the availability of temporary shelter, food and other basics for transiting refugees and promises more cooperation between countries in the region. In recent days, Slovenia and Croatia have failed to agree on how to manage the tens of thousands of refugees forced to pass through their countries since Hungary fenced off its border with Serbia and Croatia. The plan also emphasizes the need for stricter border controls, stepped up action against smugglers and increased efforts to return migrants who don’t qualify for asylum.

After a long summer of similar gatherings, there is a sense of déjà vu as heads of state once again agreed that “only a determined, collective cross-border approach…based on solidarity, responsibility and pragmatic cooperation” could succeed in restoring some order to the chaos that has marked responses to mass migration through the region in recent weeks and months.

IRIN takes a look at what previous summits and action plans have (or haven’t) achieved this year.

The first hastily convened meeting in April followed one of the worst shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in recent years. It claimed the lives of at least 800 migrants and refugees trying to reach Italy from Libya and exposed the gaps in search-and-rescue capacity that had opened up following the end of the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum operation in late 2014. The meeting resulted in the EU border agency, Frontex, scaling up its search-and-rescue efforts, and several other countries, including the UK, pitching in with ships and helicopters which have undoubtedly saved many lives. More controversially, the meeting resulted in an agreement to combat migrant smugglers by capturing and destroying their vessels. Only recently did the UN Security Council back the resolution to allow a civil-military operation to patrol Libyan waters. By then, the crisis had largely shifted to the Eastern Mediterranean, with the majority of migrants now setting off from Turkey.

In May, the European Commission released its European Agenda on Migration - a more comprehensive action plan which formulated many of the responses to the refugee crisis that are only now starting to be implemented. It included proposals to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states, to increase resettlement of Syrian refugees, to improve cooperation with third countries and to better enforce returns of irregular migrants. All of these recommendations have been the subject of recurring and often thorny discussions at subsequent EU meetings, but have yielded few concrete results. So far only 89 asylum seekers have been relocated from Italy to Scandinavia and cooperation with third countries remains an aspiration rather than a reality. 

A June summit resulted in an agreement to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from frontline states but only on a voluntary basis, meaning that it remained on the drawing board. Also discussed was the need to speed up deportations of irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers. In 2014, fewer than 40 percent of so-called return decisions were enforced across the EU. Cooperation with third countries came up again as successful deportations often require readmission agreements with countries of origin. 

By the end of August, the Western Balkan route had emerged as the major thoroughfare from southern to northern Europe, and the first summit bringing together leaders from the region to discuss the “crisis” gathered in Vienna. The meeting did little to prevent countries such as Hungary and Macedonia from acting unilaterally to curb the movement of migrants across their borders. 

The numbers of refugees arriving in Greece and making their way north continued to grow, prompting another raft of proposals from the European Commission in September followed by two more summits. Leaders remained deeply divided over the best response, but a majority vote finally pushed through the use of mandatory quotas to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states over two years. There were also pledges of more aid for regional responses to the Syrian crisis, particularly in Turkey, which had become the main launching point for Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe.

By October it was clear that worsening conditions in the Mediterranean were not going to prevent the daily arrival of thousands of refugees on Europe’s shores and that the relocation scheme would do little in the short-term to relieve the pressure on frontline states like Greece, or major destination countries like Germany. EU leaders backed an action plan to offer Turkey various incentives in return for its cooperation in stemming the numbers of migrants and refugees boarding boats for Europe from its coast. 

The next major summit will take place in Valletta, Malta in November and the focus will be on gaining more cooperation from key origin and transit countries, particularly in Africa. EU leaders are likely to push for more return and readmission agreements with African countries and more partnership on tackling smuggling and the root causes of irregular migration, while their African counterparts will want to know what incentives and support the EU is prepared to offer in return.

ks/am