The Refugee Crisis in Europe: The Challenges of Policy, Politics, and Logistics

October 7, 2015
The Refugee Crisis in Europe: The Challenges of Policy, Politics, and Logistics

By: Dan Harsha, Associate Director for Communications

Europe is straining under the greatest movement of people across the continent’s borders since World War II. While this latest wave of refugees, sparked by armed conflict and economic insecurity, has taxed Europe’s ability to absorb this staggering number of migrants, it has also ignited a debate within the European Union on the future of Europe itself.

“The consequences of this migration are tremendous, particularly for Europe,” said Arn Howitt, the faculty co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Crisis Leadership (PCL) and an Executive Director of the Ash Center.  Howitt moderated an October 6th discussion in front of a capacity audience at the Ash Center, which examined this unprecedented refugee crisis and the response in Europe.  Joining Howitt were Muriel Rouyer, adjunct professor of public policy at HKS and Ash Center faculty affiliate; Bartel Van De Walle, a visiting scholar with the Program on Crisis Leadership from Tilburg University in the Netherlands; Tina Comes, another visiting scholar with the Program on Crisis Leadership from the University of Agder in Norway; and Anaide Nahikian, Program Manager, Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Rouyer, who teaches a course on European public policy at HKS, remarked that Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis serves to highlight the dichotomy of migration in Europe. “Since the 1990s, a unified Europe, which has created an interior borderless space only works if there a strong external border.” Controls along the EU’s external borders, however, have proved little deterrence to the hundreds of thousands who have fled to safety and economic security in Europe this year alone. “With so many people flooding across Europe’s borders, countries are unable to manage,” said Rouyer. 

EU member states on the frontline of the refugee crisis such as Greece, which is beset by its own economic challenges, have little capacity to handle the influx of migrants landing on its shores in record-breaking numbers. Tina Comes, the Program on Crisis Leadership visiting scholar, argued that even Germany, the EU’s economic engine with a well-established contemporary history of migration absorption is faltering under the weight of this new wave of refugees. “There is a tremendous backlog of processing asylum claims,” said Comes. Germany, the top destination of many migrants, is struggling to keep up with the demand for social services for migrants, with education being a particular sore point.  With nearly half the recent refugee population in Germany under-25, providing adequate numbers of teachers and teaching facilities has proven to be a stumbling block.

Comes’ PCL colleague, Bartel Van de Walle was sharply critical of the European response. “It is surprising that no one at the highest political levels saw this coming,” especially given – as several of the panelists noted – Italy has grappled with similar waves of migration from North Africa over the past several years. And now, the EU has struggled to build a consensus within the 28-member bloc on how to resettle refugees with some Central and Eastern European member states resisting calls to absorb increasing numbers of migrants. The refugee response revealed tensions “between and within member states,” said the Ash Center’s Rouyer, who added that while countries primarily in the north and west of Europe largely acceded to the EU’s resettlement plan, Eastern European member states such as Hungary have largely rejected resettlement in their countries for cultural, religious, and economic reasons. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken the most strident anti-refugee line of any EU member state government, ordering the construction of border fences and criticizing the bloc’s wider migration refugee policy.

For Van de Walle, this intra-European bickering showed “a complete lack of courage,” though he was heartened by grassroots efforts among ordinary European citizens to provide food and shelter to immigrants.  Rouyer too, while critical of the EU’s paralysis and in some instances outright hostility to resettling refugees, pointed to individuals and communities who have banded together to aid those fleeing war and poverty, “Even the Greek people are proving very open and helpful.  After all, migrants have an objective -- they want freedom.”

Panelist presentations can be viewed below:

rouyer_panelmigrationcrisis.pdf972 KB
comes_refugees_panel_20151006_tc.pdf1.17 MB
van_de_walle_imforrefugees.pdf2.5 MB
See also: Ash Features, 2015