The Refugee Crisis in Europe: Challenges and Problems

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, Migration

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert and Konstantina Mintzoli, EU Migration Expert

The Refugee Crisis in Europe: Challenges and Problems

Since 2011 the EU has been facing an unprecedented migrant and refugee crisis and its response is far from ideal; on the contrary, it has been quite divisive, with not all EU countries agreeing on procedures and sharing responsibility. It is very hard for the European Union to adopt a common approach to tackle the immigration crisis -due the different national interests of Member States. The EU Member States follow their own political agenda to control migratory flows.  The present analysis attempts to identify the challenges and problems that the EU countries faced during 2016, as well as what will be the possible challenges of 2017.

The current refugee crisis has revealed some of the EU limitations. As analysts outline “the problem is not policies, but an utter lack of political will in many European countries” (Dempsey, 2016). Not all EU members agree on policies, and even when they do, they tend to water down or to not implement them. For example, when Germany and Sweden (which have received the highest number of asylum applications) were talking about solidarity, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was talking about “an unprecedented threat” (Knaus, 2016). The crisis revealed an enormous diversity in societal attitudes about migration because countries approach the issue from the perspective of domestic politics. We can categorize the Member States into three groups regarding their response to refugees and migrants; The largely societies of Western and Northern Europe -which are the most popular final destination among migrants and refugees- wish for a slower inflow and are totally contrasted with the societies of Central Europe, which were much less prepared to deal with a large influx of foreigners due to their relative isolation in their past. Moreover, the Member States of first arrival in the South cope with the constraints of the Dublin Regulation

But it is not only that countries do not agree; more importantly, the problem is that tensions are created between them. Greece and its relation with some of its EU partners is a striking example. The country has been accused of deliberately waving through refugees (who should be registered in Greece as soon as they enter). In particular, the tension between Greece and Austria worsened so much that Greece withdrew its Ambassador to Vienna. In 2016, the EU focused on preventing arrivals and outsourcing responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees to regions and countries outside the EU. EU policy-makers and leaders have put the re-establishing control over Europe’s external borders as political and practical necessity and as a humanitarian essential to improve the life conditions of asylum seekers and refugees in other regions and to impede them from following perilous migration. However, the Schengen Agreement on open borders has been already in question about its usefulness and we expect to continue to remain confrontation between the north and south European member states.

Let us consider one of the greatest challenges: how refugees will be integrated into the host societies? MIPEX (the Migrant Integration Policy Index) researchers have found that “countries with inclusive integration policies tend to provide the best conditions for social cohesion, to the benefit of both newcomers and general society” (Sunderland, 2016). However, many EU countries have applied coercive integration measures, such as discriminatory measures (a striking example is the religious-dress bans in France). Even if refugees’ will and motivation to rebuild their lives is big, “integration policies that require people to shed fundamental aspects of their identity are unlikely to succeed” (Sunderland, 2016). The integration of refugees and how to help them rebuild their lives and participate productively in the society will continue to be one of the greatest challenges for the EU in 2017.

The EU immigration policy has been frequently criticized by NGOs, analysts and academics for focusing on how to discourage migration and how to return irregular migrants, without taking other aspects into account (such as the protection of refugees and their integration ) (Lehne, 2016). Reducing the question in how to intensify the protection of the borders and how to relocate refugees is part of the problem (Paolillo & Jager, 2016). Not taking into account the social aspect of the relation between refugees and host societies has led to a polarization in the host societies: there are those politicians and citizens who are willing to accept and help refugees and those who are against and raise concerns over the cultural identity, social cohesion and security of Europe. Moreover, an augmented fear has been noticed among EU citizens. A fear that refugees are linked to terrorist groups, that they could influence in a negative way the European identity and they could deteriorate the economy of the host countries. The consequence is a remarkable rise of far-right parties, a rise of populism and acts of violence (like the attacks in refugee camps in Greece).

Furthermore, it should be emphasized that there are also economic problems, especially for countries which have already faced a financial crisis, such as Greece, which was constantly asking for additional financial aid during 2016. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the refugee crisis has been posing additional risks for the Greek economy (Tagaris & Maltezou, 2016). Providing food and accommodation to the myriad of refugees arriving in the EU was and still is a major challenge.

Regarding the deal between the EU and Turkey, it should be emphasized that even if it has several positive aspects, in general it is highly problematic. The EU governments repeatedly sought to shift responsibility onto countries outside the EU, including through a problematic migration deal with Turkey. This agreement on the control of migration flows is considered a panic move of the EU, since it decided to converse with a discredited government considered signing a legal and ethically controversial agreement, while its wording is deliberately opaque in many areas.“The EU was forced to make concessions to Turkey, whose commitment to democratic values and respect for human rights has been gradually declining the last few years”( Dempsey, 2016). Refugees who are left in Turkey face numerous risks (such as violation of their rights, bad living conditions and pushback to Syria). Further, as far as 2017 is concerned, it is very unlikely that the EU-Turkey deal will end people smuggling. “The history of migration shows that when one route closes, another one usually opens up” (Dempsey, 2016) and this has been already noticed with the Central Mediterranean Route being not only busy again but also deadlier (from January 2016 until May 2016 one in every twenty-three refugees died choosing this route)(IOM, p.1).

There is no doubt that the EU countries will have to face the increase of violence. Authorities in most EU countries have already expressed their concerns about a rise of acts of violence against refugees— a phenomenon which has been already seen— as well as a rise in protests and demonstrations by refugees. The inadequate living conditions of refugees and the difficulties in integrating and being accepted by the host communities are leading to an increasing dissatisfaction and even indignation by both sides. The acts of violence are more likely to be manifested in Greece (especially in the East Aegean islands), but also in France and Germany, where elections will be held in 2017 and immigration policy is at the heart of the election campaigns.

If countries agreed on a fair share of responsibility for welcoming and hosting refugees, then there would not be ‘overwhelmed’ countries. But what does ‘a fair share’ mean? Countries could agree on precise reasonable criteria, like population and area size, national wealth and unemployment. Since the EU does not adopt a genuine European immigration policy based on resources, organization and recording, the deal with Turkey will remain a half measure and the dangerous journeys to Europe will continue, which is an outcome in stark contrast with its aim.

If a stronger and more integrated EU cannot be achieved, then the likely outcome is not stagnation but rather the fragmentation or even the loss of the existing level of integration. If the EU cannot secure its external borders and ensuring fairer burden sharing among member states, a progressive renationalization of migration policies will be unavoidable. So the migration challenge could result in one of three scenarios:


  1. Less union, in which confidence and solidarity among member states are abated and the accomplishments of past decades are in jeopardy. Since the migration crisis plays a vital role in the political agenda, a common response to the refugee crisis had to be found; otherwise important projects for further integration, such as completing the monetary union and/or an energy union will get stuck, as well.
  2. A smaller, mini Schengen zone. Eventually, it could follow the precedent of the Schengen Agreement, creating a small Schengen zone of passport-free travel by just the first signatory countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), dealing with asylum and immigration issues. However, there could be a new divide between these countries and the countries left out. We estimate that this scenario could not work without the cooperation of the countries beyond the new group’s external borders for managing migration flows, a fact that leads to new countries to enter in the core group, creating a vicious circle of union and division.
  3. A revival of Schengen on a harmonized asylum and migration system, including a quota system for the distribution of asylum seekers across the EU with a financial burden sharing.


Immigration and refugee policy is expected to remain a dominant issue in European agenda for 2017 and not only, since the flows of people into the EU will continue at a high level if the war does not stop at first place. As a result, Europe will undergo acute changes. There is therefore no realistic alternative to prevent this ‘crisis’ but Member States to regain trust in each other and in the EU’s collective values.