Today's displacement challenges - Asylum and migration in Europe, one year after the 'Arab Spring'

20 March 2012

“Europe needs a rational attitude to the Arab Spring. It must see it as an historic opportunity. Don’t be obsessed with the short-term movement of people that it’s triggering, which is actually quite small,” said António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“I thought EU countries would show the same enormous enthusiasm for the Arab Spring. But the dominant message was concern about a potential invasion of people from the south,” said Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal.

Describing the Arab Spring as hugely significant for an organisation like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Guterres said recent times had been characterised by a multiplication of new conflicts as well as the continuation of old conflicts “that never seem to die,” leading to an “extra” 800,000 refugees crossing borders.

He cited as examples conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Syria, Mali, Libya, Sudan, Congo and Somalia, all of which were putting the UNHCR under “enormous pressure”.

From a global perspective, “the humanitarian space is becoming more limited,” the High Commissioner deplored, explaining that the human rights agenda was “losing importance” because governments were preoccupied with governance issues and economic concerns.

“The Arab Spring represents an opportunity for Europe to act and […] take centre stage,” Guterres argued. But for that to happen, current attitudes to migration must change, he warned.

“Fertility in Europe is declining and its population is ageing. Europe cannot survive without migration. Migration is an essential component of its future,” Guterres argued.

“Europeans don’t want to have children, and they don’t want to do menial jobs. But they also don’t want migration, so there’s a kind of schizophrenia,” he said, warning that the situation was producing irrational behaviour, an irresponsible media and rising populism.

“Politicians are declaring that multiculturalism has failed. But multiculturalism is inevitable,” said Guterres, explaining that markets function and labour markets exist accordingly.

“So movement of people is absolutely necessary. But we can make sure that it’s managed and legal, rather than smuggled” and dangerous for all involved, the High Commissioner said.

Refugee flows “must be managed in a spirit of international solidarity,” he said, “but the European asylum system must be improved first”.

“Despite the European Commission’s best efforts, it’s extremely dysfunctional. I’m sceptical about the chances of success,” Guterres said, claiming that the likelihood of an Afghan refugee being granted asylum in Europe varied between eight and 91% depending on the EU member state in question.

“This means that you get an à la carte system of asylum shopping that encourages smugglers,” he warned.

“Countries will assume responsibility if it is shared and managed in a responsible manner, in a spirit of solidarity with those on the front line,” the UN official said.