Will the images of crowded European borders be a temporary phenomenon or a new long-term trend? Alexander Betts, Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs in Oxford has an ambiguous answer: ‘It depends’.
By Laurens Peek

Whether displacement will be a long-term trend or not depends on the policies we and our leaders will choose to adopt. Betts sees displacement as a logical consequence of conflict situations from around the world, but he also thinks that refugees and displacement will become a defining issue of the 21st century.

According to Betts, there are two aspects that contribute to this: fragility and mobility. The international community has difficulty managing both of these. The fragility aspect refers to a growing number of states that deal with ‘chronic fragility, with weak governance leading to an inability or unwillingness to ensure the most fundamental human rights of citizens.’

As a cause for this fragility Betts takes the failed state-building practices the Western world has been venturing since several decades (think Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala). Root causes of conflicts are seldom successfully addressed by the UN Security Council, according to Betts.

The second issue coined by Betts, mobility, has contributed to a rising number of migrants. From 70 million in 1970 to over 200 million today.

Refugee vs migrant

For Betts the debate about which word to use, refugee or migrant, reflect the extremes that are apparent in the entire debate on the crisis. According to Betts the distinction between these two terms is not that black-and-white as many seem to think. A person from Syria can come from an area that has not fallen to conflict and try to benefit from the possibility to be granted refugee status. However, he also states that people simply have the right to apply for asylum in any country.

‘Five major gaps in the refugee regime’

Mid-September 2015 Betts recognized five gaps in the European refugee regime that should be addressed. Some of these gaps are partly addressed by now, but could still be streamlined. First of all, access. Access to Europe is based on a contradiction. European border management ensures that people can only enter Europe on an illegal basis. It expects people to spontaneously arrive in Europe. As a solution Betts suggests a humanitarian visa that allows asylum seekers to travel legally.

Secondly, responsibility-sharing. The refugee regime in Europe demands responsibility of the first country of application. This mechanism burdens the border countries in a way that is unsustainable.

Thirdly, increasing numbers of people do not fall into any refugee category set forth by the 1951 Geneva Convention. People fleeing from fragile states are, under the current regulation, not entitled to an appropriate status. According to Betts the regulations must be altered to include these people as well.

Fourthly, Betts thinks that refugees must be supported to become self-reliant instead of dependent to the hospitality of the host-country. Lastly, there is little consensus on what to do with people who are truly not entitled to international protection. In the end, Betts claims, ‘states will be collectively better off working together than acting in isolation.’

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