Estonia wants to achieve long-term solutions to the crisis.
The migration crisis is a challenge for all of Europe—a test of humanity for Europeans. Whether the European Union will emerge from the crisis stronger or weaker depends mainly on our ability to stand together. If we are able to make European values and cooperation a priority, we could become stronger and more united as a result of this crisis. Otherwise, there is a risk that the EU will change: the Schengen system vanishes, borders close, free movement disappears, new dividing lines emerge and so on. We would definitely not like these changes. We must therefore work together to resolve the issues facing us.
The migration crisis is even more complicated and multifaceted than the crisis of the eurozone. First, the element of publicity and humanity is much greater—human lives are at stake, and horrifying photographs can change public opinion within a matter of hours. Second, migration affects EU member states in very different ways. Some worry about maintaining their borders and some have the issues that come with being a transit country, while others already face too great responsibilities as a country of destination, and so on. Moreover, the situation can change very quickly—one day it is Hungary that is under fire, the next day it is Croatia, then Slovenia or, as in the last few weeks, our near neighbour Finland.
Solving the refugee issue is Europe’s common responsibility, so it is Estonia’s responsibility too. Europe is more than just a continent; it stands for European values such as upholding human rights, having compassion for those in distress, and respecting one’s international obligations such as providing protection to war refugees.
Why are People Fleeing From Their Homes?
Different routes are used to cross the Mediterranean, with one of the main ones through Libya to Italy, and a second one to Greece via Turkey. According to the United Nations, a third of the refugees that have come to Europe this year via the Mediterranean are from Syria. At least 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in a bloody civil war that has now lasted for five years, during which the government has used chemical weapons against its own people. In recent years, the suffering of the nation has been increased by the violence of the extremist group ISIL, and people are being killed en masse based on an ideology with fictional religious origins. World-renowned Italian semiotician and philosopher Umberto Eco has called ISIL’s extermination methods and its apocalyptic desire to take over the world a new form of Nazism. More than 4,000,000 people have fled Syria, most of whom now live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Human consciousness cannot often comprehend such a great tragedy: we all knew the horrifying numbers, but it took the death of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, and a photo of this tragedy that spread like wildfire to change people’s attitude towards the Syrian refugees across the world.
Among Africa’s hot spots the biggest migration exit states are Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria. Eritrea is a dictatorship with a population of 6,500,000 and about 10,000 political prisoners. According to a rough estimate, 1,000,000 people have fled Eritrea in order to live a decent life and to escape the misuse of power. I would not recommend as bedtime reading the reports by the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch about torture in Eritrea or Somalia. Until 2013, Somalia was in political chaos due to religious conflict and ethnic violence. For now the situation has stabilised somewhat, but the country’s security remains very fragile. Hundreds of thousands have left as refugees. People are also fleeing in huge numbers from Nigeria, the north-eastern part of which is ravaged by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. Their kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls in April 2014 is a vivid example of how the lack of security falls hardest on the most vulnerable groups in society: women, girls, children and the elderly.
One of the largest sources of refugees is Afghanistan, where civil war has lasted for decades. Some relief was brought by the NATO-led peacekeeping mission that started in 2001 (Estonia joined in 2003), which was operating under a mandate from the UN Security Council and aimed to establish national institutions and fight against terrorism. Since 2001, over 5,000,000 Afghans have returned to their homeland, which should give us hope that, despite the enormous difficulties, the international community’s intervention in crisis areas does have a positive impact. The situation in Afghanistan has improved, but it remains unsafe and many are still leaving the country. That is why, despite the conclusion of NATO’s peacekeeping mission, Estonia continues to contribute aid to Afghanistan. Estonian police instructors are still working there and Afghanistan’s diplomats are studying at the Estonian School of Diplomacy.
What Options Do We Have to Alleviate the Crisis?
It might be said that if the situation is as dire as these cases, then military intervention is necessary. However, any such intervention requires either an invitation by the relevant state, such as Libya, or a UN mandate, which is extremely difficult to achieve. There are no quick fixes; we must be prepared to deal with this crisis over a longer period of time, while reviewing our whole migration policy, and relations with the migrants’ states of transit and destination.
First and foremost, we must deal with the refugees who have already arrived in Europe and help those member states that have received a disproportionately large influx—particularly the southern border countries, Italy and Greece. In September, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, published a draft new immigration package, which contains wide-ranging measures to manage the migration crisis, one of which is the distribution of the refugees between member states. The proposed formula for apportioning the refugees who have arrived in the EU between the states would be their GDP (40%), population (40%) and unemployment rate (10%), and the number of asylum seekers previously accepted (10%). The migration plan provides for the establishment of a crisis mechanism for the relocation of refugees by the end of this year. The adoption of this plan is due to be discussed by internal affairs ministers soon.
The relocation of a total of 40,000 people within the EU and the resettlement of 20,000 people from refugee camps outside the EU was agreed in the summer. On 22 September internal affairs ministers decided to relocate another 120,000 of Greece and Italy’s asylum seekers over the course of two years. Since Estonia also contributed significantly to the creation of the distribution formula, we could agree with this decision. Including the latest decision, Estonia’s share will be approximately 550 people. Naturally these numbers are not large enough—more than 500,000 immigrants have crossed the EU’s borders in the first nine months of 2015—but more important than the numbers is that we are sharing the responsibility jointly. However, it is also evident that the EU cannot accept an infinite number of refugees; so, in parallel with the aforementioned activities, a number of steps must be taken.
It is clear that the borders must be effectively guarded and the human traffickers must be held accountable. The EU’s Border Guard Administration, Frontex, has launched missions to participate in patrolling the border in the Mediterranean Sea, in addition to member states’ own border patrols. Estonia has consistently participated in these missions. Due to the seriousness of the situation, the EU hastily launched EU NAVFOR Med (European Union Naval Force, Mediterranean), with the aim of impeding the illegal transfer of people as well as the operation of human trafficking networks in the Mediterranean. In early October it launched the second phase of the mission, which involves stopping vessels in international waters and conducting searches or seizures if necessary. Continuing efforts are being made in the UN Security Council to agree a resolution that would provide a legal basis for tackling the networks of human smugglers, who benefit from people’s suffering, and to destroy their vessels on the Libyan coast. In addition, Frontex’s activity will be strengthened in the future.
A common list of safe countries of origin is being drawn up by the EU. This would allow applications by asylum-seekers from countries that clearly do not need international protection to be expedited. Of course, removal procedures need to be made more effective. Several member states are struggling to send people who will not be granted asylum back to their home countries. Those coming to the EU as job-seekers for economic reasons are not refugees and are subject to an unambiguous policy of being sent back to their countries of origin. Even in the case of refugees, their genuine need for emigration is assessed. The removal procedure is made complicated by the situation in the source countries, many of which are not interested in signing readmission agreements. For example, in Libya, from where many refugees are arriving, there is no partner with whom to discuss removal; the country is in chaos, and for years it has failed to agree on the creation of a united government so a continuous power struggle is taking place between various parties.
The most effective way to help those in need and to reduce the pressure of migration is to address the situation in the crisis areas, the countries of origin. We must have a more intense dialogue on migration with the exit and transit countries of Africa and Asia. As a separate measure, an African crisis fund of €1.8 billion is planned in order to increase the stability of the African crisis areas and to address the root causes of illegal immigration from the region. It is much more effective to resolve and alleviate the issues concerning refugees on the spot in the Middle East and African refugee camps. We must therefore increase our support for the establishment and maintenance of refugee camps in third countries. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have made an enormous contribution to aiding the refugees, and our task is to help them in this. It is in Estonia’s best interests to support all concrete measures to help manage migration in the source region (through the identification of refugees outside the EU, increased funding for the crisis countries and resources for maintaining the refugee camps). The summit between the EU and African countries taking place in Valletta in early November will tackle the root causes of the migration. Source countries will certainly want both political and financial rewards for their cooperation, and it would be wise of the EU to be very accommodating.
What Have We Already Done?
Estonia is an active participant in discussions in Brussels about the migration crisis and we want to achieve joint long-term solutions to the ongoing crisis. Most of Estonia’s humanitarian aid and development cooperation contribution to the Middle East and North Africa (a total of €3,200,000 in 2011–15) has reached those in need via international organisations, as their representatives in the affected countries are familiar with local conditions and thus are able to react quickly and appropriately by combining the contributions of the various donors. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, Estonia has supported the alleviation of the humanitarian situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, with a total of €1,800,000 in bilateral development cooperation activities as well as through the United Nations humanitarian agencies and the Red Cross, who play the leading role in accepting refugees, and supplying shelter, food and drinking water. Estonia has also supported the provision of health services, continuation of education and activities to combat sexual violence. Experts from Estonian Disaster Relief have built a refugee camp in Jordan and participated in the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination’s (UNDAC) mission in the Syrian–Turkish border areas. In order to enhance refugees’ ability to compete in the labour market, volunteers from NGO Mondo have carried out a bilateral project to support youth IT education in the refugee camp in Jordan. They have also taught English in the camp and are continuing the IT training.
Estonia has also supported the resolution of long-term and complex emergencies in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian National Authority territory. We have provided humanitarian aid to the Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, Chad, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Estonia participates in an international coalition of 60 countries that acts against ISIL. Our experts are working in the Mediterranean Frontex mission and we are also contributing to EU NAVFOR Med.
Why has Estonia done all this? The reason and explanation is best delivered by a thought from the composer Arvo Pärt, which I would like to share with you. “It would help if we could think and feel as if your child is also my child. It means that you are my brother or sister, but then we should be family. Perhaps we are, only one must look far for the common origins. When we finally reach this understanding, we will become one, because the world is one big organism. If one person suffers, the whole world suffers as well. Adam is the father of us all; the further we look from, the clearer we will see how we are all in this boat together.”1
I really like the idea that we are a single organism, and all in the same boat together. It makes helping others easy and self-evident, not a burden that we ought to bear. We contribute to resolving the crisis because we want to; we will not stand on the sidelines and watch others suffer.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.