In the past, you have been critical of the system in place to move Syrian refugees into the European Union. How could the EU resettlement program be restructured to more smoothly integrate Syrian refugees in Europe?
One [component] is resettlement and the other is relocation. Resettlement is when you move people from Syria to Sweden or Germany, and relocation is when you move people from Italy or Greece, those states on the perimeter, to Germany or Sweden. Relocation is within the European Union and resettlement is from another country. We’ve been critical of both because the numbers have been very inadequate. Within the European Union, there hasn’t been very effective common responsibility sharing—a few countries have taken [the majority of refugees], which has had enormous political implications… What [the European Union] would need would be a much, much more robust set of procedures requiring that countries which benefit from regional aid and EU structures [accept more refugees, because] part of the EU contract is solidarity. That hasn’t happened and the situation has now become very complicated politically. Now, with the rise of the far right, it looks more difficult to move as aggressively [with policy reforms as some EU officials] might have wanted to.
It seems that one of the central problems in the European Union’s system is obtaining visas. Are these visas ever held back from refugees for a good reason? Why are they so hard to obtain?
People don’t request them and [countries] don’t grant them. A visa presupposes that you’re going to leave [the country you’re entering], and if you’re fleeing Syria or Afghanistan or Eritrea, it’s not clear that you will leave, so there’s a clear-cut reason for denying a visa. You can’t get a visa as a refugee—you either get processed in a neighboring country as a country of local resettlement, or you travel and apply for asylum, not a visa, at a port of entry.
In your recent article for Harvard Magazine, you called the Dublin Convention a “lynchpin of orderly EU asylum processing and management.” Can you explain what you think some positive and negative aspects of this structure are?
The first Dublin Convention goes back quite a long time, and the idea was to streamline the process by which asylum applications were processed in Europe. People had been arriving in one country and making claims for benefits, and leaving and applying for asylum applications in another country, and then going to a third country, and so on. There was also a lot of confusion over which countries were responsible: how can we know who is really where? Another problem was protection. A lot of refugees were just being sent back, or being sent from one country to another, so there was a problem of refugees being in orbit, floating around with no one actually deciding their case.
The Dublin Convention was meant to allocate responsibility for processing applications in a very clear way. The idea was that the country which had given permission to enter the European Union, either by granting a visa or through other means, or if it were just the first country the refugee was in, that country would be responsible. If you went to another country, you would just be sent back to the first Dublin Convention country you were in. There were many criticisms about the way it worked—for instance, that it didn’t take into account that if you were in Greece, all your relatives might be in England. But the basic idea was that your processing would be handled by the first country you entered.
After the massive introduction of refugees [recently], what happened was some countries like Germany and Sweden suspended Dublin, so that refugees who came through Greece and made their way through Europe to these countries wouldn’t be sent back—in other words, suspending the normal operation of the Dublin Convention. That was why so many people ended up in Germany and Sweden, because they didn’t send people back, which had been the normal practice before. This was the situation until they decided to reinstate the Dublin Convention for political reasons. That’s where we are now, that if a refugee comes through Greece and moves on, and it is proven they were in Greece, then he will be sent back to Greece.
There are massive downsides. It doesn’t allow refugees to choose where they want to be, and there are family reasons, there are language reasons, there are all sorts of reasons to listen to the perspective of the refugee. It’s actually a really irrational system.
How would you change this system?
Basically, I think people should be able to apply where they have family, where they want to live, where they feel they have their strongest ties. I think it’s much more rational for the refugees to have a choice of where they want to stay. They are much more likely to assimilate, become self-sufficient, be able to work, and not be dependent on the state if they’re in a country where they have a community, language access, and ties. These are people who have protection under international law, and they should have protection where they are going to feel most secure and most able to build a new life after the trauma they have been through.
You have also focused on the protection of the rights of children, particularly with regards to education. War has reversed ten years of educational progress in Syria, and there are now millions of students unable to attend school. If this pattern continues, what do you think the repercussions will be in five or ten years?
There are many different repercussions which are already inevitable, even if peace were miraculously declared tomorrow. There is already a massive legacy of harm, from kids dropping out of school, from kids being traumatized, from kids being in educational systems which don’t really cater to them. You have the population within Syria that is displaced by the conflict, then you have the people in the localities neighboring Syria, in Jordan, or Lebanon, or Iraq, or Turkey, as well as the population in [the United States], Australia, or Europe. In each of these groups, there are very dramatic issues.
In most places, the issue is children are simply out of school. In Lebanon, there’s a huge problem of children out of school and engaged in child labor. Secondly, there’s a problem of children who are in school but not learning, because the school isn’t catering to their needs. Very often the teaching isn’t relevant to the kids, so even if the children are in school they aren’t necessarily learning very much. The third problem is that you have children who are in school but who are so traumatized, for whom the home situation and general conflict are so difficult, that they are unable to learn even if the education is high quality. There can often be a language problem. That’s the situation in Germany, where many of the children don’t speak any German, even though the German government has done a valiant job of opening the classrooms and accommodating students’ own home language as they transition. But by the time the kids are fluent enough in German, they’ve already fallen way behind.
So a whole generation of kids, many of whom might have otherwise gone on to university, are going to end up in less than ideal jobs. There are many many problems, despite valiant attempts from UNICEF and many other organizations, to try to make sure there isn’t a lost generation. With the level of trauma and the duration of the conflict, we are going to have tremendous problems not just with educational access and learning, but also with mental health.
There is a movement to allow refugee teachers to teach. For example, in Jordan, Syrian refugees are not allowed to work, but there’s a lot of pressure now to allow Syrian refugees to teach and be paid for it, which is definitely preferable to putting more pressure on an already overloaded Jordanian teacher. But there are enormous problems—and we’re just talking about Syria.
Are there any resources for refugees to cope with trauma?
No, there aren’t. There are efforts and organizations doing very good work in the field. There are NGOs working there, but there’s a massive need and there’s already always a dramatic mismatch between the need for mental help and the ability to give it, and in this conflict it’s even greater. It’s not that there’s no services, but there’s an enormous gap. In any report you read, you find considerable evidence of maladapted behavior: in children, dramatic increases in violence, bedwetting, hitting, bullying, and different types of depression and withdrawal. The whole picture is extremely alarming.
Which groups of refugees are the most vulnerable?
It’s difficult to make a hierarchy, but children who are separated from their families are very vulnerable. Many girls traveling alone are victims of sexual assault and exploitation. Disabled children face dramatically increased levels of violence. Children with physical and mental disability are extremely vulnerable.
There are protective factors which make a huge difference. Having a coping, mentoring adult is hugely protective. If a child has not been exposed to too much conflict and is in a stable classroom environment, that is hugely protective. It’s a complicated equation.