The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Common EU Response Needed

Towards civil war or conflict resolution?

The conflict in Syria has quickly escalated and prospects for peace – let alone peaceful regime change – seem unlikely. The human death toll is unknown. Accounts from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claim over 17,000Syrian deaths (11,897 civilians, 4,348 soldiers and 884 military defectors).[1] The UN estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced.[2]   

Although the conflict has continued for 17 months, the beginnings of a downward spiral can be discerned. In the past month alone, there have been a number of army desertions, and high-ranking military and political officers have defected. International leaders, the UN, and the Arab League have implemented sanctions, and have called for a transitional government to replace Assad. The US, the EU, and certain Arab states have also been assisting the Syrian rebels – whether monetarily, or with weapons. The Syrian rebels, however, do not form a coherent group, as forces are divided between the Free Syrian Army and the salasfists, and attacks against the government have not yet led to a significant weakening of the regime. 

Although initially wounding – particularly after the assassinations of four high-profile members of the regime – outcomes of Syrian rebel-led operations against the government remain unclear. If the rebellion is successful, could Assad fall? Would civil war, particularly between the new regime and potentially marginalized minority groups or Assad loyalists, follow? Syria’s complex communal context could turn any of its religious or linguistic groups into a target for violence: alongside a large Sunni majority, sizeable minorities comprise Shias (2 million, including Alawites), Christians (1.5 million), Druze (0.5 million), non-Arab Kurds (2 million), Palestinian refugees (close to 0.5 million), and Iraqi refugees (unknown number, possibly close to 100,000). If unsuccessful, could the regime unleash all the military powers of the state, leading to more deaths and refugee outflows?

Refugee movement gaining momentum: Neighbours of Syria host the vast majority of refugees

As the rebel strikes intensify, and as the Syrian government responds with more retaliatory violence, thousands of refugees pour over Syrian borders. On 20 July, and within 48 hours, the UNHCR witnessed a doubling of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon, with perhaps 30,000 Syrians crossing to Lebanon[3] – within one day’s time, it observed more than 3,000 Syrians flee into Iraq.[4] 

Numbers of refugees assisted by UNHCR have almost tripled in three months from 45,633 on 18 April 2012 to 117,087 – with another 5,000 awaiting registration – on 24 July 2012. The vast majority have fled to neighbouring countries: on 24 July 2012, 42,682 were registered in Turkey; 35,911 in Jordan; 31,004 in Lebanon; and 7,490 in Iraq.[5] UNHCR and other global and local NGOs are working within these countries to provide basic needs support and essential services; however, services are increasingly limited, and access to basic needs and services is allocated unevenly or unattainable throughout countries of asylum. Israel is the only among Syria’s neighbours where no Syrian has yet tried to find shelter, but human rights movements have warned that its government should respect the principle of non-refoulement and not turn back those who may flee across its border.[6]

Turkey at the external border of the EU: Europe receiving more entries of Syrian refugees

As the numbers of Syrians escaping into neighbouring countries increases, numbers fleeing to Europe are also on the rise. Germany, the EU MS with the largest number of Syrian asylum applications, witnessed the number of Syrian asylum applications double within the first five months of 2012, from 295 in January to 615 in May, totalling 2,155 in this time period alone (compared with and 2,030 Syrian claims in 2010, and 3,440 in all of 2011). Sweden comes next with 865 Syrian claims from January through May 2012 (compared with 450 claims in 2010, and 635 in 2011).[7]

Asylum applications filed by Syrians in Europe as a whole have markedly increased. From January to May 2012 alone, 5,370 asylum applications have been filed throughout EU Member States, and Norway and Switzerland – almost equalling the total number of Syrian applications in the entire year of 2010 (5,575). This number is undoubtedly much higher as not all MS have reported all numbers of applications, making it extremely likely that this number will soon surpass total Syrian applications filed in 2011 (8,920).[8] 

Frontex data also indicates an increase of Syrians detected as illegally crossing into Europe, as their number increased by almost six-fold within Quarter 1 (January 2012 through March 2012), with 715 entries, when compared to Quarter 1 2011 (126 entries) – the vast majority of which (83%) were detected at the Greek-Turkey border.[9]  First, it must be noted that not all those entering Europe without the proper documents are detected; and second, that while refugee camps in Turkey have been established close to the Syrian border, most Syrian refugees outside camps seem to be staying in Istanbul, i.e. close to the land border of Europe, which many of them may wish to reach.

Needs for designing a proper status

Although most EU MS have suspended forced return to Syria of Syrian nationals being in an irregular situation, there has been no decision or initiative at the EU level to prepare and organise a common or harmonised response to the arrival and stay of refugees from Syria in Europe since the beginning of the crisis more than 17 months ago.

As activating temporary protection status for Syrian nationals within the EU (as was recommended by UNHCR and the EU Parliament during the Libyan crisis) seems highly unlikely, the EU could opt for a common response to harmonise the receiving conditions and the protection of Syrian nationals in EU member states. EU institutions could commit themselves to the following:

*Ensure that no Syrian nationals are brought back to Syria or pushed back at the EU border;

*Ensure that Syrian nationals have the possibility to apply for asylum when they enter an EU territory;

*Facilitate the application procedures to reduce delays;

*Ensure that Syrian applicants all receive a protection status – either subsidiary (protection, which can be renewed or revoked based on risk of harm, to someone who does not qualify for refugee status, yet risks serious harm in returning to their country) or convention-based (protection granted to those who meet the UN definition of a refugee) – according to national regulations and individual situations.

During the Libyan crisis, the EU fundamentally failed to organise solidarity at the intra-EU level or to exemplify burden-sharing with its neighbourhood. The Syrian crisis is a second opportunity for the EU to unfold its capacity to: offer a common and collective response to refugee crises; to use and foster the respect of its acquis in regards to asylum and refugee protection; and to ensure that Syrian nationals on its territory are offered a proper protection.

Christine Fandrich, Research Assistant to the MPC

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of the Migration Policy Centre.


[1] “Activist group says Syrian death toll over 17,000.” Reuters, 10 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Jul 2012. http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/07/10/syria-crisis-toll-idINDEE86908X20120710

[2] UN News Centre. “Syria: Ban alarmed by intensifying violence, condemns attack on government building.” UN News Centre, 18 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Jul 2012. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42510&Cr=syria&Cr1  

[3] “Les habitants de Damas affluent au Liban, la peur au ventre”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 21 Jul. 2012

[4]  BBC News. “Syria crisis: Thousands of refugees flee violence.” BBC News. 20 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Jul 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18929940 

[5] Syrian Regional Refugee Response: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey 20 July 2012, pg. 1. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[6] Amnesty International: Israel must protect Syrian refugees, The Jerusalem Post, www.jpost.com, 21 July 2012 

[7] EUROSTAT

[8] EUROSTAT

[9] Frontex, FRAN Q1, 2012.  http://www.frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/FRAN_Q1_2012.pdf


Mobility Partnerships – what impact do they have on legal migration and mobility?

Mobility Partnerships (MPs) have been promoted as a flagship tool of the EU’s Global Approach to Migration for five years now. They have been signed with Cape Verde, the Republicof Moldova, Georgiaand Armenia– all countries of rather discreet migratory impact on the EU. All the political evaluations to date[1] show that MPs are an effective tool to enhance international cooperation as well as introduce more coherence in the internal governance of migration in the sending country. According to participating governments and the European Commission, the MPs have been critical to get state officials together around one table and force them to think about their migration policies and to cooperate, also on the issues of legal migration and mobility. But what impact do MPs have on legally mobile migrants and migrant workers? On societies? On labour markets?

The expectations for increased mobility have been very high, but they still have not been fulfilled, to the point that in the academic circles this instrument is sarcastically called ‘Immobility Partnerships’. Is the criticism justified? What should we do next with the tool? Can it be saved, and most importantly – should it be?

I. What are we talking about when discussing legal migration and mobility in the EU context?

Legal migration and mobility in the EU policy language, as presented inter alia in the Third Report on Immigration and Asylum (SWD (2012)179 final) is quite a fuzzy concept. It includes such varied phenomena as economic migration, skills recognition, family reunification, integration, and prevention of illegal migration (e.g. awareness raising campaigns, Frontex activities and Schengen governance).

In the Communication on the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (COM(2011) 743 final) we read that mobility of third country nationals across the external EU borders applies to several categories of people, all bona fide travellers: e.g. students and researchers rarelly migrate, they are just mobile. Mobility is therefore linked to visa policy and can be interpreted as such. Moreover mobility can be enhanced by policies removing obstacles to movement e.g. institutional obstacles (portability of rights, avoidance of double taxation etc.).

II. Legal migration and mobility in Mobility Partnerships to the date

Until now it is quite clear that MPs have focused only on a few aspects of the European Commission’s concept of legal migration and mobility, namely: prevention of illegal migration and border governance. Less attention has been paid to economic migration, portability of rights or skills recognition. Other issues as family reunification or integration in the destination countries have been largely disregarded. Unfortunately the majority of the EU Member States involved in the MPs have not been generous enough to propose real change under this umbrella; instead, many decided to offer already existing legal migration bilateral schemes as their contribution to legal migration part of MPs.

Apart from the fact that the avenues of legal migration have not been really open[2], the institutional changes helping people to be mobile have not materialized either. First, visa policy has not been used fully in this case. Visa facilitation with Cape Verde, initially almost blocked by the EU Member States in the EU Council, has been signed with considerable delay, because inter alia of tough requirements of the readmission agreement. However a Common Visa Application Centre in Cape Verde is another example of facilitated mobility.[3]

III. What is the future of legal migration and mobility in Mobility Partnerships?

If we want to keep the concept, the partners need to decisively improve the component of legal migration and mobility. To achieve this, partners should focus on one major challenge: the value added. In other words – what makes the partnerships a valuable tool over the existing bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the area of legal migration and mobility? What will make ordinary people more mobile?

1) Targeted change in the legal order

The clear value added of a Mobility Partnership on the level of aMember State is when this Member State changes its legal order to accommodate a mobility of a national of the partner third country. There are only two examples to date that clearly illustrate this: (1) a Polish initiative opening its labour market to the temporary labour migration from the countries which signed the MP; (2) the German initiative to offer to its long-term residents the possibility of return to home country for extended periods of time (up to 2 years) without losing the residence rights. These are pretty direct and straightforward initiatives that bring more value into the MPs.

Other mobility enhancers have included agreements on portability of rights. The importance of MPs for completing these agreements is less obvious as it is not clear that they would not have taken place hadn’t it been for the MPs. This leads to the next point.

2) Going beyond the bilateral relations

Bilateral relations are clearly the best setting to solve migration management issues.

Due to the division of competences, the EU cannot address the most common requirements which have been put forward by prospective partners: economic migration channels, skills recognition, or integration policy. These are domains of the EU Member States. And thus the Mobility Partnership must be in this case a sum of offers of participating Member States. To the date, all 27 have never signed up for one MP. This is often seen as a weakness of the instrument, but is it really? When a Tunisian official wants economic migration channels to the EU, he surely does not mean sending Tunisians toBulgariaorLatvia, rather toFranceorItaly. Does he need a MP to do this? Certainly not. Of course, one may argue, there is a rationale for including bilateral agreements into the MP – when a bilateral legal migration scheme withFrancewill makeTunisiacooperate with other EU Member States on the issues of illegal migration. However, usually illegal and legal flows tend to end in the same destination.

To give the MPs more value added, the legal migration and mobility should go beyond bilateral relations. Participating Member States should think about multilateral initiatives, which bring a real EU dividend. These can be proposed by two actors: by a group of the cooperating Member States and by the European Commission

3) Legal migration and mobility of Mobility Partnership country nationals – what can the EU Member States do?

One idea would be the creation of partially-open labour markets created between two or more EU Member States, where the nationals of a Mobility Partnership country could find employment in specific sectors (e.g. seasonal workers harvesting different crops throughout the season), and could be jobseekers freely circulating across the borders to this end. The system could be created on the basis of a multilateral treaty between the involved EU member States and the Mobility Partnership country. In addition, these mini-zones would assure that all the rights acquired in different MSs add up and can be taken with the migrant to his/her next EU destination or back home.

Another way of changing the status quo and rewarding the partner country would be to introduce, besides EU preference, a Mobility Partnership preference on the labour market.

4) Legal migration and mobility of Mobility Partnership country nationals –what can the European Commission do?

The EU should bring what it has at hand: mobility understood as visa policy. It has been clearly proposed in the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility and this should be supported. Especially visa liberalisation is a highly worthwhile tool creating a real partnership. The experience of Visa Liberalisation Dialogues withMoldovaandUkraineshows how some countries can implement the EU requirements for secure environment and thus cut short the worries about the negative consequences of enhanced mobility.

When visa liberalisation for all is impossible, it should be considered for certain categories of people. Again, one can say that with the development of the EU Registered Traveller Programme the obstacles to mobility will hopefully diminish. However, this solution is devised for all the countries in the world and hence, there needs to be something extra for the MP countries in it.

Another possibility is to follow the already established path for coordination of social security systems between the EU and Associated Countries[4] and offer the same solution to the Mobility Partnership countries, e.g. while testing the proposed EU Social Security Agreements.[5]

IV. Concluding remarks

Mobility Partnerships are still the tools-in-the-making and we need to give them time, as it usually happens in international cooperation. It would be unfair to sentence MPs right now. But it is reasonable to expect that they keep on improving and developing in the right direction with more elements that fulfil their main promise: more mobility to the ordinary people. This includes more of special treatment of the nationals of the partner third countries: more innovative visa facilitation instruments, more visa liberalisation, and more real labour migration.

Agnieszka Weinar, Scientific Coordinator of CARIM East and MIGMEDCIS

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of the Migration Policy Centre.


[1] Commission (2009). Mobility Partnerships as a tool of the Global Approach to Migration. SEC (2009) 1240.

[2] The few examples include small circular migration schemes betweenCzech Republic andGeorgia,Portugal andCape Verde orFrance’s programme for young professionals – all involving relatively limited number of people (the data on how many exactly is not publicly available).

[3] E.g. an applicant does not need to travel to another country in order to apply for a visa even if the Schengen state he/she wants to travel to is not represented in his home country.

[4] See e.g. 2010/697/EU Council Decision of 21 October 2010 on the position to be taken by the European Union within the Association Council set up by the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement establishing an association between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and the Kingdom of Morocco, of the other part, with regard to the adoption of provisions on the coordination of social security systems. Other draft proposals available in the OJ of the EU, L 306, Volume 53, 23 November 2010.

[5]  As proposed by the European Commission in its Communication on the External Dimension of the EU Social Security Coordination. COM(2012)153 final


Russia and its migration policy – here at last?

Since 1991, the Russian Federationhas gradually become one of the most important migration receiving countries in the world. Migration to Russiais mainly regional: ca. 1.5 million citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries work officially in the country, and many more work as non-registered temporary migrants. Russia’s economy needs migration: its competitiveness and innovation ambitions depend on the input of high and mid skilled workers; its productivity depends also on the low-skilled workforce. In the context of  an unprecedented demographic decline (according to Rosstat forecasts, employable population will decline at the pace of over 1 million a year in 2012-2017 and 0.5 million on average 2018-2025, see Iontsev and Ivakhnyuk 2012) and relatively high emigration rates, migration is the rational tool that could save Russia’s future. However, it is also the source of strong social tensions, not least because the crushing majority of migrant workers in Russia come from Central Asian countries and, thus, belong to visible minorities. Internal migration from Northern Caucasus to big cities such as Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Yekaterinburg is also seen as problematic, due to the politicized security reasons as well as the Islamic faith of the newcomers.

The overall situation has not been helped by the fact that until now Russia has had a mixed record as regards the objectives and implementation methods of its international migration policy. During the 1990s it engaged in quite a  successful migration policy, supporting massive people movements following the fall of the Soviet Union: refugees, IDPs and so-called “compatriots” (ethnic Russians). The problematic shift from an open, welcoming approach to more securitized one occurred when the institutional change – a move from a socially-oriented ministry to the security-oriented ministry – took place with the responsibility for migration put in the hands of the Federal Migration Service created in 2004 under the auspices of the ministry of interior. This shift also brought to the front Russia’s struggle to define its immigration policy linked to its developing labour market.

Apparently something is due to change now. On 13 June 2012, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, signed the new Concept of the National Migration Policy of the Russian Federation until 2025. The document, proposed by the Federal Migration Service, introduces several changes to the status quo:

–          Migration has been finally defined as a positive force in the future of the country that can stimulate population growth and economic development.

–          Integration is now a building block of Russian migration policy.

–          Permanent migration will be now facilitated through new, simpler and cheaper procedures for entry, stay and employment.

–          Social rights of migrants have been officially acknowledged, including issues like access to health care and medical insurance.

–          Internal migration is now encouraged (this is important in the context of internal migrations from e.g.North Caucasus).

Interestingly, we find in the document some traces of the EU-Russia dialogue on migration issues, as e.g. proposals for externalisation of Russia policy bears a clear EU mark.

Will the new policy succeed? Well, the devil is always in the details – and here the details are twofold. Firstly, the idea needs to be translated into a consistent legal framework. No one really knows how much will be left from the concept in the binding rules. Moreover, it will all depend on its implementation. All this looks quite tricky.

First of all, the change of tone comes in a clear contradiction to the moods of the society: over 70% of the respondents of regular public opinion surveys of WCIOM see immigration as a problem. This attitude is, on one hand, a result of a decade of a messy policy and politics of  the Russian government, which used immigration matters to political ends, often depicting migrants as internal enemies (e.g. Georgians in 2008 during the Georgian-Russian war or Tajiks in2011 inthe aftermath of the arrest of Russian pilots in Tajikistan). On the other hand, the anti-immigrant attitudes have been growing inRussiaalready in the 1990s, when stereotypes and negative views on native inhabitants of ex-Soviet republics were brought along by “compatriots” returning to the motherland.

Secondly, the relaxed attitude towards migration policy to date has been bringing a lucrative business to the officials and civil servants of various local institutions. As the work of Memorial shows, the migrants have been particularly vulnerable to the discretionary decision-making, starting from the border crossings to obtaining of a legal status. Wide spread corruption and regular disregard for the migrants’ rights has been a norm rather than an exception.

Considering the reality of the Russian system of power and its mixed record of implementing policy concepts, we should be very cautious to claim an immediate positive change.

Oleg Korneev, Jean Monnet Fellow to CARIM East

Agnieszka Weinar, Scientific Coordinator of CARIM East and MIGMEDCIS

The views expressed by the authors are not necessarily the views of the Migration Policy Centre.