The European Refugee Crisis and the Need for a Unified European Approach

Virginia Koeppl, Vol. 37 Associate Editor

Fleeing civil war and terror, at least 350,000 migrants have crossed the European Union’s borders in search of a better life from January to August 2015, many of them risking their lives on the perilous journey.[1] Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history, most of whom come from the Middle East and Africa.[2] The number of refugees has steadily grown over the last two years: According to statistics compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”), the number of refugees arriving from the Mediterranean Sea has tripled since 2014, bringing it up to a number that is ten times as high as in 2013. [3]

However, these statistics are not really representative of the true number of refugees that the EU will have to accommodate over the next few years. All the pictures showing the stream of refugees on their way into Europe have one thing in common: The numbers are heavily dominated by young men, and there are barely any women or children in sight. The data complied by UNHCR shows that 69% of the refugees arriving from the Mediterranean are men, mostly below the age of 50, while only 13% and 18% are women and children, respectively.[4] Why is that the case? Jillian Melchior, a National Review reporter, provides an answer: in interviews, most of these young men state that their wives and small children are still at home, waiting for the men to make the perilous journey by themselves and reach Europe. He states that “Many of the men […] traveling solo told [him] they had left their families behind and intended to reunite with them once they’d been accepted by a safe European country.”[5] Christof Zellenberg, the chairman of the Europa Institute, who has been heavily involved in volunteer efforts in Vienna, confirms this when he recounts: “They tell us, ‘[w]e do this dangerous trip on our own, we get asylum, and there is a law in the European Union that the family can come’”.[6]

Europe is already struggling to deal with the financial burden caused by the newcomers pouring across European borders in numbers not seen since World War II.[7] Zellenberg estimates that the true number of refugees that Europe will have to accommodate might be four or more times as high as current numbers would suggest.[8]

Faced with the huge influx of refugees, Hungary has already built a 110 mile long razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia to stem the tide.[9] It has also urged EU partners not to send back refugees who have traveled on from Hungary.[10] The fence is controversial because critics believe it violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”).

Modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of the World War II and in the interwar refugee crisis that preceded it. Article 14(1) of the UDHR, which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. [11] To this day, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (“1951 Convention”) and its 1967 Optional Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (“1967 Optional Protocol”) are controlling for refugee law.[12]

However, the 1951 Convention does not define a procedure for how member States are to determine whether an individual meets the definition of being a refugee.[13] Instead, the Convention leaves it up to each member State to establish asylum proceedings and to determine refugee status. This has led to disparities in asylum laws among the different States, depending on each nation’s “resources, national security concerns, and histories with forced migration movements.”[14]

The majority of European states want to help.[15] But there is a limit as to the burden they can take on. A few lessons become clearer with every passing day: The composition of the society in Europe will never be the same again.[16] Of course the influx of refugees will affect the demographic and cultural composition of Europe.  But it will also have effects on the legislative goals of the several European states. Legislative changes will include determining new limits to immigration and will also affect the procedural aspects of immigration[17], because the current situation shows that the legislative framework in place now is not suited to deal with such large numbers of refugees.[18] Faced with this dilemma, the need for a unified legal solution is more pressing than ever.[19]


[1] BBC, Why is EU struggling with migrants and asylum?, ¶ 2, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24583286 (September 21, 2015).

[2] Id. ¶ 3.

[3] UNHCR, Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean, http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php.

[4] Id.; see also JILLIAN KAY MELCHIOR, Why So Many of Europe’s Migrants Are Men, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/425398/why-europes-migrants-are-men (October 12, 2015).

[5] Id. ¶ 6.

[6] Id. ¶ 8.

[7] Id. ¶ 14.

[8] Id. ¶¶ 8, 14.

[9] BBC, supra, at ¶ 2; CNN, Hungary building wall to stop flood of migrants, http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/09/09/hungary-builds-wall-damon-wnt.cnn; see also NEW YORK TIMES, Migrants Race North as Hungary Builds a Border Fence, ¶ 4, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/world/europe/migrants-push-toward-hungary-as-a-border-fence-rises.html?_r=0.

[10] BBC, supra, ¶ 2.

[11] THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a14 (Art. 14: “(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”); INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE RESOURCE CENTER (IJRC), Asylum & The Rights Of Refugees, ¶ 1, http://www.ijrcenter.org/refugee-law/.

[12] IJRC, supra note 11, ¶ 2.

[13] Id. ¶ 3.

[14] Id.

[15] See e.g., THE INDEPENDENT, A month after David Cameron pledged to help Syrian refugees, Britain is still taking the same number as before, ¶ 5, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/uk-syrian-refugee-numbers-haven-t-increased-a-month-after-david-cameron-s-pledge-a6692606.html (“Germany says it expects to take around 67,000 refugees a month, a total of 800,000 this year.”); REUTERS, EU leaders claim unity regained, pledge aid for Syrians, ¶ 1, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/24/us-europe-migrants-eu-idUSKCN0RN15Z20150924 (“EU leaders pledged at least 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) for Syrian refugees in the Middle East”).

[16] See THE GUARDIAN, European leaders discuss refugee crisis at tense Brussels summit, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/25/european-leaders-discuss-refugee-crisis-at-tense-brussels-summit.

[17] See generally Sergio Carrera & Elspeth Guild, Can the new refugee relocation system work?: Perils in the Dublin logic and flawed reception conditions in the EU, CEPS Policy Brief No. 332, October 2015 Thursday, 1 October 2015, http://aei.pitt.edu/67888/.

[18] THE GUARDIAN, supra. note 16, at ¶ 6 (“The EU will ‘start falling apart’ if it fails to take concrete action to tackle the refugee crisis within the next few weeks, the Slovenian prime minister, Miro Cerar, warned.”).

[19] See e.g. id., at ¶ 11 (“The summit was seen as an attempt by Juncker and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to raise pressure on central and south-east European states to coordinate among themselves in managing the migration flow in a more humane way and end a series of unilateral actions.”).