Can regional mechanisms be used to deal with mass refugee movements such as the one we are seeing from Syria?

 It has been proposed by some commentators and NGOs that the EU needs to be more actively engaged in the refugee crisis that is unfolding in Syria in order to assist neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon with the unimaginable influx of refugees.

Over recent years the EU and in particular the European Commission have pushed for measures granting greater regional protection, for example introducing EU Directives (such as the 2001 Directive on Temporary Protection) and Regional Protection Programmes (RPP), both of which could be utilised to assist Syrian refugees and host states.

The Temporary Protection Directive was created in response to the conflicts that occurred in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo and is an emergency mechanism that can be used for large movements of displaced persons from non-EU states who are unable to return to their home state. In situations where national asylum systems cannot cope with the quantity of refugees the Directive would first of all increase consistency between member states in the manner in which they treat refugees[i] and secondly, share the burden of large numbers of refugees among all EU states. Therefore in the case of Syria, Syrian refugees would be granted immediate temporary protection and residence in EU states and the burden of responsibility would be shared rather than being dependent on geographical factors (i.e. States closest to Syria, such as Greece would inevitably bear the main responsibility).


Syrians enter Turkey from the border on November 18, 2012 in Sanliurfa, Turkey

 An alternative is the creation of a special Regional Protection Programme (RPP) for Syria. RPPs have been established by the EU with the cooperation of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create protection measures in countries that are host to vast numbers of displaced persons. This is achieved by focusing on three durable solutions; local integration, resettlement in a third country and return. Pilot schemes have been set up in Africa and Eastern Europe and involve, through financing from the EU, practical protection for refugees within non-EU countries through improved refugee status determination processes, capacity building and protection training.

These regional mechanisms are intended to create a sense of the collective duty of regional states for the plight of refugees, such as the ones currently fleeing Syria. As can be seen by the relatively small number of Syrians claiming asylum in the EU at present (21,000 between March 2011 and September 2012) and the vastly differing responses of EU states to the crisis (for example Syrian refugees in Greece face detention, deportation or transfers), it is suggested that a cohesive and collective regional response would go some way to creating a safer environment for refugees escaping from internal conflict.

However, further research is still needed into these types of regional mechanisms to fully understand their protection role. These systems, that to some degree externalise’ a state’s asylum system have the potential to be manipulated to exert control over asylum procedures for a whole region in a way that could go against its original purpose. For example, a consistent EU approach to Syrian refugees is welcomed if it means all refugees from Syria are treated in a fair way, consistent with international law, however if the EU wide response to Syrian refugees is detention, things become far more complicated. 


The Refugee Law Initiative is part of the Human Rights Consortium

Towards this end, the Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, will be holding a series of seminars on regional protection measures to start the next academic year, with the aim of looking into the effect these can have on the protection of refugees. During Refugee Week, it is an ideal time to reflect and refocus the international community’s attention on finding improved ways to respond to the ever-changing protection needs of refugees, with regional protection mechanisms being a relatively innovative and promising prospect.

Nicholas Maple

This article was first published on the School of Advanced Study blog:

[i] For a discussion on consistency of refugee status adjudication at the European level see this blog on a recent Refugee Law Initiative public seminar.



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