Opinion piece: Professor Franck Düvell, ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford

The neighbourhood of the European Union is 'on fire' (EU commissioner Avramopoulos). As a consequence, there are about 22 million displaced people in the region; seven million international refugees and 14 million internally displaced people. They are deprived of their homes, livelihoods, family lives, education, and healthcare – and often their human dignity if not their sheer lives are jeopardised. This is not a security crisis, it must not be confused with conventional immigration, but is an exceptional humanitarian and in essence refugee crisis of historical proportions. This requires an exceptional response.

However, the current crisis primarily is a crisis of the affected people and of the countries in the region than of the EU. We must get the numbers straight; Frontex has recorded 500,000 apprehensions (Jan-Aug) but because many people are counted twice, first in Greece and then again in Hungary, the total is around 350,000 individuals. And even if half a million refugees arrive at the shores of the EU this will only add 0.1 per cent to the total EU population of 503 million. Finally, the crisis is not simply due to the large-scale influx but is a policy and management crisis resulting from the failure of the European and international community to agree an adequate response, notably the absence of reception regimes, a European asylum system and dispersal arrangements.

We need to remember the historical lessons from the Holocaust and World War II and recall the benefits of the system established in response to this. In 1938, the European and international community failed at the conference of Evian to agree rescuing the European Jews; the arguments were that the boat is full, that there is unemployment, that there were already too many foreigners whilst some officials were bluntly anti-Semitic. The imperative learned from the Holocaust and World War II is ‘never again’ and the international community establish the United Nations, a High Commissioner for Refugees and international human rights law. In Europe the EU was meant to ascertain a sustainable peace order based on democracy and human rights.

Unfortunately, some governments just changed course, argue once again that the boat is full, that the refugees cannot be integrated because they are too alien (meaning Muslim), that it is not their responsibility and that others should shoulder the burden. Deploying warships, building fences and using water cannons against refugees or instead taking a laissez-faire approach rather escalates the crisis.

Some such responses signal a return of the – dangerous - mentality of the 1930s. It seems that the lessons of the 1930s and 1940, the 'never again' and indeed the very foundations of the European post-war peace order - the shared values democracy, rule of law, human rights, the principle of international responsibility and the collaborative mode of the union - are undermined by a resurgence of nationalist, protectionist, 'xenophobic and anti-Muslim' politics (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). In contrast, the people of Germany and thousands of activists and volunteers in many other countries set a powerful counter signal. Nevertheless, the crisis no longer only is a refugee crisis; it has become a crisis of the EU and threatens the post-war peace order.

The current crisis requires a response that is inspired by European values and addresses (a) the root causes, (b) the reception conditions in the neighbourhood and peripheral EU countries, (c) the relocation from EU and non-EU countries across all EU and indeed OECD countries, (d) the integration of refugees into the social system (health, education), even if only temporary, (e) collaboration of all actors, state and civil society, and (f) accurate information to the public.

The research team is led by Professor Heaven Crawley, Coventry University, with partners Dr Franck Düvell, COMPAS/University of Oxford and Dr Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham. The team has been awarded an ESRC Urgency Grant for a project on 'Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MedMig)'.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ESRC.