Sunday, August 19The Voice of London

As Europe’s Refugee Crisis Deepens, What’s London’s Response?

The refugee crisis is spiraling out of control across Europe but Britain is still not feeling the pressure. In September thousands of activists marched through central London to let refugees know that they’re welcome in the UK. As a result, prime minister David Cameron agreed to accept up to 20,000 asylum-seekers over the next five years but as the crisis keeps getting worse, what more can be done?

Words: Mariya Savova, Subeditor: Corey Armishaw

This year marked the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian armed conflict. What began as massive anti-government protests in March 2011 soon escalated into a bloody civil war, causing the death of more than 250,000 Syrian men, women and children, with the death toll rising every day.

The war forced millions to flee their homes and seek refuge in other countries. Legally or not, thousands of Syrians entered Europe, hoping to start a new life and to reunite with family members. However, a relatively small number have been offered asylum by European countries. The rest have been moving irregularly across the continent. In what has now become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, Europe has been put to the test and so far it is failing.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 3.8 million Syrians have found shelter in neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. Around 1.7 % of them have been offered a safe place by EU member states. A heavy burden was placed on southern European countries. Legally or through gaps in border fences, many Syrians crossed into Greece and Bulgaria from Turkey. Others took a dangerous boat journey to Italy from Egypt or Libya.

A lot of western and northern European countries helped poorer states in the south of the continent deal with the enormous influx of people fleeing war and offered resettlement to many asylum-seekers.

The UK however, has been heavily criticised for not making sufficient efforts to ease the crisis and help people in need. In September, under intense pressure from the public, David Cameron said that Britain will take its “fair share” of refugees and it will provide shelter for up to 20,000 by 2020. But, in a statement to the House of Commons, the prime minister specified that the UK would accept people “directly from camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, rather than taking more of those already in the EU”.

As the crisis worsens, many point out that this is far from sufficient for the fourth richest country in the world.

On Monday Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s foreign affairs minister, warned EU leaders that a new wave of over 300,000 people has just started their journey from camps in Lebanon and Jordan and is on its way to southern Europe. In the meantime, Britain is expected to receive around 4,000 refugees directly from the Middle East (and not any from Europe) by the end of the year.

To estimate whether this should be enough and to put the UK government’s scheme into context, we looked at what other European countries have done in the past year.


italy camp
Refugees sleep outside a tent at a camp next to the Tiburtina train station in Rome. Source: Twitter

Over 42, 000 people fleeing the war in Syria ended up in Italy last year and the country’s economy has been in crisis for a long time, so it has already accepted more refugees then it can afford.


Children in the refugee camp in Harmanli, Bulgaria. Photo credit: D. Kashavelov, UNHCR Photo Unit / Flickr
Children in the refugee camp in Harmanli, Bulgaria. Photo credit: D. Kashavelov, UNHCR Photo Unit / Flickr

According to Bulgaria’s interior ministry, about 10,000 Syrians have entered the country from Turkey so far, which is a relatively large number for such a small country, with an average salary of €320. Furthermore, Bulgaria simply cannot offer good living conditions to asylum-seekers. As you can see from the photo above, some of the facilities are rather unsafe for people to stay there during the winter months.


Inside Leros refugee camp, Greece. Photo credit: @gail_orenstein / Twitter
Inside Leros refugee camp, Greece. Source: Twitter

The conditions in Greek camps are quite similar to the ones in Bulgaria, but just a couple of weeks ago the number of refugees arriving in Greece in 2015 hit half-million, when a group of 8,000 people disembarked on the Aegean islands. Given that Greece is still figuring out a way out of its debt crisis, it is highly unlikely that the country can afford to take in many of those escaping the war in Syria.


The rapidly expanding camp in Calais, France. The camp is believed to be the worst in Europe. Photo credit: @sid131313 / Twitter
The rapidly expanding camp in Calais, France. The camp is believed to be the worst in Europe. Source: Twitter

France has also been struggling over the past year. The camp in Calais, a port city in the north of the country, has rapidly grown to the size of a small town. Last month France’s interior ministry announced that the number of people taking refuge in huts and tents there has doubled in a few weeks from 3,000 to 6,000. It is estimated that at least 100 more people arrive in Calais every day, so conditions are worsening. People have been calling the camp Calais Jungle due to the chaos that reigns there.


Candy floss for children in the Eisenhüttenstadt refugee camp, Germany. Photo credit: @c_ynthy_a / Twitter
Candy floss for children in the Eisenhüttenstadt refugee camp, Germany. Source: Twitter

Germany appears to be the most preferred destination for people fleeing the ongoing war in Syria due to its high standard of living. By far the most populous country in the EU has been extremely generous to people suffering from Syria’s deadly conflict. Not only did it receive thousands of refugees, but, under the Humanitarian Admission Programme (HAP), Germany has offered over 35,000 resettlement places for Syrians. More than 800,000 people are expected to claim asylum there by the end of this year, four times more than in 2014. Over the summer Germany had to quickly build tent cities in order to provide sufficient housing. Unlike the tents in Calais Jungle, the ones across Germany have been fitted out with wooden flooring and some have a diesel-heater pumping warm air into them. The country’s welcoming approach is truly admirable, but how long is it going to last?


Sweden is running out of housing for refugees and tent camps will provide temporary shelter. Photo credit: @TheLocalSweden / Twitter
Sweden is running out of housing for refugees and tent camps will provide temporary shelter. Source: Twitter

The second country that has provided enormous help in the ongoing humanitarian crisis is Sweden. About 60,000 people in total were granted refugee status there in 2014 and this year the country had to deal with many more. According to the International Organization for Migration, at a certain point the country was receiving around 10,000 people a week. They received a warm welcome by the nation, but Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom has recently warned that the country is facing a “collapse” as a result of the refugee influx.

Due to the disproportionate burden of the crisis across EU member states, charity organisations have urged European leaders to do more. We spoke to a representative from one of Amnesty International UK’s local groups. He commented:

“As far as I know, our European Institutions Office is calling on wealthier and developed countries in the EU to agree to resettle at least 5% of Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. Syria’s neighbours are struggling, as well as southern European countries, and it’s about time certain EU countries, praised for always helping those in need, do the right thing.”

After emergency talks in Brussels, EU ministers voted by a majority to relocate 120,000 refugees EU-wide. The UK has rejected any plans for a quota system and has accepted 216 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme since it began in January 2014, reported the BBC. More than 25,000 asylum applications have been received in Britain up to June 2015, more than half of which were initially refused.

At the end of September the Home Office confirmed that the first of the 20,000 refugees have arrived in Britain but so far no details have been released regarding how many had been admitted or where they were located. Figures are expected to be published at the end of November.

Meanwhile, Londoners have found many alternative ways to help people who have fled war and are currently facing poor living conditions in refugee camps. The Solidarity with Refugees march led to many aid campaigns.

The Coach and Horses pub in Soho raised £13,177 to “give the Calais migrants a decent meal because British values are about respect, dignity and kindness”.

The London2Calais campaign, which started in August and is still ongoing, has raised a total of £12,847. With the money, volunteers organised convoys and delivered food, clothes, medicines and essential supplies to refugees in the Calais camp. Well done, Londoners! The UK borders may remain closed for the Calais refugees but at least you’ve shown and keep showing them that people here care.