For years nationals from outside the European Union (EU) have sought to enter the EU by irregular means, outside the regulatory norms of sending, transit and receiving countries. Since early 2015, however, the number of refugees and migrants entering (and trying to enter) the EU irregularly has increased dramatically, presenting the EU and its member states with profound organisational and political challenges and confronting the formal humanitarian sector with tests that it has struggled, and often failed, to meet.

Between January 2015 and September 2017, over 1.5 million refugees and irregular migrants arrived in Europe by sea. At least 9,600 died or went missing trying to make the crossing. IOM Missing Migrants project: During the peak months from July 2015 to March 2016, over 1m arrived in the space of nine months – principally in Greece, but also in Italy and to a much lesser extent Spain. The influx presented a humanitarian challenge arguably on a scale Europe had not faced since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In many key respects the response to that challenge, by states, regional institutions and the international humanitarian system, failed, and for long periods the basic material and protection needs of many refugees and irregular migrants were not met. For this to have happened in Europe – widely regarded as the birthplace of modern humanitarianism – with its high income and well-developed infrastructure, is both astonishing and shaming.

Under EU asylum rules, the primary responsibility for the care and protection of refugees and irregular migrants lies with the national authorities in the countries they arrive in. The reasons why these rules and standards broke down or were not adhered to are complex, but at their root lies a lack of solidarity between EU members. As the UN Secretary-General put it in August 2015, this was ‘a crisis of solidarity, not a crisis of numbers’. Ban Ki-Moon, ‘Statement Attributable to the Secretary-General on Recent Refugee/Migrant Tragedies’, 28 August 2015, Some international humanitarian agencies headquartered or based in EU member states attempted to address the many gaps and failings in state provision, but with some notable exceptions the response was slow and patchy, raising many questions about the effectiveness of international humanitarian agencies when trying to respond in their ‘home’ or ‘own’ region, rather than in Africa, Asia or elsewhere. The evident failings of responsible institutions and agencies galvanised volunteers and grassroots groups from across Europe, and indeed many other countries. In many respects, the scale of the response by civil society has been as telling as the failings of the authorities and established humanitarian agencies.

This Network Paper seeks to disentangle and explain from a humanitarian perspective what has happened in Europe since 2015, and the potential implications for the humanitarian sector more widely. This Network Paper builds on a special issue of Humanitarian Exchange magazine on ‘Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants in Europe’ (no. 67, September 2016).  The paper starts with an overview of key events in the period 2015–17 (Chapter 1). Whilst the focus is on 2015 and early 2016, developments later in 2016 and during the first nine months of 2017 are also considered. The main elements of the European asylum and migration architecture which framed and shaped these developments are presented in Chapter 2, while Chapter 3 looks at the response in key individual states. The responsibilities of humanitarian agencies in this context are then considered in Chapter 4, together with the factors contributing to the slow and patchy response, and the reasons why so many refugees and irregular migrants in EU countries continue to endure conditions that are well below the minimum standards expected of a humanitarian response. Chapter 5 looks at the response by volunteers and grassroots groups from across Europe, exploring the challenges they have faced and the evolving nature of their relationship with formal humanitarian actors. The final section draws the key points together by asking what this experience tells us about the limits of humanitarian action as practiced by traditional humanitarian actors, and the role of civil society actors in the provision of assistance and protection.


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