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What's life like for refugees in Europe?

Last updated 
Photo: Daphne Tolis

Refugees continue to live in camps on Europe's shores. Lives are hanging in the balance, their futures on hold.

European leaders can do more to help people fleeing war and persecution find safety, and prevent them from putting their lives at risk in the hands of smugglers. Here’s what you need to know about the situation for refugees in Europe and how you can help.

1. How is Europe treating refugees? 

The implementation of the EU-Turkey deal two years ago, coupled with the closing of borders along the Western Balkan route left refugees stranded, their lives in limbo, and with little in the way of legal alternatives to seeking sanctuary. The goal of the deal was to halt refugees’ trajectory into Europe on the Greek islands and send all of those who did not qualify for asylum back to Turkey.

The asylum procedures on the Greek islands are not adequately staffed, which results in significant delays. People are waiting months—some even up to 19 months to hear the outcomes of their cases. This is a bad deal for refugees, eroding their rights, exposing people to risks and abuse, and causing human suffering. Whilst European leaders are focused on stopping people from arriving at any cost, their focus should be on providing legal routes to hope for people fleeing conflict and persecution. Now is not the time to step back and shirk the responsibility to offer hope to people who desperately need it.

This is not a humanitarian crisis—but a crisis of political will, as the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has said.

We can’t expect Greece, Italy and the Balkans to shoulder the responsibility on their own.

2. What does it mean for refugees?

Basic human rights are at risk.

People have spent more than a year of their lives stranded on Greek islands, many sheltered in tents and overcrowded facilities, even during freezing winter weather. Children, women and men continue to be exposed to risks to their health and wellbeing daily, and many have limited access to basic services such as medical and psychological support to help overcome hardships and trauma, as well as the education children need.

Human potential is being squandered.

What if the next president, prime minister or world leader is a 16-year-old stuck in a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos?. What if the next Sergey Brin, founder of Google, or Albert Einstein, instrumental in the creation of the IRC, is right now making their way through dangerous routes across Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia in the hopes of getting to Western Europe, and solely because there are no legal ways to reach safety?

Many of the refugees now stranded on the Greek islands have skills and talent to offer – from school teachers to lawyers, from nurses to doctors. If they are granted asylum, they must be given the chance to pursue their chosen careers and in so doing contribute to their new communities in a concrete and substantial way.

3. What can I do?

Without legal ways for refugees to find a safe haven, desperate refugees will continue to seek out even more dangerous routes.

That’s why we're asking you to join our call for Europe to play its part and resettle 108,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees per year. 

We need to help refugees integrate into communities, giving them the tools they need to restart their lives. Programmes like cultural orientation, family mentorship, and refugee youth academies are essential to ensure the successful integration of refugees into their new communities. Welcome programmes can also benefit new communities, making sure refugees and their new communities have opportunities to integrate in Europe.

As David Miliband, the IRC’s CEO and president, said: “Europe’s choice is between proactive, shared, organised and legal efforts to address the refugee crisis, and disorganised, illegal and inhuman flow of desperate people. I know which is smart and right in the 21st century.”

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