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Europe urged not to neglect other refugees amid focus on Ukraine

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By Aleksandar Brezar
A boy looks at policemen as he waits to enter a bus from Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos, 28 September 2020
A boy looks at policemen as he waits to enter a bus from Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos, 28 September 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas

Europe must not let the drive to help Ukrainians fleeing war distract it from opening its door to refugees fleeing other conflicts around the world, it has been claimed.  

Seven humanitarian and human rights NGOs appealed to the EU and its member states on Monday to revive and scale up their efforts.

They want Brussels to stick to its pledge of resettling between 20,000 and 30,000 refugees within the bloc per year. 

The EU has never reached its pledged goal since 2020. Last year it managed to take in just 15,660, resettled to 12 EU states. As of the end of April, just 4,075 resettled refugees had arrived in EU countries since the start of this year.

Resettlement is one of the few legal means for refugees to relocate to places such as the EU, US or Canada without taking the risk of perilous journeys at sea or through unwelcoming terrains of southeast European countries. 

The organisations -- including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Amnesty International, Red Cross EU Office, and Caritas Europa -- pointed out in a statement the member states' efforts in 2021 have come out to a meagre 1% of those in search of safety.

In addition to those fleeing violence and persecution worldwide, recently estimated by the UNHCR to have crossed the 100 million mark, the increasing threat of food shortage that could cause famine will inevitably push more people to seek refuge and safety.

The IRC’s Executive Director of Policy and Advocacy for Europe, Imogen Sudbery, told Euronews the EU should not allow the resettlement programme to falter as the gap between people's needs and response widens.

"A recently produced IRC report demonstrates an additional 47 million people are projected to experience acute hunger this year. And with Ukraine producing much of the world’s grain, wheat and fertiliser, we see food prices worldwide skyrocketing," she explained.

"This blockade can push countries that are already on the brink of facing record drought into famine, and we feel like there are people around the world at risk of being doubly punished as the funding and attention shifts towards the Ukraine crisis," Sudbery said.

Lacking proper means, many attempt illegal entry

Without legal recourse, many try to enter the union illegally. The most recent number of detected illegal migration entries into the EU in the first five months of 2022 was more than 86,000, or 82% more than in the same period in 2021, the agency monitoring the EU’s external borders said on Monday.

The routes usually take people through the Western Balkan countries bordering the bloc but also coastal member states like Italy and Greece.

The data released by Frontex -- which has recently come under scrutiny after a cross-border investigation by a group of media outlets showed it took part in pushback in places like Greek islands -- did not include repeated attempts to cross the border into the EU or the 5.5 million Ukrainian refugees who fled the war since February.

There are at least five major wars and 27 active conflicts worldwide, including the wars in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen. There is also the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the instability in Libya and the conflict in Ethiopia.

Although the EU has pledged to admit nearly 40,000 Afghans at risk between 2021-2022 on top of the existing commitments, the NGOs want the member states to commit to resettling at least 40,000 refugees in 2023, in addition to fulfilling existing pledges.

Psychological consequences and anxieties about future

According to IRC's Sudbery, backsliding in the bloc's commitment, a result of pressure on EU asylum systems and a lack of long-term planning, is a grave mistake, harming the people who would benefit from early integration and a sense of safety in their journey.

"Camp-like situations which really don’t give people the opportunity to begin to integrate into their new community, for their skills to be recognised and for their ability to contribute has a hugely damaging impact on their mental health," she explained.

IRC's December 2020 report, surveying the consequences of life in Greece camps for months and even years showed that people who came in search of safety are instead further traumatised by their present and anxious about their future.

The report stated that the research on almost 1,000 people revealed "consistent accounts of severe mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD and self-harm among people of all ages and backgrounds," with three out of four people experiencing at least some symptoms.

One in three reported suicidal thoughts, while one in five attempted to take their own life.

"The level of people who have contemplated suicide or simply cannot see a future for themselves in Europe, having fled the most horrific situations [...] is a real stain on Europe's moral credibility," Sudbery said.

The most recent show of solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees is exemplary, Sudbery believes. Still, it also marks a crucial turning point in its implications for other refugees in the world.

"There are so many learnings that could and should provide underpinnings and new momentum towards a more fair, humane and coordinated system which is in the interest of the refugees themselves, but also host communities who can really benefit from that early-stage integration that all the research and evidence demonstrates is to the benefit of all," she explained.

"Depending on the choices that we make now, the Ukraine response could either trigger a kind of a downward spiral and a lack of political will or really the new beginning for global refugee protection."