In order to comprehensively deal with the unfolding migrant crisis in the long-term, our compassion and empathy must not overshadow room for sustainable solutions, which would in turn jeopardise the quality of life for the refugees and migrants in question. This article aims to emphasise the importance of collective compassion and sympathy, while simultaneously advocating for pragmatic policy approaches, realistic to the capabilities of diverse Member States. The article will explore the policy responses of Germany and Sweden, the recipients of the highest influxes of refugees, discuss the system of Direct Provision in Ireland, and reflect on the quality of life for refugees after reaching Europe.

Globalization, a relatively new sociological concept meaning that outcomes or events in one part of the world now affect others like never before, is responsible for what appears to be our most pressing contemporary crisis – the European migrant crisis. Globalization refers to the increasing acceleration in both global interdependence and consciousness of the world in terms of a global whole (Robertson, 1992:1). While globalization may be considered a recent phenomenon referring to the increasing interconnectedness of the global community, large-scale migration is nothing new. In fact, the mass movement of people has been historically quintessential to the functioning of whole societies.

For thousands of years societies have been characterised by various periods of large-scale migration; from the Roman Empire, to Exodus and the Jews, and Europeans voyaging to the new world on the Mayflower. However, the rise of nation states and the prominence of external borders throughout history, has presented large-scale migration with significant challenges. The development of economies and public services within nation states now interact significantly with rates of inward migration and external border control.

The numbers of refugees and asylum seekers that have been displaced in the current crisis, exceeds the numbers of refugees displaced throughout Europe following the Second World War.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a tremendous human rights movement surfaced in response to the widespread devastation and atrocities committed, which left European communities traumatized and European economies broke. International politics then shifted focus in response to the massive human rights movement that swept across Europe, leading to the establishment of prominent international institutions such as the United Nations. Such institutions aim to uphold members to their human rights obligations through binding international law. Since this period, humanitarianism has been at the forefront of public life.

The lack of union in Europe’s delayed response to the current crisis, as Jean-Claude Juncker put it (BBC News, September 9th 2015) has resulted in emotionally-charged debates and a collective outpour of sympathy among European citizens. The sharp reaction of European civilians to delayed government responses to the crisis, is most likely owing to the acute awareness of the international community to its human rights obligations – such obligations are intrinsically linked to the founding principles of the EU. While nation states continue to grapple with unprecedented influxes of refugees and migrants, an estimated 436,000 people remain displaced throughout Europe (UNHCR, May 26th 2015).


  A lack of Consensus 

The sharp increase in numbers of refugees has been mainly driven by the Syrian war, which made 2.5 million Syrians refugees, and 6.5 million internally displaced at the end of 2014 (UNHCR, June 20th 2014). Fleeing and major displacement has also occurred in African regions such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia and Eritrea as a result of conflict, repressive regimes and poverty. Failure to reach consensus on a coordinated European response to the rising numbers of refugees reaching Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain, resulted in the termination of the major Italian naval search and rescue operation ‘Mare Nostrum’. The Italian search and rescue operation was replaced with the lesser funded EU Operation Triton, which operated on the basis of a border management and patrol remit (Amnesty International, June 14th 2014). According to Amnesty International 1,865 people died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean as of May 2015. As the crisis worsened, the lack of European consensus on a coordinated approach continued.

European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, set out extended quota proposals in a ’State of the Union’ annual address last week. Mr. Juncker opened the address by stating that ‘’Europe is not in a good situation’’ while further citing ‘’there is a lack of Europe in this union, and a lack of union in this union’’ (BBC News, September 9th 2015). Under the new proposals an additional 120,000 asylum seekers will be distributed among EU Member States, with binding quotas in place. The number of migrants that each EU state will receive depends on a number of factors including GDP, population size, unemployment rate and the number of applications already processed. Leaders from Poland, Romania and Slovakia have asserted their opposition to the compulsory quota system. Meanwhile Denmark, Ireland and the UK have the option to opt-in or opt-out of the quota scheme (UNHCR, September 12th 2015).


European Commission President, Jean Claude-Juncker, and President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at a special European council on migratory pressure in the Mediterranean last April. Jean Claude-Juncker has set out extended quota proposals concerning the intake of a further 120,000 refugees. Photo credit: European External Action Service.


Germany and Sweden: Asylum Approaches

At present, Germany and Sweden have taken the highest numbers of refugees, while Germany remains the most popular destination for migrants. UNHCR has commended the generosity of Germany and Sweden’s open-door policy for incoming migrants, amid the worst refugee crisis on record. In September 2013, in response to the surge in Syrian refugees from the Syrian war, the Swedish government announced that all Syrians who arrived in Sweden, having passed regular security checks, will be granted permanent residency, along with their families (New Matilda, March 26th 2014). According to Director of Operations at the Swedish Migration Board, Mikael Ribbenvik, Sweden has received 30,000 Syrians and stateless Palestinian people in the first three years since the Syrian war began. Sweden’s unique approach to permanency in comparison to other European counterparts is linked in particular to its assessment of the Syrian conflict.

Ribbenvik stated ‘’we are assessing this to be a very long conflict. We are talking about 10 years. Living in temporary conditions for this long would be very difficult’’. Sweden’s processing time for all refugees is much speedier in comparison to many EU states. On entering Sweden, all refugees are assigned a lawyer, after this they will receive an appointment with the Swedish Migration Board within two to three weeks, and a decision will be made within three to four months (New Matilda, March 26th 2014). Normally, after five years migrants are eligible for citizenship. Sweden’s open-door policy is clearly one that advocates for swift action with a long-term vision of integration into wider society. Under this logic, it is thought that permanency is a key factor in fostering a connection and enthusiasm for integration among incoming migrants.

Much opposition to the European Commission’s quota system, has centred on the reduced capabilities of EU states to deal with such high influxes, as a result of significant austerity measures and fiscal constraints, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Austerity measures across Europe have also hit the civil-society organisations that typically provide supports to refugees and asylum seekers (UNHCR, September 9th 2015). Germany, the largest recipient of migrants and refugees, operates a resettlement programme based on tax revenue and population. The ‘’Koenigsteiner Key’’ distributes asylum seekers across Germany’s 16 federal states, according to tax revenue and population. For instance, North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state is set to receive 21% of all asylum seekers, while states like Thuringia will receive fewer than 3% (BBC News, September 7th 2015).

Similarly to the case of Sweden, asylum seekers arriving in Germany stay in reception centres for an average period of six weeks, and for a maximum period of three months. On average, asylum seekers in Germany wait over 5 months for a decision on their application status (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, October 30th 2014). If granted refugee status, a residence permit is granted for three years, after this time permanent residency can be applied for. Jean-Claude Juncker, has voiced his support for the right of refugees to work and earn in the host country, while their applications are being processed (BBC News, September 9th 2015). Issues concerning the integration and contribution of migrants, to all aspects of the host society, remain core issues.


Ireland: Highest highs and lowest lows

While as a supranational power, the EU advocates and recommends certain measures, this too often conflicts with the domestic policies of individual Member States. For example, the system of Direct Provision in Ireland has long come under significant criticism and scrutiny for violation of asylum seeker’s rights to an adequate standard of living (Breen, International Journal of Refugee Law, 2008). The system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers in Ireland was implemented in 2000, and since then has remained largely unchanged. Under this system, asylum seekers live in temporary accommodation centres while waiting for their applications to be processed. Moreover, the 34 accommodation centres spread across the country are run by private contractors who receive an estimated €50 million in State funding annually (The Irish Times, Lives in Limbo Series, August 8th 2014).

Asylum seekers are not entitled to social welfare benefits, and are not permitted to engage in paid work. Instead, benefits are given in-kind and asylum seekers receive a weekly state allowance of just €19, a measure that has remained unchanged since 2001 (Breen, International Journal of Refugee Law, 2008). Longitudinal studies and academic papers have cited that the poor quality of life for asylum seekers due to the minimalist provisions under the system of Direct Provision, have been linked to mental health problems, child poverty and social exclusion (Breen, International Journal of Refugee Law, 2008; Fanning and Veale, Child Care in Practice, 2004). Although the government are increasingly admitting the inadequacies of the Direct Provision System, there have been no announcements of plans for a replacement system as of yet.

The Irish government, have faced mounting public pressure to up the intake of refugees amid the current crisis. The government responded with an announcement on September 10th 2015 stating that Ireland will increase the intake of refugees to 4,000 (Irish Refugee Council, September 10th 2015). While the increase was largely welcomed, it sparked further debates about whether that number should be increased. Ireland is not in the compulsory quota system as set out by the EU. The EU quotas take into account the GDP, population size, employment level and number of applications processed for each Member State, before deciding on a fixed number. Ireland’s capabilities amid its own domestic problems of homelessness, a housing crisis, and overall strained public services under several austerity budgets, should not be dismissed in assessing its suitability for high influxes of migrants. Croatian Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic, insisted that to deal with the crisis it will take ”heads as well as hearts” (Reuters, September 19th 2015).

Especially given the clear inadequacies of Direct Provision, Ireland is currently unprepared for unprecedented numbers of migrants and refugees. This perspective is not forsaking compassion and empathy for migrants and refugees in the current crisis, in fact the opposite applies. As we have seen in recent days with the case of Germany re-implementing border controls and expressing they had already reached their capacity, knee-jerk reactions from European states would in fact hinder the human rights of refugees and migrants in the long-term. Just as Mr. Juncker stated that Europe is not in a good situation, Ireland is not yet in a healthy situation in terms of financial recovery, budgetary constraints and social problems arising from the former.

UNHCR spokesman, Gert Westerveen, insists that the fundamental problems surrounding this issue, revolves around migrants and refugees arriving in Member States that are ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with such high influxes (Council of Europe, September 8th 2015). Therefore, if Sweden and Germany, are better equipped economically and socially to provide supports to higher numbers of refugees, it is logical that these bigger Member States indeed take higher numbers. While every Member State must do their fair share in contributing to this compelling humanitarian crisis, pragmatic policy suggests that diverse capabilities among Member States calls for diverse measures.



An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, salutes the 69-strong Irish Navy crew as the LE Eithne deploys to the Mediterranean. The vessel saved over 3,400 lives on the Mediterranean mission. May 16th 2015. Photo Credit: Irish Defence Forces


Ireland’s contribution to international development aid in combating the root causes of the social and economic problems that drive such large-scale migration, must also be recognised. Ireland, for its population size and domestic challenges as of late, consistently contributes well above the OECD average of 0.3% of GDP in development aid,  with the OECD even commenting ‘’Ireland punches above its weight in overseas development aid’’ (Department of Foreign Affairs, December 2nd 2014). Development aid commitments are paramount in combating the overseas problems of conflict and poverty, the roots causes of the current crisis which has left millions displaced. Globalization serves to reinforce the importance of each state’s global role in overseas development assistance, something which Irish governments have been very aware of to date.

However, the recurring lack of consensus among EU Member States centres on nation states’ conflict between their domestic and global responsibilities. It proves difficult for the EU to consistently live up to its motto ‘’unity in diversity’’ as the lack of consensus on a coordinated European approach arises from the very diversity of nation states; in terms of financial capabilities, population size, culture and internal domestic issues.

The major challenge for the EU is to in fact accept that diversity, meaning that Member States possess different capacities in dealing with such crises, and therefore burden sharing cannot always be distributed equally.

This is not to say that Member States should shirk away from their responsibilities, but to pursue sustainable policies realistic to their capabilities. Similarly to the principles underpinning progressive taxation; everyone should contribute to our society, but in different ways according to means. Unprepared or ill-equipped Member States such as Greece, Italy and Ireland, receiving similar numbers of refugees to that of Germany and Sweden, is illogical based on the European indicators of capability.

The quality of life for the refugees and migrants in question should be central to the long-term policy approaches of Member States, as opposed to pressurised responses which in fact hinder the human rights and standard of living for displaced migrants in the long-term. As ever, Europe faces tough challenges ahead paved with the effects of globalization. While it is true that ‘’Europe cannot house all the misery of the world’’ as Mr. Juncker expressed, Ireland and other Member States will play their part in demonstrating the humanitarian values that the entire EU proclaims it instils.


 Relevant Sources:

Robertson, Roland (1992) Globalization: Social theory and global culture. Vol. 16. Sage.

Breen, Claire (2008) “The Policy of Direct Provision in Ireland: A Violation of Asylum Seekers’ Right to an Adequate Standard of Housing.” International Journal of Refugee Law 20.4: 611-636.

Fanning, Bryan, and Angela Veale. “Child poverty as public policy: direct provision and asylum seeker children in the Republic of Ireland.” Child Care in Practice 10.3 (2004): 241-251.

‘How Sweden Treats Refugees’ An interview with Director of the Swedish Migration Board, Mikael Ribbenvik, New Matilda, March 26th 2014

‘The German Asylum Procedure’ Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, October 2014

Amnesty International, ‘Global Refugee Crisis in Numbers’, June 2015

UNHCR ‘Worldwide Displacement Hits All Time High as War and Persecution Increase’ June 18th 2015 ://

Reuters ‘Heads and Hearts: Croatia Says it Can Take No More Migrants’ September 19th 2015



Tara Gallagher

Tara Gallagher is a graduate of Sociology and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin, and the Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Trainee in the European Economic and Social Committee . Tara's academic interests lie in areas of social inequality, conflict, social cohesion and gender equality.