The large number of deaths during sea travel as well as refugees and migrants arriving each day into Europe have raised questions about the EU’s response to the crisis.
Niklaus Steiner, director of UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives, said the controversy lies in how nations and international law define a refugee.
“These European counties have never had any interest in accepting immigrants — those who just voluntarily move,” he said. “But they’ve always said, ‘Of course we accept refugees, that’s what we do as democracies concerned with human rights.’”
Deborah Weissman, professor in the UNC School of Law, said the definition of a refugee entitled to protection is someone fleeing persecution based on certain factors like race, nationality or religion. The definition does not include people fleeing abject poverty or civil wars in which they are not specifically targeted for oppositional beliefs.
“There needs to be orderly, fair process in which people can establish their claims (for asylum) and while that’s happening, they need to be protected,” she said.
The recent crisis has sparked a movement in Europe to expand legal protection, Weissman said, so migrants fleeing dangerous situations can stay even if they don’t fit the current definition of a refugee.
The EU announced Wednesday it would take in 160,000 refugees, dispersed among member nations based on factors like population and GDP.
But Weissman said that solution does not get to the root of the problem — the war itself.
“People who pick up and leave do not do so lightly,” she said. “Whether or not they return is something that is more about what the world is doing to improve the circumstances that created the conditions that caused them to flee to begin with.”
Alkoutami, who has relatives living as refugees in Jordan and family displaced within Syria, said her family hopes to one day go back.
“Their identity is not refugee, their identity is not a migrant, an asylum seeker — above anything they are Syrians.”