As millions of refugees flee war-torn Syria, the European Union has come under scrutiny for its handling of the migrant crisis. At the Hauser Global Law School Program’s Annual Dinner on March 7, David O’Sullivan, ambassador of the EU to the United States, sought to quiet some of that criticism by illustrating the immensity of what the EU is confronting.

Ambassador David O'Sullivan and Professor Gráinne de Búrca, faculty director of the Hauser Global Law SchoolIn 2015, 1.8 million migrants entered the EU—six times the number from the previous year. “The pace and scale of this unabating humanitarian emergency has been challenging, both fiscally and politically, for the European Union and for its member states, some of which, like Greece, are just emerging from an economic crisis,” said O’Sullivan in his keynote, “The Refugee Crisis: Europe’s Response?”

For those living in the United States, which can take a leisurely two years to process a Syrian’s request for asylum, O’Sullivan put the crisis in perspective. Over the past year, Germany received 1 million refugees—the equivalent, he said, of 4.5 million people entering the United States. Greece, in turn, processed 850,000 refugees—equivalent to 28 million arriving at the US border. Despite the strain, overburdened countries like Greece have shown “enormous compassion” in welcoming migrants, he said. “You’ll forgive me for saying that I think the people of Europe deserve some credit for how they have reacted to the situation.”

Gustave Hauser LLM '57, Rita Hauser, and Dean Trevor MorrisonMeanwhile, EU residents are dealing with unease and fear, O’Sullivan said, since the crisis has come at a time when many find themselves economically vulnerable. “This is not necessarily a question of racism or xenophobia. They’re just concerned what this will mean for their economic future, what this will mean for the shape of their society.” Many parts of Europe have yet to recover from the economic recession: “People are just beginning to see the shoots of economic growth, and then there’s a new problem.”

With Syria’s civil war showing no signs of resolution, O’Sullivan emphasized creating a clear point of entry at the frontier to process migrants in an orderly fashion; enabling relocation across the EU; and working with the countries that migrants pass through to reach the EU, particularly Turkey. (The EU-Turkey plan was unveiled the morning after O’Sullivan’s keynote.) He also suggested reforming the Dublin Regulation, which requires migrants to file for asylum in the country of entry, and envisioning new forms of legal migration.

O’Sullivan underscored the importance of rallying all 28 EU member states. “The pressure for continued migration is not going to go away, and we better figure out a way of how we’re going to deal with this in the most equitable and the most honest and just way possible while at the same time—yes—looking out for our own self-interest,” he said. “Because we cannot allow our society to be completely upturned by a disorderly process of this kind.” For the EU, negotiating that balance between self-preservation and extending humanitarian support remains a challenge.

Posted March 17, 2016