The conflict in Syria, which started five years ago this month, has led to the world's largest humanitarian disaster since World War II. Last month two groups of MEPs visited Turkey to see for themselves the living conditions of some of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees there. They were led by EP Vice-President Sylvie Guillaume and budgets committee chair Jean Arthuis. In a chat with EP's Facebook followers this week the two MEPs spoke of the importance of solidarity in tackling the influx.
With more than 130,000 people entering Europe by sea in the first two months of 2016, the refugee crisis shows no sign of abating. In an online chat with Parliament's Facebook followers on 16 March, French MEPs Sylvie Guillaume (S&D) and Jean Arthuis (ALDE) responded to questions on how to end a crisis that is not only humanitarian in nature, but is also testing EU solidarity.
Responding to a question about EU cooperation with Turkey on the refugee crisis, Guillaume described the prospect of exchanging those who risk drowning in the Mediterranean with refugees who entered Turkey by regular means as resembling "a fairly sordid swap". On whether Greece can afford to host large numbers of refugees, Guillaume said: "Added to the economic situation, this country cannot face the humanitarian crisis on its own. The EU must help Greece logistically as well as financially."
While sheltering refugees is important, Arthuis also noted the need to ensure control over the EU's external borders and the importance of European diplomatic efforts to help restore peace to the Middle East. On the issue of preventing the entry of migrants, he said: "Europe should exercise vigilance, while respecting international conventions concerning refugees. The reception of those fleeing war and violence is a moral, inalienable duty."
The Dublin III Regulation states that applications by asylum seekers should be dealt with by the first EU country they entered. Arthuis said these rules needed to be revised: "Migrants fleeing violence and war in the Horn of Africa and in the Middle East arrive in Greece or Italy. We cannot leave the burden of these arrivals with those countries." He added: "It is an illusion to think that member states alone can solve this problem."
Some followers expressed their concern at the rise of fascism and xenophobia in the EU. Arthuis said: "The exasperation of citizens at the helplessness of public governance is resulting in the spread of populism and euro-scepticism." Meanwhile Guillaume criticised some politicians for whipping up fear yet failing to bring solutions to the table: "Their interest is not in resolving the humanitarian crisis."
Responding to a question on the temporary suspension of the Schengen agreement, Arthuis said: "Member states were wrong to erase internal borders without securing the external ones." He added that a European border and coast guard was needed and that asylum requests in Europe should be centralised.
On the priorities of refugees as to where they are resettled in Europe, Guillaume said: "Their aim first and foremost is to be safe. Bear in mind also that most of these people will want to return to their country once the war is over."
Closing the 45-minute chat, Guillaume said: "This humanitarian crisis is a form of stress test for the EU; it's a test of solidarity. The member states must assume their collective responsibility." Arthuis added: "The migrant crisis and the reception of refugees shows the need to reinforce Europe and its political integration."