Seventy delegations met in Brussels on April 5 to discuss “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”. The terrible consequences of the conflict are apparent to all: 6 years in, 5 million Syrians are refugees across the Middle East and North Africa; 6 million are internally displaced; and 13 million need humanitarian assistance. Around 900,000 have sought protection in Europe.

The scale of the Syrian tragedy and the human suffering hiding in the statistics are hard to comprehend. The war has pushed the humanitarian system into meltdown and provoked a profound and shameful political crisis in Europe. The overwhelming need to avoid crises of forced displacement should be apparent to all.

The root causes of forced displacement are not porous borders and insufficiently repressive law enforcement. They is are conflict, environmental disaster, poverty, repression, and state failure. The good news is that we have a mountain of evidence on what works, as well as the tools to deal with these problems.

For the EU, positioning itself as the expert in root causes would be an ideal role, one which plays to its comparative advantages. It has conflict and environmental risk analysis; it has at least four early warning systems; it is the world’s largest provider of development aid; it has a new(ish) diplomatic service of 5000 people in 125 countries; it has new thinking on resilience; it has invested in conflict prevention; it has a committed High Representative and the advice of the world’s leading development agencies. However, all this will be worthless if migration control becomes the sole objective of EU external affairs. The EU cannot be a serious diplomatic actor if it places all its tools – security, diplomacy, development, trade – at the service of containing would-be migrants in other regions. This unfortunate vision is implied by the Partnership Framework and its migration compacts, as well as by the transformation of CSDP and by “migration diplomacy” (dirty deal-making).

Instead, in a world of Trump and Putin, where Big Men posture and use military force to pursue national interests, there is a desperate need for an alternative. We have plentiful evidence of the catastrophic impact of hard power and particularly military intervention, including mass forced displacement. The EU has long been criticized as “the payer not the player” in international affairs and there is a risk that it remains in that role, mopping up other people’s mess with its humanitarian assistance.

However important the EU’s humanitarian response, it also has great potential to address the causes and not just the symptoms of forced displacement. It is always difficult to make the case for prevention but Syria proves again that being late is far more expensive – in terms of human suffering, but also in economic and political terms. Rather than repeating the mistake, it is time to scale-up investment to prevent forced displacement across sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Isolation is an illusion – displacement is a certainty. However, a timely and ambitious attempt to fight conflict, disaster, poverty and state failure in refugee-producing countries can prevent forcible displacement. And it might just help the EU forge a global role in the process.

Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)

Photo: (cc) Hugh Lunnon

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