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The European Union (EU) is facing a refugee crisis, as many refugees enter by any means necessary. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in 2014, at least 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, up from 60,000 the previous year. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), from January through October 2015, 705,251 refugees arrived by sea and another 3,250 died or went missing. Individual member states have inconsistent refugee and asylum policies, and the EU as a whole has exacerbated the crisis by focusing on preventing departures and limiting arrivals.

The EU and its member states are required to uphold the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, and the laws of sea, when creating and adopting refugee and asylum policies. According to HRW, the EU should shape legal pathways for asylum seekers and migrants escaping regional conflicts—in Syria and elsewhere—in accordance with its international legal obligations. More specifically, the EU should implement generous resettlement programs, ease access to family reunification programs, and simplify access to humanitarian visas.

Government forces and pro-government militias are exacerbating the conflict in Syria, carrying out attacks on civilian areas, including through the use of high explosive barrel bombs, as reported by HRW. In addition, the extremist Islamist group, ISIS, and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nuhsra, are responsible for systemic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the targeting of civilians, kidnapping, and extrajudicial executions. As a result, the death toll after four years of the Syrian Civil War is estimated at 210,060 people, nearly half of them civilians. The New York Times estimates that the violence has claimed more than 13,000 children since the start of the Syrian Civil War, with 3,500 killed in 2014.

UNHCR has called this crisis “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” but the EU has allowed significantly fewer refugees to enter its territory. As of early May 2015, UNHCR had registered almost 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and North Africa, compared to 216,300 in the European Union in that same period. Though EU leaders recently agreed to a 17-point plan to address the refugee crisis, HRW and other civil society groups continue to call on the EU to take a more central role in the handling of the refugee crisis.

In order to compensate for the large influx of asylum seekers, the EU must allow safe access for people in need of international protection. Pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention for Life at Sea of 1974 (SOLAS), to which the EU member states are parties, they are obligated individually to come to the assistance of any person distressed at sea. In addition, coastal states must develop adequate search and rescue procedures, and the ship master bears the responsibility of the people rescued at sea. Furthermore, according to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” This provision guarantees the right to enjoy civil and political freedom, and freedom from fear and persecution. Asylum seekers may therefore travel to neighboring countries and to the EU in order to escape political crises. EU member states have an obligation to accommodate refugees seeking safety, including within their maritime territories.

As suggested by HRW, the EU should strengthen existing EU and international laws, and enforce their current legal obligations. EU governments should improve asylum and reception conditions, share responsibilities, and open their borders to more refugees. In addition, they need to take steps to protect incoming refugees from civil rights abuses, such as the police abuses in Macedonia. Any state that undergoes a rescue effort of asylum seekers and refugees should take responsibility for the group. No coastal state should deny an individual or group of people entry into the country because of their legal status. Thus, European states should fulfill their obligations to rescue and care for refugees in compliance with their international and EU legal obligations.

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