The Modern Refugee System: where is it going wrong?

Over a million refugees have arrived in Europe this year in need of our help and our response has been shameful. Europe is already responsible for the deaths of many migrants. The adoption and enforcement of strict asylum laws are forcing people to make dangerous crossings by sea or onto the tracks of the Channel Tunnel. With the numbers increasing and the resistance in Europe to taking in so many becoming more rooted, isn’t it time we extend the simple hand of human kindness and seek out a new vision that these people so desperately deserve.

The modern refugee system is failing. How is it that we have come to adopt such an inhumane response to one of the largest humanitarian crises that this world is facing?

Perhaps the best way to understand why the system is failing is to see it from the perspective of the refugee themselves: perilously fleeing war, persecution, political oppression or economic hardship to establish a better life in Europe. Abdul is a young male Sudanese refugee who I met while volunteering in the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Back in Sudan, Abdul faced three choices – to stay in the country despite ongoing violence and insecurity – Omar al-Bashir continues his oppressive 26-year rule since his re-election last April. His second choice is to head to an urbanised area of a neighbouring country, although refugees often have little access to assistance and face difficulties with right-to-work. Abdul’s third option is one the Sudanese, along with many Syrians, Kurds and Afghans are choosing to take, which is the dangerous and perilous journey to Europe.

Malachybrowne / Creative Commons License. Picture of 'The Jungle'.

Malachybrowne / Creative Commons License. Picture of ‘The Jungle’.

The reality on the ground is that it is the young and fit males that survive this crossing. What is little considered is that many of people making this most difficult and treacherous journey are forced to make an impossible choice; where they choose between their families and their lives. Abdul told me of his journey through Libya, Italy and now France where he has been ‘living’ in the camp for the past six months. I use the word ‘living’ with caution because it is by no means any sort of ‘life’ that you nor I would want to live. The camps themselves are bleak, cramped and echo feelings of desperation and frustration. Guided by Abdul, we walked through the now bulldozed Southern half of the Jungle, once home to close to 3,500 people. It was shocking. Remnants of people’s clothing and children’s toys lay a-strewn across the wasteland along with what little else had survived these people’s journeys to get here. It was a stark reminder that children, many accompanied, have been calling this place home.

Despite the camp’s bleakness, we saw hope. Hope in the form of a women and children’s centre, a church and a well-stocked library – places of refuge in and amongst the devastation. Abdul’s optimism was moving. He told us his desire to be reunited with some of his Sudanese family living in England and his career ambitions for the future. I still wonder how this is not enough to help him secure asylum in the UK. To start the new life he so desperately wants. “I just want to come to Britain. I cannot return to the war at home, I have already lost enough”, he said.

Like Abdul, the many young men I met were intelligent, entrepreneurial and often bilingual, sometimes trilingual, with a great capacity to contribute to a society.  We exclude them simply because of prejudice. Acceptance and assimilation of men like Abdul, as well as women and children would be economically and culturally advantageous and crucially ensure these people’s safety. Isn’t it time we implement a new vision, where the cost of refugee inclusion does not have to be a burden? Where we have an asylum system that does not encourage dangerous human smuggling and separates children from their families?

Global Justice Now / Creative Commons License

Global Justice Now / Creative Commons License

These people deserve a new vision, one where hope and practical application of these dreams are embedded into that vision. The tearing down of these makeshift homes in Calais is a new low and represents the old, inflexible and unfit system. This action now embodies the failing modern refugee system in Europe.

Considering there are over 60 million people across the world displaced by dictatorial regimes or war, we can no more ignore this tragedy. Change is absolutely needed, and for the sake of people like Abdul, this can’t come soon enough.

(If you are interested in sustainably donating clothing or food or volunteering yourself in Calais, head to



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.