Researchers highlight major flaws in EU refugee policy

8 December 2020

Refugees queue upstairs from the platform at a train station.

Arriving refugees in Malmö in November 2015. Refugee policy has changed a great deal in all of the countries studied in the project since the influx of newly arrived migrants in 2015.

European refugee policy from 2015 onwards can be described as a failure, believe researchers working on the EU project RESPOND, which has studied the situation for refugees in 11 different EU Member States. Interviews with refugees and various societal stakeholders paint a bleak picture of the situation.

Hurried and not always legally certain legislative changes. Major issues on borders, where control has often be outsourced. Problems finding accommodation and a high risk of exploitation and violence.

These are just a few of the flaws highlighted by RESPOND, a three-year project that concluded on 30 November. The project’s closing digital conference was attended by 170 delegates from various countries.

Over 500 refugees and 200 societal stakeholders have been interviewed. Researchers have also studied reports, policies and legal texts to create an image of the refugees’ journeys from their countries of origin, across multiple borders en route to their new homelands.

“We had of course expected to find many difficulties during these journeys, but not to see that they were so problematic in every aspect, not least in terms of violence and exploitation,” says Andreas Önver Cetrez, associate professor of psychology of religions and leader of the project.

New country, new challenges

Many newly arrived migrants have been travelling for a long time – as much as three years – and crossed multiple borders. In a survey of Syrian refugees, the majority of respondents had crossed three borders, while some had crossed up to ten. Others had undertaken a shorter and simpler journey.

“What they all had in common was that reaching the new country presented new challenges, whether that be finding accommodation – a problem in most European countries – or finding work. Five sixths of the new arrivals in Sweden experienced difficulties in finding a job and only one in three in finding networks, with many feeling a sense of isolation in their new country.”

The research shows that these factors interact with one another and have severe consequences for physical, mental and even existential health.

Refugee policy has changed a great deal in all of the countries studied in the project since the influx of newly arrived migrants in 2015.

“In most countries there has been a shift from a welcoming society to a more unfriendly, even hostile, environment. In many countries, there was initially a strong welcoming culture. While this still exists, there is a parallel hostile attitude to refugees in general.”

Stricter rules imposed

The countries studied in RESPOND have imposed stricter immigration rules and to a certain extent outsourced border controls to new stakeholders.

“This doesn’t solve any problems. Instead of a common approach, we see fragmented and incoherent migration governance of a more national character. We consider this to be a failure. It is linked to a stronger right-wing discourse that we see in Europe,” says Önver Cetrez.

“In most countries there has been a shift from a welcoming society to a more unfriendly, even hostile, environment”, says Andreas Önver Cetrez, associate professor of psychology of religions and leader of the project. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Instead of offering the possibility of mobility within Europe, the EU has adopted the hotspot approach of creating ‘waiting rooms’ like those in Greece, or by agreement with states outside Europe.

“There, people can wait for a long time in an uncertain, vulnerable, harmful situation without any meaning. Naturally, this has severe psychosocial consequences.”

A lack of understanding but no shortage of resourcefulness

Another aspect revealed in interviews is a lack of understanding on the part of the public authorities tasked with reaching decisions about migration. Rapidly confronted with the scope of the assignment, these agencies were ill prepared to deal with people in extreme situations or to find the time to listen once they stood in front of them.

“This places newly arrived migrants in a vulnerable position; for them, this is an exercise of authority that becomes another aspect of the social injustice they are escaping from,” says Önver Cetrez.

That said, many newly arrived migrants show strength and resilience. By listening to their stories, researchers were able to grasp the complexity of migration and flight – from the decision to flee to journey’s end.

“During such a highly exposed journey, people also demonstrate an ability to find solutions, they negotiate their options, they see hope, set goals in life, become self-reliant and want to fulfil their human potential. One Syrian woman we interviewed said that, despite the many difficulties she has experienced, she has been able to prove to herself and others that she can stand on her own two feet.”

Disseminating research results

Önver Cetrez and his international colleagues will now be continuing their work by disseminating research results in various ways. They have written summaries of all of the reports, there is already an online art exhibition and a documentary film is in the works.

Given the current coronavirus restrictions, they will also be arranging Zoom meetings with the various societal stakeholders who have participated in the project.

“We will be inviting those we have collaborated with and interviewed from government agencies, aid organisations and civil society. It is important to us to reach local stakeholders working in the field, as they are most affected and face a greater challenge. Policy directives can of course be very formal. It is when they are being implemented on the ground that difficulties arise,” says Önver Cetrez.


  • RESPOND is an EU-funded Horizon 2020 project. RESPOND has been coordinated by Associate Professor Andreas Önver Cetrez and Soner Barthoma. The project, which involved over 30 international researchers, has been based at the Faculty of Theology’s Uppsala Religion and Society Research Centre.
  • The results of the research are based on interviews with 537 refugees and 220 societal stakeholders and a survey conducted in Sweden and Turkey of over 1,600 Syrian refugees, as well as other studies and analyses of various documents.
  • RESPOND has studied the situation based on a three-layer model (at macro, institutional and individual level) in order to reveal how EU refugee policy and national legislation and policies are implemented and how they are experienced by the refugees themselves.
  • Researchers working on the RESPOND project have produced over 70 thematic reports, both comparative and aimed at individual countries, as well as scientific articles and books. All reports and databases are available at the RESPOND website.