By Ophelie Lawson
A question I hear often while working and supporting refugees and asylum seekers is, “why do I choose to refer to the crisis that is happening in Europe concerning refugee flow as being a political crisis rather than a refugee crisis?”
Here is why:
According to Wikipedia the term ‘Refugee crisis’ refers to “difficulties and threatening situations in the reception of large groups of forcibly displaced persons, internally displaced, refugees, asylum seekers, or any other huge groups of forced migrants.”
A crisis could then occur within the country of origin to those fleeing, it could occur while attempting to leave, on the move to a safe country, and/or even after arrival in a country in which one wishes to seek asylum. The crisis is either from the perspective of the forcibly displaced persons, or from the perspective of the receiving state, or both.
In 2015, the Eastern Mediterranean migration route between Turkey and Greece was the main entry point for over one million refugees who fled to Europe by sea, seeking safety dangerously in inadequate vessels, (UNHCR).
UNHCR’s figures showed that 1,000,573 people reached Europe across the Mediterranean, mainly to Greece and Italy that year. In addition to the sea crossings, the UNHCR figures also estimated that a further 34,000 crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land.
The number of people displaced by war and conflict was in 2015 the highest seen in Western and Central Europe since the Balkan crises of the 1990s, (UNHCR).
This period of which the main character is the high number of people arriving in Europe by sea is referred to as the ‘European Migrant Crisis’, otherwise known as the ‘refugee crisis’ which was declared by the European Commission in 2019. Although forced migrants continue to arrive, pushbacks at the borders also continue to happen more often.
The pattern of increased forced migration to Europe from other continents is said to have begun in 2014. In 2019, the number of displaced arrivals to the Mediterranean dropped to 129,663. By 2020, it had dropped to 14,854 says the International Organisation for Migrants (IOM).
Arrivals to Greece are still taking place regardless of the so-called crisis being called over by the European Commission which, in my personal opinion, was misinformation in the name of national interests and security and the crisis is still happening. But it’s a political one.
Refugee flow is a matter that has been happening for a long period of time. The only difference is that since 2015 the political response to the high number of forced migrants entering Europe change dramatically and drastically. It started a crisis in terms of European countries struggling to cope with the arrivals.
It created divisions between countries and strengthened national borders. In European politics, tensions rose in the area of immigration. But the crisis from the European perspective was not as a result of people leaving their countries, but entering Europe, which was perceived to be overwhelming for European countries in terms of arrivals.
Everyone knew about the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and that there was a large number of people that would come to Europe. These countries were considered to be “refugee-producing” for whom international protection would be needed.
The crisis is not the human rights abuses that are happening at the border, the crisis is also not what is happening in countries of origin, neither it is what people have to go through until and when they arrive in Europe. The crisis begun when refugees started arriving in Europe.
Instead of providing them with the necessary support and protection they need and deserve as per human rights requirement and international treaties and conventions agreed by EU member-States, they are framed as being dangerous by signatories of such international accords.
I would argue that the only real goal is to stop people from coming Europe; when they are people who are fleeing persecution, conflicts, torture, environmental disasters, the ruins of colonialism.
Again, it is political.
In 2016 the EU-Turkey deal was passed as a solution to the high flow of people coming. Refugees arriving on the Greek Islands would be sent back to Turkey. Turkey received €6billion to keep refugees out of Europe and accommodate them.
This affected mainly people coming from Syria, facilitating their return to Turkey which was considered to be ‘safe’ for them, regardless of what is really happening there for Syrian people. Deals with third world countries were signed to prevent people from entering the EU.
Greece, which is the point of entry, received €700million in aid for migration management. The Dublin III Regulation, adopted in 2013 and replacing the Dublin II Regulation, gives EU member states the right to send back migrants to their first country of entry, meaning that the first country they entered in Europe to ask for asylum, is where they should stay.
Greece being the first point of Entry for many who came through the Mediterranean route due to its geographical position, means that the ‘burden’ fell on them. The EU made many statements about being committed to assist Greece and Turkey in dealing with what they refer to as a challenge.
But really, EU states just reinforced border control at the internal European borders. During the pandemic, border controls were even more frequent and more reinforced, making it impossible for forced migrants to cross into Europe.
For years, Greece has been hosting large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty, but there was a failure to establish coherent and humane refugee policies.
Instead, refugees are trapped in appalling conditions as they try to navigate the asylum process and access international protection. This is both Greece’s and Europe’s failure. The Greek Island of Lesbos for instance, has become the symbol of Europe’s failed refugee policies.
There, Europe’s ideals of ‘Human rights’ have failed, gross violations of human rights are taking place daily. When the EU-Turkey Deal was enacted in March 2016, The EU also implemented an Emergency Relocation Mechanism to help countries like Greece and Italy handle the refugee flows.
Under this plan, nearly 100,000 asylum seekers would be relocated to various EU member states (66,400 from Greece and 39,600 from Italy). With an obvious lack of international support, the pressure was on the Greek government and Greek citizens.
The topic of refugees is always politicised. Refugee policies were created based on national security and national interest, which was a successful strategy by the governments for justifying the suffering of refugees trapped in identification and reception centres, in line with the political goals and interests of parties.
The common narrative around refugees is that they are a threat. The word ‘terrorism’ is often used in conversations about refugees. The narrative of forced migration and terrorism are often intertwined.
In 2020 Greece unlawfully suspended access to asylum in response to a political game with Turkey threatening to send refugees into the European Union. Soon after, the pandemic happened, there had been many reports of authorities using brutal, aggressive, and illegal tactics to keep asylum seekers away. Human rights activists and NGOs have for years been denouncing the horrible conditions of the camps.
The coronavirus reached Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesvos in August while fire broke out in the camp in September, destroying all their belongings.
The EU delivered emergency relief mostly by giving more money, hundreds of millions of Euros, to build more camps, not to help integrate refugees into other countries.
This year, a Greek court sentenced a Syrian refugee to 52 years in prison for illegally crossing the borders back in 2020 with his family. He came from Turkey to the Greek Island of Chios and was sentenced at the Mytilene court in early 2021 (The Independent) as a way to scare people away from continuously crossing the sea.
There is an obvious lack of political will to protect vulnerable people. And all the political effort is put on protecting Europe like a fortress against ‘outside danger’.