This year is turning into the “deadliest year yet” for migrants and refugees. Deaths and drownings in the Mediterranean have climbed, even though fewer people are crossing to reach Europe. While in 2015, 1,015,078 people crossed the sea, only 327,800 did so in 2016. But, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR, “from one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiralled to one in 88.” Tighter European borders have forced migrants to use more dangerous migratory routes and left them even more at the mercy of human smugglers and migration brokers.
But should we use the “crisis” label to describe this downward spiraling situation? And should the focus be on Europe? Consider the following:
Is a crisis with no end a crisis?
The Syrian war is in its sixth year, with no political solution in sight. Since the Second World War, which generated the largest number of refugees in modern history, there have been a few peaks in refugee flows to the West. Three million fled the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; the next major peak began in 2011 with the Arab Spring, which quickly spread across the Middle East.
So refugee flows to Europe have occurred before in recent history. Yet this latest mass movement of people by sea to Europe has generated the perception that Europe has lost control of its borders and that it is facing a refugee crisis.
Since the Syrian war began, most Syrians have sought refuge and employment first in other parts of Syria and then in neighbouring countries. Moving closer to one’s home is more feasible, affordable and the preferred option for majority that are displaced, compared to traveling overseas to a foreign country, where there are greater unknowns. By December 2016 UNHCR had registered 2.1-million Syrians in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Turkey has 2.7 million registered Syrians; North Africa has 29,000. Compare this with the 1,177,914 Syrian applications lodged in Europe between 2011 and 2016. In fact, just over 10 per cent of Syrians fleeing the war have made their way to Europe. So the crisis is not Europe’s, but primarily affects Syria and Syrians, and its surrounding neighbours.
Roughly 15 conflicts in different parts of the world also generate a significant number of refugees, although only a few seek asylum in the West. Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, and Iran are the top five refugee-hosting nations.
Economic migrants or refugees?
The people from Africa and the Middle East who arrive in Europe are quickly categorized either refugees or economic migrant. This is important to consider as the international obligations of states to these groups vary depending on the category. However, the reality is that people have complex and overlapping motivations for leaving their country of origin. Motivations also shift as the intensity and duration of a conflict changes and political uncertainty heightens. Thus, people’s movement, forced or voluntary, defy simple categorization. The arrivals in Europe have consisted of mixed-flows, with the majority of the first-time asylum applications being from Syrian citizens.
There is growing recognition at the UN of the need to broaden migration governance of people displaced due to economic, political, and environmental disasters, especially when they fall outside the legal definition set out in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The UN Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, which calls for respect for the human rights of migrants and their families, irrespective and independent of their migration status, will be considered for international adoption in 2018.
All migrants deserve protection.
Can the EU’s exceptional measures be justified?
Labelling a situation as a ‘crisis’ serves an important political function. In a recent Oxford University lecture, Jane Freedman suggested that such labelling reinforces the securitization of migration and elicits greater resources and power dedicated to border security. For example, the budget for the operationalization of EU’s Frontex border operations increased from €93 to €114 million between 2013 and 2015, with a major chunk of the funding going to Joint Operations at Sea Border.
A “crisis” validates the use of exceptional measures by EU member states to block and deter new arrivals, including the recent EU-Turkey agreement. This agreement keeps new irregular arrivals from reaching the desired destination country, including from reaching mainland Greece to make their way further in Europe. The agreement has been deemed contrary to international law as asylum seekers and refugees are denied effective protection in Turkey due to its inadequate and struggling asylum system, leaving many in legal limbo for an unspecified time. The uncertainty also causes psychological harm as vulnerable individuals and families face delays in their protection claim being processed and are often left with no clear information from state authorities.
The “crisis” label thus supports the idea that Europe has somehow lost control of its borders and justifies externalizing border management through illegal money-for-migrants deals. In reality, the EU has simply failed to find a coherent and humane political response.
Is humanitarian aid the answer?
No. Humanitarian organizations have stepped in to fill the deadly void created by governments absolving themselves of the responsibility to devise a political solution. These organizations are meant to be reactive—providing first response to assist afflicted populations—and responsive—acting as emergency responders to a disaster. Humanitarian organizations work to save lives and promote migrants’ human rights and well-being. While the EU responses have been to prioritize national security and sovereignty.
Recurring use of the “crisis” label encourages a humanitarian response, indirectly moving the focus away from government (in)action. Humanitarian aid and intervention is a vital component of the response to global displacement, but should be complementary to a political one, not instead of or to replace them.
““There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems,” said Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This rings very true for the Syrian war, which can only be resolved through persistent diplomacy and political brokering.
Applying a “crisis” label to the situation in Europe is clearly misleading. This short analysis aimed to provide some clarification of EU response measures which harm migrant and refugees even before they have arrived at its mainland. Accurate labelling can help provide a more realistic perspective of a complex situation and clarify some key aspects of the policy debate on how to respond.
In the photo attached to the story, Syrian refugees are shown at a refugee camp in Jordan.