Q&A with Idil Atak: Responding to the Syrian refugee crisis

Sonal Marwah Forced Displacement and Migration Leave a Comment

Sonal Marwah

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 1 Spring 2016

Sonal Marwah: Terms such as “irregular” or “illegal” are frequently used to describe the migration influx in Europe. Is this an accurate way of assessing the situation?

Idil Atak: As a member of the Department of Criminology, I am not in favour of using the term ”illegal” because a person cannot be illegal; the acts or offences committed can be illegal. Second, “illegal” is a criminalizing term and its use criminalizes a population that is not involved in any crime. We have research that shows that migrants are generally not involved in criminal activities. I am in favour of using terms such as “migrants in an irregular situation,” “irregular migrants,” and “undocumented or non-status migrants.”

In general, people who are crossing into Europe can be defined as migrants. In 2015 more than a million migrants arrived in different EU countries and 90 per cent were from the top 10 refugee-producing countries, so it is reasonable to assume that these people have a well-founded fear of persecution and that they are asylum seekers. By defining them as illegal, we criminalize them and delegitimize their protection needs.

SM: Europe’s response to the migration influx has been divided. What are some of the implications of divergent responses on those seeking asylum and safety in Europe?

IA: It indicates disregard for obligations to the 1951 Refugee Convention, European Union law, and Directives of the European Union on asylum policy. So far, there has been no cohesive EU approach to tackle the “migration crisis” and address migrants’ protection needs, especially vulnerable groups of single women, young children, and the elderly. The EU has been unable to cope due to the lack of clear political leadership. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has set a great example and is a role model, but faces a lot of backlash from politicians in Europe.

The European Union is based on principles of solidarity, respecting human rights of vulnerable populations, and responsibility-sharing of refugees; the current migration scenario has tested these principles, which are set forth in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

One of the biggest implications for asylum seekers relates to the poor reception conditions in EU countries. In 2015, 90 per cent of irregular migrants arrived in Greece and Italy, both EU member states. The reception standards have been unacceptable and the resulting situation would qualify as a humanitarian crisis. Greece used to systematically detain all migrants, but with numbers increasing rapidly, detention centres have been filled. Other migrants are on the streets, with no social assistance. One should, however, not forget that Greece has been going through its own serious economic crisis and political turmoil. Italy also had very limited reception capacity, with little access to basic necessities—shelter, food—to support these vulnerable populations. Other EU countries have not come to their assistance.

European countries have attempted to close external borders, tried to securitize national borders, and sought UN approval to use military force to sink smugglers’ boats. A discourse that accepts such extreme measures has developed. But such measures do not actually prevent migrants from coming; they are fleeing impossible situations in their home countries and in neighbouring states such as Jordan and Lebanon, so they will come no matter what!

EU countries have been unable or unwilling to help refugee-hosting Jordan and Lebanon cope with the population influx.

SM: What does the current situation mean for the future of the European Union?

IA: We can already see some of the negative consequences. Some EU countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Austria have instated border-control measures, which threaten the Schengen framework of free movement—an extraordinary achievement for Europe and a great model for other regions in the world. The EU was founded after the Second World War on the ideas of peace, security, and democracy. The freedom of movement not only has proven successful in terms of economic cooperation and development, but also considerably contributed to the peace and security on the continent. Thus, being unable to respond with a unified voice puts the Schengen framework in danger.

These threats also have negative repercussions on Europe’s economy as the freedom of movement is not limited just to people; it extends to goods, services, and capital. The EU has greatly benefitted from this openness, in terms of economic growth, and social and cultural benefits. It would be a huge failure if the Schengen agreement is altered by the migration problem.

There are different discourses on how to respond to the refugee influx. One portrays irregular migrants as abusers of the European asylum system. Now there are talks about kicking Greece out of the Schengen area, which is very short-sighted. Such responses send unclear signals both to European citizens and to the rest of the world about the strength and relevance of the European Union.

SM: Europe has recently made Turkey a gatekeeper to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from entering Europe. Is this a suitable approach?

IA: No, this is not a suitable approach. The problems of inadequate response that exist in Greece and Italy also exist in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where migrants are waiting to cross into Europe. These countries are all trying to treat migrants humanely but lack the capacity. Staying in these countries is only an interim solution during an emergency.

Jordan and Lebanon are small countries hosting large refugee populations. These are not very stable countries and face their own economic difficulties. In Turkey, there is a huge problem of trafficking. I have seen refugee children, young girls, and single mothers alone on the streets. Traffickers take advantage of the vulnerability of such individuals, putting them in further danger of human rights abuses.

It is important to remember that refugees do not see their future in these countries. They want a secure and safe future for their children and will make all efforts to reach more stable European countries.

SM: What steps can be taken in European communities to minimize social tension while meeting obligations to protect refugees?

IA: This is an important question. If EU countries really want to address the “migrant crisis” they must involve civil communities, while providing coordination and financial aid as part of the mobilization effort toward this. Instead of giving funds to countries such as Turkey, the EU should fund improvements to reception centres in Europe, assist asylum seekers with their claims, help with interpreters, and provide legal aid and basic necessities such as health care. Ensuring access to these services is so important to the principles of the European Union.

In political discourses and sometimes in the media, asylum seekers can be presented as abusers of the system. But local people see their vulnerability and know that they are not criminals or terrorists, just ordinary people seeking protection.

SM: I would like to shift the conversation to Canada. The Liberal government has pledged to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. What factors make it difficult for asylum seekers and migrants to reach Canada?

IA: It is primarily the geographical location of Canada that makes it difficult for refugees to come here. If they could, they would try to come to both the United States and Canada.

It is hard to assess the effect of Canadian immigration policies. Over the past decade, the Conservative government implemented restrictive policies, such as the designated country of origin (DCO) list, but there is little evidence on the impacts of such policies on asylum seekers. Tougher asylum policies would not deter Syrian people from coming to Canada if they could physically get here.

More than 85 per cent of the Syrian refugee population are in Syria’s neighbouring countries. A very small number are able to reach Europe; coming to North America would be extremely hard. I would say that we need more research to understand the implications of Canada’s immigration and asylum policies on asylum seekers trying to reach Canada.

SM: No “boat people” have reached Canadian shores since the arrival of the MV Sun Sea in 2009 and Ocean Lady in 2010. Does this indicate that the Canadian government’s policies on disorderly or irregular migration are successful?

IA: No. I do not think it is possible to control irregular migration by restrictive policy measures. Policies such as the DCO or instating visa requirements for nationals from refugee-producing countries may decrease the number of asylum claimants in the short term, but they increase the vulnerability of migrants, cause serious human right violations, and do not have a durable effect. People flee because they have to flee, because life in their home country is impossible. We would do the same in their shoes.

What we do know about the phenomenon of irregular migration is that people generally do not come through illegal channels. Over 70 per cent come with regular documentation and then overstay their visa or permit. This is the case in Canada. A second category is rejected asylum seekers who are not deported for various reasons and tend to go underground. Research from European countries shows that only one-third of deportation orders are enforced. The third group illegally cross at the border; this represents a tiny fraction of irregular migrant arrivals. According to a 2011 study, boat arrivals to Canada between 1986 and 2010 constituted only 0.2 per cent of irregular arrivals in Canada.

In Canada the number of irregular migrants is increasing—via illegal crossings at the border. The increase is due to changes in temporary foreign worker programs such as “4 in and 4 out.” Estimates of the number of irregular migrants vary widely. We need a better understanding of this phenomenon; that requires more empirical research.

That being said, there has been and always will be undocumented migration! Policies that aim to curb migrant inflow only send migrants underground.

SM: What new steps can the Canadian government take to assist and protect not only refugees, but also people in Syria?

IA: Canada’s humanitarian approach is very welcome and a good thing. As a respected member of the international community, Canada has to become more involved and active in trying to find a lasting political solution to the war in Syria and in other refugee-producing countries.

Of the more than 25 million refugees in the world, only a tiny fraction have been resettled. Canada can resettle more and must take in additional refugees. No doubt it is very challenging for the government to provide protection and resettlement in a non-discriminatory way so that these new residents can rebuild lives with dignity. But Canada knows how to do this.

Canada should share its best practices and training with European countries. In particular, Canada should show how to integrate refugee communities from different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds into a new society while acknowledging their positive contribution to the host country. This will address some very defensive asylum policies in the current “migration crisis.”

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