Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
World Refugee Day will have served as a near universal reminder of the cynicism of European immigration and asylum policies: dissuasion that sacrifices thousands is the sole pillar of its policy for dealing with people fleeing war, persecution or untenable living conditions. While the EU and the representatives of its member states congratulate themselves on their success, the reality is far different: thousands of deaths at borders, a programme for resettling a few tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that is almost totally moribund, and most of those who do finally reach the EU being maintained in a state of utter precariousness. If this policy can be summed up by a maxim, we feel it would be: death or madness.
Much has been said and written about the pact between the EU and Turkey and its consequences: the transformation of Greece into a camp country, responsible for distinguishing good refugees (increasingly rare according to the criteria imposed by the European states) from bad migrants (increasingly numerous); the continuing externalisation of European border controls with announcements of bilateral agreements that make development aid conditional on stopping migrants; and the domino effect of the pact, as seen in the announcement of the forthcoming closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The fact is that it represents an acceleration of long-standing policies rather than anything truly new. The EU and its member states have for years been concluding agreements with immigration source and transit countries in order to limit as far as possible the number of arrivals in Europe. France has adopted the same approach and, during the 2000s, signed readmission agreements with Senegal, Tunisia and Benin, to cite just three examples. But the EU did not pioneer the policy of turning back refugees; Australia showed the way with Stop the Boat, a policy designed to intercept boats transporting asylum seekers before their arrival and to force them to off-shore centres, such as in Papua New Guinea.
However, the EU-Turkey agreement heralded a new phase in the construction of Fortress Europe. Only Germany and Sweden tried, for a few months last year, to follow a different path. By welcoming almost 800,000 and over 160,000 refugees respectively, they showed a very different side to the European response, without ever pretending that it was easy. Nothing seems to deflect the world’s leading economic power, with its 500-million population, from its determination to turn away a few hundred thousand people seeking sanctuary and acceptable living conditions. Not the thousands of people who have died on the perilous Mediterranean crossing, almost 3,000 in 2016 so far and 10,000 since January 2014. Nor the fate of tens of thousands more, their lives in limbo as they are left to survive as best they can in camps, formal and informal, where the only prospect is the hope of being able to cross a border or, more frequently, a carefully maintained lack of social, economic and legal security. A recent and remarkable study commissioned by UNICEF and carried out by not-for-profit Trajectoires illustrates the extreme vulnerability of unaccompanied migrant children in northern France. Similar findings led Médecins sans Frontières to open a day shelter for unaccompanied foreign minors in Calais.
The solidarity expressed by the thousands of volunteer women and men who came to help the refugees, and who do not want to see the continent turn in on itself, have had at best a marginal effect on government attitudes. Governments seem to be far more influenced by demonstrations of hostility expressed on the street or via ballot boxes by a section of the population that, while not negligible, does not represent Europeans’ reactions to these new arrivals. Moreover, the recent decision by the Pas-de-Calais prefecture to ban a convoy from Britain bringing aid to migrants in northern France makes it clear that European authorities do not intend providing aid beyond the level that they, and they alone, judge to be reasonable. And with the Gaza Flotilla in mind, neither do they intended allowing expressions of solidarity judged to be overly demonstrative.
The key points to note are the obstacles to free movement of people and the total absence of consideration for these people’s attempts to build a life, people who have mostly left everything behind and have nothing to go back for. This situation should not have been a surprise to anyone, and certainly not those who follow the Syrian conflict, nor those who observe migration patterns. Nevertheless, European governments’ refusal to act according to this reality result in increased precariousness for these people, condemned to live in deplorable conditions from Turkey to northern France. Let us not deceive ourselves: these people who are fleeing their countries, whether Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, in the case of those reaching Turkish territory or the Greek coast, or Eritrea, Nigeria or Somalia in the case of people setting off from the Libyan coast hoping to reach Italy, cannot return home.
We are not calling for free movement of peoples or the abolition of borders, nor do we believe there is a magic solution to the pressures of greater inward migration towards Europe, we are simply underlining the physical and psychological consequences of this policy dead-end on thousands of lives.
The actions of European states that only want to take in a handful of people, a lottery with dramatic effects, condemns them to a life of wandering. Wandering in Calais, where five to seven thousand people press against the French and British barbed wire, or the tens of thousands of people trapped in Greece, on the mainland where they are confronted with hermetically sealed borders and on the islands where they face the prospect of being sent back to Turkey, to mostly invisible camps, or to their native lands. Their individual plans for their own lives, the ties they may have to possible destination countries, their desire to rebuild their lives are all factors that never seem to be taken into account, other than for a few thousand people to whom Europe has magnanimously granted protection. This refusal is the cause of deep-reaching despair, as illustrated by the significant prevalence of severe psychological disorders noted by all those working with them, MSF included.
Walls, camps and carefully maintained invisibility form the backbone of the European response to population movements. We need to meet this assault of hostility with hospitality; to refuse policies of confinement while stimulating the creation of reception and transit centres that will offer respite and basic services; to encourage and support local initiatives that help to develop proper reception facilities; to guide people towards the solutions the law provides. And to try to do everything we can to influence the political discourse and public perceptions that encourage stigmatisation and a refusal to help.
Michaël Neuman is the Director of Studies at the MSF Centre de Réflexion sur l’Action et les Savoirs Humanitaires (MSF-CRASH)
This post was originally published in French by Medipart on 21 June 2016.