Guest blog by Nick Perre, Myrthe De Vries, Hannah Richards and RLI Research Affiliate Mariana Gkliati (Leiden University). This post was originally published on the RLI blog on Refugee Law and Forced Migration (see here)

Three years into the ‘refugee crisis’ we continue to witness border fences been raised in Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary, and Spain, while Austria is closing the borders with its south-eastern neighbours. Frontex is vested with new powers and competences, and a budget that saw a 75% increase in 2016. At the same time, desperation and inhuman conditions continue in Greek islands and Lampedusa, while ‘voluntary’ returns are combined with a waiver of the right to appeal, and valued at €500-€1000 in cash.

While border control and ugly duckling policies are still dominating the European agenda on migration, three students take a step back to ask questions as to the meaning of words and the makings of a crisis. Nick Perre, Myrthe De Vries and Hannah Richards, students of European Studies at Leiden University, connect the ‘refugee crisis’ with observations of a wider spectrum of socio-economic formations, which include the rise of ethnic and religious chauvinism and political antagonism.

The notion of a ‘refugee crisis’, so heavily judgment-driven and emotionally charged, has, through its continuous repetition, achieved so far three objectives: the impression of consensus, the reproduction of societal norms and stereotypes, and the evasion of political and social critique.

The contributions in this blog attempt to deconstruct this notion, stripping it from its homogeneity and self-evidentness. The three descending voices reject axiomatic reasoning and place the notion of ‘refugee crisis’ next to questions of solidarity, protection, and securitisation.

They make you wonder whether perhaps the EU, and subsequently the global migration governance is inherently crisis-ridden is the sense of Idil Atak’s and François Crépeau’s words that: “sealing borders’ is a fantasy: in democratic states, borders are porous by nature and ‘sealing’ them would require levels of control and violence incompatible with true democracy and the rule of law”.

Photo: Gemima Harvey

FORCED PERSPECTIVE; Refugee crisis or solidarity crisis? (Nick Perre)

Since 2015, the European Union (EU) has been dealing with a so-called ‘refugee crisis’ or ‘migrant crisis’. However, is this label accurate? Does the increased influx represent a true crisis for one the largest economic blocs in the world? Well, it both does and does not. Obviously, this dual answer requires a bit of explaining. I argue that this increased influx of refugees does not represent a crisis to the EU. What it does do, however, is that is it reinforces and lays bare a far greater problem within the EU today, a crisis of solidarity. I illustrate this by putting the ‘crisis’ in perspective, looking at the role of framing and looking at solidarity in the EU today.

Looking at basic statistics will show that the influx the EU is facing is not as bad as it was in 2015 and definitely not a crisis when compared to other countries. At its height in 2015, Europe saw an influx of roughly one million migrants and refugees, which is roughly 0,2% of its total population. This latter number is important to remember when looking at other countries affected by the increased influx. The signing of the EU-Turkey deal saw a massive drop in the number of people arriving in the EU in 2016, by some 65%. Although many might not be aware of it, countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are taking in the largest numbers of refugees escaping the regional conflict zones. Comparing the statistics of those countries to that of the EU, one can see a large disparity between the different parties. Per 1000 inhabitants, Turkey has 35 refugees, Jordan has 89 and Lebanon has 173, leading the list globally. For the EU, this number was only 2 refugees per 1000 inhabitants in 2015, and is much lower now. Furthermore, unlike the EU, these countries lack the resources to host them, especially Lebanon and Jordan.

Showing what the numbers actually mean is important, as the media often gives information without any real perspective. While the media often uses the correct statistics, merely saying that there are some hundreds of thousands of refugees set to arrive in Europe in any given year gives people the wrong impression. Furthermore, labelling the increased influx a ‘crisis’ already adds extra weight to it, whether it deserves it or not. From a political perspective, it does make sense, as calling something a crisis usually denotes a call for action. While this was and is still definitely needed, the genuine sense of concern came coupled with fear and xenophobia. The rise of political parties throughout Europe opposed to migration, depicting the ‘hordes of migrants’ as bad for society, can lead to the argument that the ‘crisis’ is rooted in fear of the unknown, driven forward by xenophobia.

If it is not a ‘refugee crisis’ in numbers, as the above-mentioned arguments show, why then can one still speak of a ‘crisis’? That is because the situation  has once again shown, like previously with the Eurozone crisis, that when it comes to matters of sovereignty and national interest, there is no Europe, no ‘union’, only individual states which show very little empathy for each other. At best, what the Union is doing now is treating the symptoms, whereas tackling the root cause is far more vital. Furthermore, the concept of ‘solidarity’, a very important one in any kind of union, has morphed into something ambiguous and optional for the EU; a pick-and-choose version dubbed ‘effective solidarity’. This way of thinking only serves to tear at the fabric of the EU and increase divisions, and also impedes on the EU’s ability to effectively tackle issues like this one, but also others.

With these arguments in mind, I argue that the large influx of refugees is not a ‘crisis’, but a problem within the general crisis of solidarity. Still, the problem should also not be made less than it is. There is still a need for undivided attention from the EU at large. But if this influx constitutes a crisis for Europe, then some other countries are staring into the abyss.

Refugee crisis: A crisis of protection (Myrthe de Vries)

The sudden increase of migrants arriving in Europe to look for international protection shocked the EU. The EU named it the refugee crisis; however, is this in fact a refugee crisis or is it a crisis of protection that followed the sudden increase?

Ever since the Cold War, the EU has tried to prevent migrants from arriving in the EU as migrants are perceived as a security threat. This has in practice allowed the EU Member States an opportunity to avoid their legal obligations towards migrants. This is highly problematic, as all EU Member States have signed international treaties, obliging them to take care of people seeking international protection.

The EU has several policies to prevent migrants from arriving in Europe. The most important one in this case is border control outside of EU territory such as in international waters and in non-EU countries. The response by the EU to the crisis was to tighten its border control through FRONTEX. The result was more migrants turning to smugglers. As border control was further tightened, smugglers turned to more dangerous routes and transport to get the migrants across the borders and  into Europe. In 2015, 3777 migrants died in the Mediterranean while on route to Europe. The total number of migrants to the EU decreased in 2016, however, the amount of deaths during migration increased to 5079. Thus while the intention of the EUs politicians was to protect its citizens and prevent migrants from arriving all together, the result was that migrants were driven into the dangerous arms of smugglers. The EU did not give them protection they needed.

In 2013, the EU updated its Reception Directive to ensure equal treatment and access to basic human rights in all EU Member States. However, it has violated several articles from this directive. Article 15 states that asylum seekers are not to be detained only because they are looking for protection. Article 19 continues that detention can only be temporary as no other options are possible. Article 18 notes that when asylum seekers are detained, they need to be guaranteed that their human dignity will be respected and that they have access to basic rights.

The camps in Greece, such as the one on Lesbos, to which asylum seekers are taken, do not comply with these articles. Asylum seekers are detained in these camps for long periods of time. The UNHCR expressed concern about the camps in Greece in the beginning of 2016, noting overcrowded camps and insufficient access to basic needs. In the winter of 2016, the camps were not transformed to withstand cold weather. Asylum seekers were still living in tents, even though regulations prescribe heated containers in such cold conditions. The refugees had to endure dangerous conditions. The EU did nothing to aid Greece in improving the situationsin the camps. As such, it failed to protect those most vulnerable to mistreatment and violence.

A further argument to show that the EU has failed to protect the human rights of the asylum seekers, is the deal it made with Turkey to return migrants that arrived in Greece illegally. In its Asylum Procedure Directive, the EU has included an article that allows asylum seekers entering a country through illegal means to be returned to a non-EU country when said country is deemed to be safe. However, such a country needs to comply with several conditions to be deemed safe according to Article 38 and 39. The country needs to have ratified the Geneva Convention and there needs to be the option for the refugee to be granted a refugee status. Turkey has, however, limited the latter to Europeans. As such, Turkey cannot be deemed a safe country.

To the extent that Turkey cannot ensure that refugees will receive there protection equivalent with the Geneva Convention, the EU’s decision on concluding the deal with Turkey shows that is has failed to protect the migrants’ rights.”

The different actions by the EU show that the migrants arriving in Europe in the hope of protection, instead often found horrid surroundings which lacked any respect of human dignity. The EU says it stands for human rights, but it did not protect those who needed it most. The refugee crisis in fact was a crisis of protection.

The European Refugee Crisis: a Crisis for Whom? (Hannah Richards)

We use the term ‘refugee crisis’ frequently and freely without stopping to think what this phrase actually means. The idea of a refugee crisis brings to mind an influx of people so large that Europe is unable to cope. Instead, what is faced by the EU today is not swathes of refugees large enough to swamp the Union’s population, but in fact numbers far smaller than those absorbed by other, less developed countries. Yet somehow the Union has been unable to cope and irregular migration has forced open the already fragmented nature of Union policies and cohesion between Member States is seemingly being dissolved.

As noted above, millions of people have been displaced in recent years and thousands have lost their lives trying to cross into Europe. For migrants, the likelihood of dying whilst crossing through the central Mediterranean route was as high as ‘one death for every 47 arrivals’ in 2016.  Greek camps were declared as ‘unsafe’ and the EU has been condemned for letting refugees ‘freeze to death’ during the winter.  However, despite this loss it is the security of EU citizens, not the plight of those seeking refuge that receives the most attention. This crisis is seen adversely affecting Europeans rather than the asylum seekers themselves.

More and more migration is being framed as an issue affecting the security and values of the EU. There has long been an emphasis on integration for incoming migrants. However, integration has (mistakenly) become synonymous with assimilation. Growing alongside the rise in predominantly right-wing European populism is the opposition ‘between insiders and outsiders’. People who arrive in Europe from different cultural backgrounds are perceived as threatening ‘our way of life’ and diminishing or replacing European culture. There is an association with Islamic terrorism and exaggerations of cultural differences akin to European superiority.

This creation of a threatening migrant, through public and political discourse has framed refugees as a security issue. Instead of seeing the humanitarian disasters, the actions of a few migrants have led to a causal link between migration and criminal activities. Whilst EU immigration policy has developed over the last three decades, it is still based on intergovernmental cooperation. As a shared competence and delicate subject area, many Member States have been unwilling to accept the relocation of refugees because of a negative public perception empowered by increasing populism. This widespread construction of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, talks of ‘illegal migration’ and an imposed danger to European life has led to a securitisation of migration and of migrants themselves.

The ‘criminalising’ of migrants can be seen in EU policy.  Fingerprint databases, although they stop secondary applications, automatically marginalise those seeking asylum, especially as the storing of all Union citizens prints would never be tolerated. Intensified surveillance and FRONTEX rapid border intervention teams can be identifiable as ‘anti-terrorist measures’. More recently the reintroduction by some Member States of border controls within Schengen, which is allowed only ‘where there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security’, show how the flow of migration is identified as a security threat. These barriers between neighbouring countries only influence the decreasing cooperation on the migration issue. They simply increase the negative stereotyping of refugees as a danger to European society. All this has allowed for public and political perceptions of the crisis to become based on more self-centred security issues.

It is almost impossible to say that Europe is not being faced by a refugee crisis, although this crisis is not one of unprecedented numbers. Instead, the influx of migrants has caused a crisis of management, solidarity and of the idea of European culture.  With an increasing ‘clash of civilisations’, the rise of IS and a wave of terrorist attacks within the EU, migration to the Union is becoming increasingly securitised. Populism, Euroscepticism and the State sensitive nature of migration policy all contribute to the increasing view of a threatening migrant and an uneven distribution of refugees between Member States. Unfortunately, whilst the crisis should be over the protection of those seeking refuge within the Union it has instead has become focused on the security of EU citizens and furthered the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Nick Perre, Myrthe De Vries, Hannah Richards and Mariana Gkliati (2018) Refugee Crisis: Three Perspectives on the Makings of a Crisis. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/06/refugee-crisis (Accessed [date]).