The EU woke up late to the Syrian refugee crisis. In response to what already began in 2011 and is now perceived the Mediterranean migration crisis the EU finally erupted in hectic activities, and only once refugees began arriving in the EU in large numbers.
In September 2015, eleven so-called hotspots ‘where the EU needs to provide operational support to ensure that arriving migrants are registered, and to avoid that they move on to other Member States in an uncontrolled way’ (EC 29/9/2015) were planned. Such registration centres have been meant to regain control and thereby to slow down flows. Besides, in October Frontex declared to send 775 officers to the peripheral EU countries to enhance border controls (Frontex 4/12/2015). Frontex is expected to improve refugee registration, distinguish between refugees and migrants, and subsequently facilitate removal of the latter. Further to this, resettlement and relocation of refugees from EU and non-EU countries was announced. In May the EU proposed the relocation of 40,000 refugees, in September it proposed the relocation of 120,000 (EC 9/2015) bringing the total up to 160,000 (EC 22/9/2015). Also the resettlement of refugees from non-EU countries was prepared. Initial resettlement of 20,000 ‘persons in clear need of protection‘ (EC 22/7/2015) and the resettlement of up to 80,000 refugees annually from Turkey to the EU was recommended (EC 15/12/2015). This is meant to prevent irregular movements, address human smuggling and instead introduce regular migration channels. In addition, new forms of collaboration with Turkey, the main country of transit, were agreed. First, a Joint Action Plan was agreed followed by the Turkey Refugee Facility worth €3 billion (EC 24/11/2015). Immediately afterwards, on 30 November, Turkey demonstratively raided a couple of beaches and arrested 1,300 persons aiming to clandestinely travel to Greece. It was implied that this ‘crackdown operation just a day after the EU and Turkey reached a political deal to stem the flow of migrants to Europe’ signalled a tougher repressive approach (EUObserver 1/12/2015 ). Later that week it was reported that ‘2,944 migrants [were] detained in four days in Turkey’s west’ (Hurriyet 4/12/215). In Istanbul, the police began rounding up and arbitrarily detaining hundreds of Syrians every day (Reuters 27/12/2015). ‘According to consistent accounts by refugees and asylum-seekers, in September 2015 the Turkish authorities began …transporting them more than a thousand kilometres by bus to isolated detention centres’ (Amnesty International 12/2015). Also a ‘new comprehensive border protection unit’ is in the making (Hurriyet 19/12/2015). Finally, the border between Greece and Macedonia, the gateway to the Balkan route has been partially closed, notably to nationalities other than Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans (UNHCR 27/11/2015). Thus, a policy mix was agreed consisting of registering people on the move, increase controls, slow down flows, increase legal migration channels, contain larger numbers in Turkey and introduce more barriers along the route.
However, on 21 December, the NGO Lighthouse reported from Lesbos ‘the boats are still arriving at a steady pace in Skala and Kagia, with 12 boats arriving just this morning. …A big boat with 142 passengers had problems at sea last night’ (Lighthouse FB Page 21/12/2015). NGOs noticed that ‘smugglers in Turkey have changed their routes to avoid police-intervention. …The small island of Chios, just south of Lesbos, has seen a dramatic increase in refugee arrivals during the last 10 days’ (Starfish Foundation 12/12/2015); on 22 December local humanitarian volunteers from Chios reported ‘more boats continue to arrive. I’ve never experienced this many people arriving so quickly’ (Scott Swalling, FB, 22/12/2015), same for Leros, ‘having more arrivals than usual’ (Are you Syrious FB Page 23/12/2015). And from Lesbos volunteers write ’(21.12.15) about 70 boats arrived in north Lesvos and about 24 in south-east Lesvos’ (received by email, also see UNHCR 22/12/2015), on the following day a local volunteer (Kempson, YouTube 22/12/2015), reported the arrival of another 42 boats just in northern Lesbos. Due to new border controls by Macedonia and the refusal of Greek authorities to register non-Syrians on Lesbos migrants and refugees are prevented from moving on, around ‘3,000 people …were stranded at the border’ of Macedonia (MSF 21/12/2015) whilst ‘there are over 5,000 people now stuck’ in camp Moria on Lesbos (Sea of Solidarity 23/12/2015). Nevertheless, regularly, one, two or more trains a day arrive in Slovenia with a thousand or more refugees on board, reports read like ‘train with 1100 people left Slavonski Brod at 19.30 heading to Slovenia. There was an earlier train, around 15.00, same number of people, same destination’ (23/12/2015, see postings on MigRail FB page). In November 154,467 crossed the Aegean Sea to arrive in Greece. This is lower than in October but still the same level as in summer. Even by 20th December as still refugees have arrived, 83,300 as in the whole of July (78,000) (UNHCR 24/12/2015). Unfortunately, also maritime accidents as well as cases of have increased due to cold weather conditions. ‘Not least due to the EU-enforced presence of Turkish police forces at the coast, travellers are forced to take ever lengthier and dangerous routes, like for instance in the direction of the Greek island of Farmakonisi where most of last weeks’ shipwrecks occurred’ the Alarm Phone argues (Alarm Phone, weekly report, 24/12/2015). In any case, this illustrates that the Aegean and the Balkan routes are as busy as previously.
How can this mismatch between policy announcements of repressing migration and the continuous flow of refugees be explained?
By 21 December, only four of the planned 11 ‘hotspots’ were implemented, three were only partially functional and only one was fully functional with 137 staff it seems (EC 21/12/2015). By December 2015, only 477 of the projected 775 Frontex officers were deployed to Greece to support the country in controlling its borders with Turkey (Frontex 4/12/2015). This means that the EU member states are slow or even hesitant in providing the officers requested. Later, it was even reported that ‘the situation in Moria [reception camp and hot spot on Lesbos] is very difficult since the staff of Frontex that help the Greek authorities in their work [have] departing from Lesvos because of Christmas’ (Lesbos News 21/12/2015). Also efforts by Serbia and Macedonia and later Greece to profile and filter migrants and refugees and thus halt the migration of certain nationalities did not diminish the flow because around 90 percent of the people are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and these are still permitted to pass (UNHCR 22/12/2015). Meanwhile, resettlement plans only resulted ‘in only 208 people actually being moved’ whilst the relocation plans of refugees from Turkey to the EU have ‘stalled’ (Financial Time 17/12/2015). This demonstrates that EU member states are unwilling to implement EU policies and legally admit refugees who therefore (have to) continue traveling on their own account. Also the enforcement operations in Turkey perceived and presented as a new tough approach were actually nothing new; coast and gendarmerie have been relentless all year round in apprehending people suspected of aiming to cross borders without authorisation (see my FB entry 18/10/2015). The effect of detaining a hundred or so people a day (Reuters 27/12/2015) is actually minimal but the horrors this causes are significant. Indeed, Turkey has been accused of increasingly arbitrary and brutal measures like holding migrants and refugees in ‘prolonged detention, denied all communication with the outside world and in some cases forcibly returned to their home countries, in violation of Turkish and international law’ (Amnesty International 12/2015). And the new border security force that is mentioned in the news has actually been in the making for years in form of the Bureau for Integrated Border Management (since 2008) (European Commission 2008) but merging the diverse agencies with their divergent mandates under military and civilian governance so far proved an unsurmountable problem. Turkey responds by repression, this is what they can do best, it is an authoritarian state with a tradition of police brutality; but whilst it will not be able to effectively control the movements of such large numbers of people it will inevitably get entangled in more human rights violations. In any case, no measure or operation had stopped the flow of people, neither in summer nor from November when additional measures were enforced. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to be preoccupied with the security on its border with Syria and Iraq and fresh confrontations in the Kurdish areas which now almost amount to civil war or even war (The Telegraph 20/12/2015). Whatever the declaration might be the protection of its western borders is of only secondary concern. Finally, there no signs of any improvement in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, rather the opposite the Russian intervention in Syria further aggravated conditions. Also are there hardly any signs that Turkey is granting more rights or a more stable status to refugees or offer better socio-economic conditions and thus addressing the root causes of onward migration. Thus, the determinants of migration were neither addressed nor have they been diminished, therefore a German newspaper concluded ‘most only want to leave’ (Die Zeit 23/12/2015).
Five tentative conclusions can be drawn from this: (1) policy announcements are either not or only partially implemented, (2) some announcements appear to be mere policy narratives aiming at and appeasing the public rather than meant to be enforced, (3) several policy response have unintended side-effects and result in refugee and human rights violations, and (4) whilst primary and secondary root causes persist (5) despair and human agency of refugees and migrants with international law on their side and supported by significant civil society structures so far prevail.
PS This blog provides some preliminary insights into our ESRC-funded project ‘Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration crisis’ (https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/project/unravelling-mediterranean-migration-crisis-medmig/).