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THE LONG READ: Why Europe’s reaction to the ‘migrant crisis’ casts a grave, genocidal shadow for future refugees

Written by Lewis Dale (@__ldale)

“You can’t blame someone for wanting a better life.” 

My uncle wished to reiterate before draining his beer. We sat across from each other in a popular bar chain on Deansgate, Manchester – bellies swelling full of half-digested pizza and effervescing, gurgling ale.

He was visiting the north for work, and following a very tongue-in-cheek series of emails ignited by a thinkpiece I’d published on the notion of Britishness we’d agreed to meet for a catch up and the kind of politically hued conversations only a sociopath could enjoy in the UK, 2019.  He’s a Tory (“no no, not a Tory. Just someone who voted Conservative”), and voted for Brexit; I, formerly Labour though more recently Green and a Remainer. I daresay it was the most productive and well-mannered back and forth in these isles since 2016. Enjoyable even. During the evening he told me detailed and colourful yarns of a life since lived; of climbing Mount Kenya, and his assistance in the delivery of one of the local tribespeople’s pregnancies some thirty plus years ago; how he’d never felt so fulfilled in a job than in that moment. I told him I was worried about the future, of my frustration rooted in an institutional poker face, playing a poor hand of human lives across a table of brinkman-faced bluffers. 

“You can’t blame someone for wanting a better life.”

We found common ground that evening with our pitchforked tongues eschewing the throat of the failings of current political systems in place. A symptom of breathing blackened city air. A symptom of broken party politicking, of a nationwide dissatisfaction manifested somewhere between thumbs ablaze in 240 character frenzies and a weary “change the channel” sodden malaise. With regards to the EU, I conceded that the institution, while beneficial, is far from perfect. With regards to migration, it became very clear that his socio-economic concerns appeared conflicted by his clearly drawn desire to help those who ‘rather sensibly’ wish to help themselves. 

A symptom of humanity. You can’t blame someone for wanting a better life.

PUBLIC OPINION AND THE MIGRATION ‘CRISIS’

According to the European Commission’s Eurobarometer reports, the spring of 2015 saw a major shift in where EU citizens placed their political priorities. For the first time, immigration overtook the economy, as well as unemployment and the state of member states’ public finances as the most important concerns facing the EU between August 2014 and September 2015. This is a significant shakeup of public opinion. Europe at this time was still recovering from the 2008 global recession, which saw the continent yo-yo between negative and positive growth for over half a decade. Independent nation states entered periods of crisis, mass unemployment and political fissuring, the aftershocks of which can still be felt today. 

This public concern was born of the ongoing ‘migrant crisis’, where 2015 saw an increased influx of refugees displaced mostly from a Syria embroiled within a famously brutal civil war, which according to the Migrant Data Portal created some 4.9 million refugees in 2015 alone, although they were mostly sheltered in neighbouring states of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Nevertheless, by the end of 2015, just shy of 900,000 refugees had been distributed between EU states, and Syria had overtaken Afghanistan as the world leading source of refugees, breaking a 3 decade long streak that began in 1981.

Following this trend, in 2014 Libya entered their second civil war within the decade, and according to some reports almost a third of the population had fled, mostly to neighbouring Tunisia. In 2015, six of the ten largest national populations of refugees were from Sub-Saharan African states, and as of March 2018 there has been almost a million legal Sub-Saharan asylum applicants accepted to Europe, with the most dramatic increase taking place between 2013 and 2015, rising from 91 thousand to 164 thousand annually on the back of a series of localised conflicts and ecological disasters. Though not every African or Middle Eastern nation were undergoing periods of strife during this time, the draw of a stable (save for the obvious exception of Ukraine) and a now economically progressing Europe was overwhelming, especially when being pushed from your homeland for your own safety.

Nevertheless, the 2015 Eurobarometer showed that 73% of Europeans were in favour of a common policy on migration, though 56% were negative about immigration from outside the EU.

EU LEGAL AND DIPLOMATIC REACTION TO THE MIGRANT CRISIS

It’s worth pointing out that studies have shown that it is unusual for a refugee to leap eagerly to travelling across the world, to enter a foreign culture, a new way of life of unknown customs and minimal points of contact, without attempting first to relocate and shelter locally.

It’s similarly worth pointing out that it is rare that refugees have a destination in mind upon setting off, and journeys have taken on average 1.7 years, and are often directed by the profitable human trafficking market. 

It’s also worth pointing out that in a 2016 study by UNHCR, every single Afghan refugee across Europe interviewed admitted that they had been physically abused, faced acts of violence against them, or witnessed death, accidental or otherwise on their journey.

Migrants and asylum seekers attempting to enter Europe have historically had a choice of three routes; West Europe, a land and sea route between Morocco and Spain, the Eastern route, via land and sea through Turkey and into Greece, and the perilous Central route, across the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, usually from Libya and into Greece or Italy. 

In 2014 the Spanish and Moroccan governments attracted criticism from human rights groups for reinforcing and extending a series of barbed wire and concrete anti-migrant fortifications along the border of Melilla, the Spanish enclave in North Africa. A video report on the wall by Vox media points out that Morocco has Advanced Status Partnership with the EU, affording them economic and political advantages in trade and international relations. Considering that the EU accounts for over half of Morocco’s international trade, and they supply aid to the North African nation, Spain have since been able to outsource much of the anti-migrant effort to Morocco themselves. It’s been pointed out that this does not act as a deterrent to migrants, but rather forces them to take more perilous procedures to find a better life.

In the East, the EU and Turkey struck a deal in 2016 wherein EU nations would be able to remove non-asylum status refugees to Turkey, who will in turn act as host wherein they will be placed at the back of the asylum applicant queue. In return, the application process for Turkey to enter the EU as a member was sped up, visa restrictions on Turkish nationals entering Europe were eased, and a financial incentive of upwards of 6 billion euros was promised. This too was criticised by human rights groups.

If the central route was not already difficult enough, as the EU began to develop the diplomatic infrastructure to push refugees onto its neighbours in the East and West route, so they have sought to create further barriers than the length of the Central Mediterranean. A policy beginning in 2017 saw the Italy sign a “memoriam of understanding” with the United Nations-supported Libyan Government of National Accord, wherein search and rescue operations by the EU were reduced, in favour of increased action by the Libyan coastguard in return for funding and political favour. Libya is not a signatory of the 1951 refugee convention, and as such do not recognise the status of refugee, and as such, ‘in a system that does not assess refugee claims, this will inevitably result in a high record of refoulement or chain-refoulement put in practice by Libyan authorities.’

There have since been reports of systemic failings of subsequent search and rescue attempts, reports of immediate violence against migrants upon rescue, incarceration in concentration camps upon retrieval, in many cases leading to rape, torture and murder. As such, there are stories of migrants diving from boats as the Libyan coastguard become visible on the horizon, preferring to drown in the Mediterranean than face the reprieves that await. Since the memoriam of understanding has been signed, attempts to cross the sea have dropped, though the number of deaths per crossing attempt has risen dramatically. Italy are not unaware of this. Though gauging accurate numbers on crossing deaths is practically impossible, the Guardian were able to report:

in 2014, there were around 1,700 deaths recorded in and off the coast of Africa ascribed to migrants trying to get to Europe; by 2017 this had almost doubled, while deaths in Europe halved over the same period.

It is not just by diplomatic means that Europe has begun to safeguard themselves from any direct responsibility for the wellbeing and burden of migration for years to come. Now legal and authoritative measures are being implemented. Last week, Italian authorities revealed that they wish to bring charges against Pia Klemp, a German ship master who rescued over a thousand drowning migrants in compliance of Article 33 of the SOLAS accord

The captain of the Iuventa, a former fishing vessel owned and operated by an NGO that was seized in 2017 by Italian authorities, and her crew of 9 could face up to 20 years in jail each. They are accused of collaborating with migrant groups, suggesting that her actions are even encouraging more migrants to attempt the crossing, in the hope that they are picked up. An independent research group led by academics at Goldsmiths University in London have since stated that there is no evidence to support this. Nevertheless, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right backed interior minister is maintaining that they are seeking to press charges, in an attempt to deter future NGO humanitarian attempts to save refugees from drowning, or face abuses of their rights. 

Unfortunately, the EU’s policy of holding responsibility at arm’s length, even if that means placing refugees in regions that frequently breach human rights legislation, is better for PR and requires less effort on their part. While the policies of EU member states are not as high profile and visibly despicable as the concentration camps employed by the USA on US territory to hold Central American migrants along the US/Mexico border, as award-winning humanitarian and migration journalist Sally Hayden points out, this policy is sentencing migrants to death. This will be the legacy of such short sighted and dismissive migrant policy of the EU. 

With such barriers firmly cemented in place, it’s a good job that there isn’t any reason to believe that soon the world will face mass displacement in the foreseeable future, or else these actions could be contributing to an impending genocide.

PROJECTED CLIMATE CHANGE-FORCED DISPLACEMENT

2015 saw the first ever legal case of ‘climate refugee’ seeking refuge in a host nation. Ioane Teitiota, sought refuge in New Zealand for fears of rising sea levels already affecting his low lying island home. Climate change is threatening to displace the islanders of Kiribati; not only are the rising tides swallowing the land, but destroying crop growing land, polluting their fresh water supplies, and increasing storm damage. 

In this landmark case, the New Zealand courts saw fit to return Teitiota back to Kiribati, a nation made up of 33 islands, and home to over 100, 000 people and growing. The highest point of the Kiribati islands is little over 2 meters above sea level. The nation is so alarmed by their future prospects that they bought a plot of land on Fiji. It is estimated that in the case of emergency, this estate could hold between 60, 000 and 70, 000 people although this has not been met with scepticism from the inhabitants of Kiribati and the Natoavatu Estate, as the Atlantic reported:

Two-thirds of the property, called the Natoavatu Estate, was covered by impenetrable forest and the rest was an abandoned coconut plantation where some 270 Solomon Islanders practice subsistence agriculture…The Solomon Islanders said they didn’t think the land could feed more than a couple of hundred more people.

Extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels will not only displace the pacific populations of low lying islands. Over 700,000 Bangladeshis have been displaced annually, internally or externally, for the last decade, and it has been recommended that the Bangladesh government need to begin embedding climate migration and national plans at the forefront of their future policies going forward. 

The nation lies largely at sea level, and at the height of the wet season over a fifth of the nation can be underwater. A report by the World Bank estimated that by 2050, there will be 13.3 million displaced native to Bangladesh alone. That same report highlighted three regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, as being the most at risk, with conservative estimates suggesting that 143 million will be displaced internally (86, 40, and 17 million respectively). 

Global climate change does not only displace via unpredictable and unstable weather patterns; it has been noted by scholars that the socio-political events that led to the aforementioned Syrian Civil War were exacerbated by an increase in seasonal drought intensity in a region that historically has seen much conflict over access to fresh water resources and crop failures. This is not the first instance of climate change fanning the flames of discontentment into violent warfare. Ban Ki Moon attributes the 2007 Sudanese civil war to being the first “climate change conflict”, such was the effect of the water scarcity in the region caused by abnormal rainfall patterns, something still affecting South Sudan today. It’s been thought that by 2050 there could be up to 1 billion climate migrants displaced internally or across borders.

DEFINING MIGRANT/REFUGEE IN THE AGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

In popular discourse, ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often utilized interchangeably, fleetingly, with little concern for the differences between each term. 

Me too.

The terms often overlap; after all, technically a refugee is a migrant, and was once an asylum seeker, and besides: nobody at the dinner table is about to pull you up on a lack of specificity or a semantic difference (unless your dinners are considerably livelier than mine, which for your sake I hope isn’t the case). However legally speaking there is an enormous difference – a migrant is often said to be everything between refugee or an economic migrant who has moved from state to state off the back of a better paid job; basically anyone who crosses borders indefinitely, which isn’t the case. 

In the interest of clarity, I’ll quickly explain the difference between each:

Refugee – As defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, is a person forced to flee their home because of a threat of persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group/political opinion”, and who has had their appeal for refuge/asylum verified and accepted by a host nation.

Asylum seeker – An asylum seeker is a potential refugee who has not yet had their claim verified and accepted by the host nation, although it is pending.

Migrant – Officially, this is defined as someone who does not move for fear of persecution, but rather to improve their quality of life.

Legally this matters. Migration is dealt with on a national government level, and as such the restrictions are very rarely affected by international law other than the obvious human rights laws. On the other hand refugee crises are. While these lines are blurred, refugees are afforded extra legal protection, which can be a cause for great distress or suffering should the two be conflated. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine between the two.

This is why it is especially reprehensible that what should have been called a ‘refugee crisis’ was widely dubbed a ‘migrant’ crisis on an institutional level, whether from the media or governmental bodies. While there were/are refugees attempting to make their way into Europe by the same means as migrants, the predominant nationalities attempting to enter Europe were from the likes of Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia among others – all war torn nations divided by social, religious or political lines, and as such ought to have been afforded the special legal protection.

This is just the start of it, however.

As you just read, a refugee is only defined as someone living in credible fear of violence based on “race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group/political opinion”. As such, there is no such thing, legally speaking, as an environmental/climate refugee. This is something that the EU was briefed upon in 2018 and 2019. In the case of environmental disaster, if someone manages to reach Europe safely, they have next to no legal protection from being turned around at the border for being migrants, not asylum seekers, even if they have no home to return to. 

In the brief, it is pointed out that:

In his 2015 State of the Union speech, European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: ‘Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly’.

It goes on to point out ways that the EU have already committed to combatting the issue, which includes

A strategy paper for a European Commission project with a €179 million budget over the 2011–2013 period, which included funds for ‘cooperation with third countries in the areas of migration and asylum’, explicitly committed to working more on the nexus between climate change and migration.

Beyond this, many nations called for climate refugees to be granted refugee status, though individual nation states protested, and as such this was not granted. Instead, in 2017 the EU took the mind that they ought to continue addressing the ‘root causes’ of migration, aligning economic migration along with climate changed-forced displacement, and ‘swiftly’ signed the Paris Agreement, a deal that is neither legally binding nor effective enough in combating irreversible climate change.

The ‘migrant crisis’ could be viewed as a brutal litmus test for the impending challenges of the EU will face, a test which in outsourcing the rescuing of refugees to nations who did not sign the refugee convention, or nations that have repeatedly violated human rights legislation, or nations that are themselves facing mass displacement on account of political instability/civil war, and actively seeking legally to keep its citizens from helping refugees, they have failed and failed miserably. Instead of working together to develop a relevant and necessary political infrastructure that could save millions of lives in the future, they have condemned thousands already to face atrocity and death. Here, the EU’s mask has slipped dramatically. It is not a bastion of freedom, safety and security. It does not believe that human rights exist outside of its borders.

I am not suggesting that the responsibility was Europe’s and Europe’s alone, but it must be recognised that this was never going to be the case anyway. In 2015, according to the migration data portal, neither the UNHCR estimates nor UN DESA estimates show a single European nation above the likes of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa, Iran, Ethiopia, or Uganda, the world leading destinations for refugees. Only one of these nations  (Turkey) make the top 20 largest economies in the world in 2015. Six EU nations did. Nevertheless, this is the case until 2017, where the UN DESA estimates place Germany fifth, although this is not corroborated by UNHCR statistics.  My point is simply this:

If Europe does not soon develop and agree upon the necessary infrastructure to aid refugees in relocating inside and outside of Europe, instead of shirking responsibility to less developed nations while continuing to contribute heavily, albeit directly or indirectly, to the factors leading to such displacement, it will be responsible for the deaths of millions. 

It will be committing an incidental genocide. 

Furthermore, on this topic: Just recently, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in a report that drastic climate change is likely to undermine both basic human rights, as well as democracy and the rule of law. Alston claimed that the steps taken by the UN have been “patently inadequate”, and “entirely disproportionate to the magnitude of the threat”. The report further condemns the Trump administration for silencing the climate science and policy organisations, and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for rolling back protections on the Amazon rainforest, opening it up to minin companies. Read more about Alston’s report here.

 

You can read more of Lewis Dale’s work on his site by clicking here.

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