What to do with the people who do make it across?

Daniel Trilling at Europe’s borders

Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, more than 12 million people have been displaced by the fighting, 4.1 million of whom have fled the country. The flow of refugees from Syria has been constant, but there have been two great surges in the past four years. The first was in the middle of 2013, when fighting intensified. That was when the Assad regime stepped up its attacks, the Arab League agreed to arm rebel groups, and a former branch of al-Qaida emerged as Isis. Between March and September that year, a million people fled the country – as many as had left in the two years before.

The second surge is happening now. It hasn’t been as sudden, but the number of people leaving has been accelerating since the start of the year, and by August UNHCR had registered more than 800,000 Syrian refugees, almost as many as there were in the whole of 2014 (just over 900,000). At this rate, 1.2 million are likely to have left Syria by the end of the year. There is no single reason for this increase, but the intensification of the fighting and the destruction of the country’s economy have created a growing sense among the population that as the war enters its fifth year, no end is in sight. Asked about their reasons for leaving, most Syrians talk about increased bombing, fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, threats from Isis and conscription or imprisonment by the Assad regime.

According to data gathered by UNHCR, so far this year more than 200,000 Syrians have arrived in Europe, adding to the 230,000 already there. This new influx amounts to roughly 5 per cent of the total number of Syrian refugees, but that 5 per cent has captured most of the media coverage: life jackets strewn across the beaches of Lesbos and Kos; the body of the drowned toddler, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach; impromptu tent cities in public parks in Athens; police batons in Macedonia, tear gas and razor-wire fences in Hungary; and an epic march towards Western Europe. There is a Syrian refugee crisis and a European border crisis and the one cannot be reduced to the other.

The vast majority of the four million refugees are living in countries on Syria’s borders. Turkey is home to an estimated two million, Jordan 1.4 million and Lebanon 1.2 million. Russia, Iran, the US, Britain and the Gulf States have all intervened in the conflict, but none has been willing to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees on their own territory. To date, the US has resettled around 1500 Syrians, while Britain has only recently committed to resettling 20,000 over the next five years. The Gulf States have resettled none, although Saudi Arabia claims to have allowed in anywhere between 500,000 and 2.5 million Syrians as ‘migrant workers’. The number depends on which government official you listen to. (Saudi claims can’t be verified, since Saudi Arabia is neither a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor a member of the International Organisation for Migration.) Iran has not admitted any Syrian refugees; Russia has granted asylum to a total of two thousand since 2011 but is refusing to take part in any resettlement scheme.

Each country has its own reasons, or excuses. Russia, the biggest supplier of weapons to Assad, blames the West for the conflict and says refugees are its responsibility. Britain, the US and the Gulf States all point to the money they have spent sustaining the vast refugee camps among Syria’s neighbours. (To take just one example, in 2013 the Zaatari camp in Jordan effectively became the country’s fourth-largest city, with a population of more than 150,000.) The money has not been sufficient. On 14 September, the UN’s World Food Programme announced it would need another 330 million dollars to keep feeding displaced Syrians until the end of the year. Last month, it stopped providing food aid to 360,000 Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan altogether, while the amount of food in boxes it provides to displaced people inside Syria has been cut by 25 per cent.

In this context, many Syrians have chosen to strike out on their own. In Turkey, for instance, only 260,000 of the two million Syrian refugees are living in camps: the rest have been trying to find work. Although the Turkish government has promised to give work permits to Syrians, many are labouring in the black market, where exploitation is rife. The Syrians who do reach Europe find themselves caught up in the European border crisis whose victims started out not only from Syria but also from Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria, among other places. Since 2010, the number of asylum applications made in the EU has risen from around 250,000 a year to over 600,000 in 2014. As with Syria, these represent a small proportion of the global total of refugees, which the UN estimates at 59.5 million. Europe is feeling a ripple of this great displacement. Its response has been to clamp down on entry points wherever they appear, blocking safe and legal routes to asylum, while neglecting the question of what to do with the people who do make it.

The pattern of the border crisis is hard to discern, partly because the media tend to treat the flashpoints in isolation, or focus on external factors such as people smugglers, but also because there is no single European border policy. Directives from the European Commission set general standards that member states turn into law via their own national parliaments; individual member states are in charge of their own borders, but co-ordinated and supported by EU-wide agencies like Frontex, which exists to protect the external borders of the EU from smuggling, terrorist infiltration and ‘illegal immigration’. In theory, refugees should be exempt from such measures: under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which all EU member states are signatories, states are obliged not to penalise people who cross their borders in search of asylum, or to force them back to territories where they would be in danger. Anybody who asks for asylum is entitled to due process, and to have their claim assessed on an individual basis (i.e. you can’t just declare a whole group of asylum seekers ‘genuine’ or ‘bogus’ at a stroke of the pen). The trick is that you don’t have to meet these obligations if you can prevent refugees from reaching your territory in the first place.

‘Fortress Europe’ can be divided crudely into three zones, a bit like the concentric rings on the Tube map. Zone One comprises the wealthy states of northwestern Europe, Zone Two the poorer countries on the EU’s southern and eastern periphery, and Zone Three countries just outside the EU, such as Morocco, Libya, Turkey and Ukraine. The aim, as it were, is to prevent as many unwanted migrants as possible from reaching the inner core, while preserving the passport-free travel that most EU citizens enjoy under the Schengen Agreement. Since the turn of the century, the EU has signed a series of treaties with its neighbours, giving them trade incentives and easier travel for their own citizens in return for a commitment to police their borders with the EU more thoroughly, detaining undocumented migrants and processing asylum seekers. The frontline states of Zone Two, such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, patrol the EU’s external borders, largely with national border forces supported and co-ordinated by the Warsaw-based EU agency Frontex. Since 2001, refugees who cross into Europe have been governed by an agreement on asylum known as the Dublin system, whose key feature is that people must make their claim in the first EU country they set foot in; if they ignore this and travel on to a second (or third, or fourth) country, they can be forcibly returned to their point of arrival. An EU-wide fingerprint database known as Eurodac helps police forces keep track of asylum seekers.

The burden of policing this system has fallen disproportionately on the Zone Two states, which tend to be poorer and less well-equipped to accommodate refugees. Since 2011, the system has come under strain from two directions: across the central Mediterranean from North Africa, and through southeastern Europe via Turkey. The first shock was in February that year, when thousands of Tunisians left the country in the wake of the uprising against the Ben Ali regime. The route they took, in fishing boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa, had long channelled a steady trickle of clandestine migrants, but when tens of thousands arrived in the space of a month – on an island whose population is only six thousand – it caught Italian and EU officials unprepared. Overcrowding and poor conditions in Lampedusa’s reception centres led to riots. The European Commission’s response was to offer financial assistance to Tunisia so it could restore the breach and better police its borders.

Later that year, a pillar of Europe’s outer defences began to crumble when Libyans rose up against Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Italy and Libya had signed a bilateral agreement on migration in 2004 that allowed Italy to deport undocumented migrants back to Libya. Italy also paid for the construction of several detention centres in Libya, with the aim of preventing sub-Saharan African migrants from using the country as a transit point to Europe. A Human Rights Watch report in 2009 warned of ‘inhuman and degrading conditions’ in the centres. When the EU expressed support for the protests, Gaddafi threatened to stop co-operating on migration policy; two Nigerian men now in Europe told me that in spring 2011, after Nato declared a no-fly zone in support of the Libyan rebels, they were taken directly from detention centres to the coast by Gaddafi’s troops and ordered to board smuggler boats. Since the fall of Gaddafi, as the Libyan state has collapsed, hundreds of thousands of people have boarded the boats. Many have been using Libya as a transit point, but others are fleeing the violence in Libya itself, some of which has been directed at black African and South Asian migrants who were settled there.

Sea crossings from Libya to Italy rose sharply in 2011, but dropped again in 2012. During this period, there was no co-ordinated search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Instead, the EU was ploughing money into border defences: an Amnesty report estimated that between 2007 and 2013, the EU spent almost €2 billion on fences, surveillance systems and border patrols. Distress calls were responded to ad hoc by commercial ships and individual navies. This remained the situation well into 2013, though the number of crossings had begun to rise again. In October, two boats sank within a few days of each other, killing more than 350 people. An investigation by the Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti alleged that rescue efforts for the second shipwreck were heavily delayed by confusion on the part of the Italian and Maltese navies over who was responsible. Later that month, Italy took the decision to launch Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation that would cover international waters, as well as its own territory. In 2014, more than 170,000 people were rescued; again the largest groups were refugees from Syria and Eritrea.

Mare Nostrum cost the Italian government €9 million a month to run; other EU states declined to offer financial support. In November 2014, it was replaced by a smaller operation, Triton, run by Frontex. Britain initially refused even to contribute to this. The Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay claimed that to support search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean would act as a ‘pull factor’, encouraging yet more migrants to make the dangerous journey and feeding the business of people-smuggling. It was a hollow argument. By spring 2015, crossings from Libya were on the rise once more as the weather improved. In April, two boats sank and nearly a thousand people drowned in the space of a week. The European Commission promised immediate action, although the emphasis remained on tackling people-smuggling networks in North Africa.

As the catastrophe in the central Mediterranean unfolded, Europe was continuing the process of fence-building. Greece’s land border with Turkey, formed largely by the Evros river, had for years been one of the main clandestine routes into the EU. In 2012, Greece came under external and internal pressure to close the border: immigration was a major issue in that year’s election campaign, while other EU states put pressure on Greece to close what had become, in the words of the Austrian home affairs minister, Europe’s ‘barn door’. That summer the incoming government sent several thousand police to the Evros border, supported by Frontex officials, and built a 12km fence. At the same time, it launched a police sweep in Athens to round up undocumented migrants and place them in an expanded network of detention centres.

The summer after that – summer 2013 – was the time of the first great exodus from Syria. Some of the refugees made their way across Turkey towards the EU, following a smuggler route that took them from Istanbul up to the city of Edirne, just a few kilometres from the Greek and Bulgarian borders. With the path to Greece blocked, they tried Bulgaria. In the space of a few months more than 12,000 refugees – mainly Syrian – had crossed into a country that was used to receiving only a few hundred asylum applications per year. The Bulgarian authorities struggled to cope, and opened rudimentary tent camps to house the refugees. By the following spring, the EU had provided funds to help accommodate and process the new arrivals, but a proportion of the money was earmarked for border security: Bulgaria now has a fence of its own. This is one reason most of the Syrian refugees now heading for Europe have been forced to take a more dangerous route, in inflatable rafts from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. By sea or by land, increased security at the EU’s frontiers has not resulted in less immigration, merely in more deaths. This year, 2,921 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean; last year more than three thousand died.


Why, given the dangers, do people still come? And why, when they arrive in Europe, do people continue their journeys, often in very difficult conditions? Some believe that they are driven by dreams of a Europe that doesn’t really exist. Make the migrants realise there is no El Dorado, and they will stop coming. But that’s wrong. I have spent the past two years interviewing refugees and other migrants who enter Europe this way. They have left their homes for a variety of reasons – war, persecution, economic hardship, or a combination of these – and their choices of destination are driven by both pragmatism and idealism. M, an underwear salesman from Damascus whose business was destroyed by the war, was living in a tent in Calais with his son when I met him last autumn. They wanted to get to Britain, he said, so he could find a job and pay for his son to study and get into university. Which university was the best – Cambridge? J, the Pakistani inmate of a Greek immigration prison about whom I wrote in the LRB of 5 March, was released a month or so later and made his way north across the Balkans. When he arrived in Hungary, he wrote to me on Facebook asking where he should go next. Depends where you know people, I said. ‘Ok then I will go to Germany,’ he wrote back. L, a PE teacher from Hama in Syria, had fled not only because of the fighting but because her nine-year-old daughter hadn’t been to school in two years. When I met her in Athens, in November 2014, she said she would have been happy to stay there if the government could support them, but since it couldn’t, she was going to try Sweden instead. T, an electrician from Mali who had ended up in Italy last spring, didn’t care where he lived or how he earned money; he just wanted to find a job and a quiet home where he could forget about the rebel soldiers who kidnapped him and his brother and killed his mother during the war of 2012. He’d experienced some racism since he arrived, he said, but Africans were here to stay and the Italians would just have to get used to it. M, a Nigerian woman who had been teaching English in Libya until the violence there forced her onto a smuggler boat to Sicily earlier this year, was unsure where to go, but when I told her I lived in a bit of London that had a lot of West African shops, she brightened up.

Something these stories show is just how contingent people’s decisions can be. Language is an important factor – people from former British colonies head to Britain and people from former French colonies to France – but networks of family and friends who may have made earlier journeys, or just a person’s temperament, also play a role. Another major factor is the asylum policy of particular EU member states: how quickly and favourably they process claims and what sort of living conditions asylum seekers are kept in while they wait. Sweden, for example, has not received large numbers of applications from Syrians because they have a particular love of herring and Stieg Larsson: it’s because in September 2013, Sweden announced it would grant asylum to any Syrian who arrived there. A Sudanese refugee who spent the first five years of his adult life living rough in various parts of Europe told me that his compatriots used to head for Norway, until Norway made it harder for Sudanese people to get asylum there. When that changed, his friends tried Britain. A group of Eritreans I met in Calais told me they’d be happy to stay in France if it wasn’t for the fact that a housing shortage had left their friends living on the street in Paris, even after they’d claimed asylum.

Asylum seekers would have less of a reason to move around Europe if they were assured of the same basic conditions wherever they arrived. A 2005 EC directive sets standards for the speed at which applications should be processed, as well as the living conditions and level of care that should be offered to asylum seekers while they wait, but its provisions are vague and in practice conditions vary wildly. A torture survivor is entitled to psychological treatment, but their access to this depends on whether or not the host country provides trained staff who can identify traumatised people; few countries do. One reason these inequalities persist is that the EU has made reception conditions a lower priority than policing borders. In 2014, the annual budget for the European Asylum Support Office was €14.5 million; the 2014 budget for Frontex was €98 million.

Europe has relied on the Dublin system to control the movement of refugees around the EU. But now the system has more or less collapsed, as Greece and Italy are unable either to offer the large numbers of refugees arriving there proper support, or to prevent them from continuing their journeys. Thousands of refugees are sleeping rough in Greek cities, while in Italy vital services such as healthcare are being provided by Médecins sans frontières and other charities. Huge delays plague the Italian asylum system; the Greek one doesn’t work at all. This is why, as the number of people crossing the Mediterranean has risen, so too has the number of people sleeping rough in Calais. Contrary to the impression given by much of the media coverage, Britain isn’t a destination of choice for most refugees: it’s just that the Syrian couple who take the bus from Sicily to Milan, and then the train from Milan to Sweden, are of less journalistic interest than the Eritrean teenager who is smuggled from Italy to France but then gets stuck at the English Channel.

The clandestine refugee route through the western Balkans (Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary – or now Croatia), where scenes of chaos have unfolded in recent months, has in fact been used for years. In 2013, Frontex was already reporting a sharp increase in people taking this route. This summer, Greece overtook Italy as the main point of entry to Europe, the numbers swelled by the surge in Syrians leaving their country. The UNHCR estimates that around 70 per cent of arrivals in Greece this year have been Syrian; the next two largest groups are Afghan and Iraqi. At the end of August, traffic on the Balkan route intensified when Germany announced it would let all Syrians on its territory apply for asylum. The countries along this route have faced a dilemma: do they let the refugees through, or is there too great a risk that the next country along will close its borders, leaving them holding the baby? Nobody wants to become, in the words of the Croatian prime minister, a ‘migrant hotspot’. Hungary, with its hard-right government and a prime minister given to making apocalyptic statements about the threat migrants pose to ‘Christian Europe’, may have chosen an extreme response by building fences, threatening refugees with imprisonment for crossing its border illegally and approving the use of ‘non-lethal force’ to repel migrants, but it is following a logic shared by the European system as a whole.

On 9 September, the European Commission announced that it had taken ‘decisive action’ in response to the crisis. The proposal to resettle 120,000 refugees currently in Greece, Italy and Hungary, eventually agreed on after weeks of squabbling, is to the good, but the focus remains on reducing migration to Europe. Other measures suggested include speeding up deportation procedures, re-establishing holding camps for migrants outside EU territory and creating an EU military force to tackle people-smuggling networks in the Mediterranean. Aside from a few humanitarian gestures the aim seemed to be to restore the pre-2011 status quo: fewer migrants reaching European shores, with deaths and human rights abuses at a level the public is largely willing to ignore. ‘We need to correct our policy of open doors and windows,’ Donald Tusk, president of the European council, declared, after an inconclusive leaders’ summit in Brussels on 24 September.


That is unlikely to happen, in my view, but even if it did, what are the costs for a society that toughens its borders and achieves a significant drop in undocumented immigration? Britain is a case in point. In the early 2000s, in response to a rise in asylum applications, it constructed a network of detention centres, ostensibly to process applications more quickly, and made the system tougher. Asylum seekers are banned from working and must live on £36.95 a week, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe. Detainees can be locked up for unlimited periods while allegations of verbal abuse and mistreatment have been widely reported. The institutional violence of this system is hidden, and aside from a small but growing protest movement focused on the women’s detention centre at Yarl’s Wood, it goes largely unopposed. Its supporters would argue that it works: asylum applications to the UK have fallen from a peak of 84,130 in 2002 to a low of 23,507 in 2010. Throughout the current crisis Britain has remained largely unaffected, outsourcing the disorder at Calais to the French authorities. Widespread public disgust at the government’s perceived lack of sympathy with Syrians fleeing war has not prompted a questioning of the way our own asylum system sorts the deserving from the undeserving, refugees from ‘economic migrants’.

At the end of August, as the photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned on the way from Turkey to Greece, was causing global public outrage, I was in Sicily watching children roughly the same age being carried ashore. They were alive, having been rescued by a UK Border Force ship attached to the EU’s Operation Triton, and their mothers, who came from West Africa, had less immediately clear reasons than Kurdi’s family had for leaving their homes. Questions about who would feed them or clothe them, where they would settle and whether they’d be given the chance to make a life in Europe were unresolved. In recent years, wealthy parts of the world have been constructing increasingly sophisticated systems to filter out migrants they don’t want. Much of the debate around this issue focuses on whether one community has the right to exclude others. Before we can have that debate, however, we need to recognise the violence inherent in the filtering, whether it’s the violence carried out by uniformed police or prison guards, the violence of indifference in the face of a refugee crisis, or the violence of neglect as people waste years of their lives waiting for the European bureaucracy to answer their pleas. An end to the Syrian refugee crisis may make Europe’s border crisis more manageable, but it won’t resolve it. The thousands of Europeans who have given up their time, money or even their spare rooms aren’t just engaging in an act of charity; they and the migrants are making a political challenge to a system that is failing.