Refugee crisis in Europe: Some observations!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
In view of terror wars launched by USA and NATO starting from Afghanistan to Syria, the world is facing an unprecedented, displacement cum refugee crisis, following exodus of refugees from the crisis nations to European Union (EU). Terror wars in West Asia force a regular flow of refugees into Europe.
Today, besides murder of millions of Muslims, more than 65 million people are forcibly displaced from their home nations as a result of violent conflicts and natural disasters. Eastern European countries like Kosovo and Albania still contribute to the overall flow of asylum seekers into the EU, Norway and Switzerland, but about half of refugees in 2015 trace their origins to just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Conflicts, both fresh and long-standing, in each of these states have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Some have been displaced within their homelands; others have sought refuge in neighboring countries; and still others have made the often perilous journey to Europe (and elsewhere) to seek asylum.
The illegal war in Syria, promoted by USA and Russia targeting Muslims has caused alarming number of refugees into EU. There are examples of Syrian refugees who were not directly affected by the war but fled because their livelihoods were destroyed. In the past year, most refugees have been coming from Syria; in 2014 it was Afghanistan. Contrary to Western criticism that the Middle East is not doing enough, 95% of all Syrian refugees are now hosted in neighbouring Muslim countries. Many terrorized and displaced people arrive in the EU, after perilous land or sea journeys and they obviously require basic humanitarian assistance, such as provision of clean water, health care, emergency shelter and legal aid.
The migration flow is impacting transit countries, such as Turkey, Greece and Libya. In 2015 alone, over 1 million people – refugees, displaced persons and other migrants – have made their way to the EU either escaping conflict in their country and in search of better economic prospects if any. While the numbers have shown a decreasing trend in 2016, by June around 156000 people have reached Europe. Many of these displaced people are children who have special protection needs.
The constant influx of refugees owing to war in Syria has caused a serious problem for the recipient nations in terms of economy and security. Many Europeans are also worried that refugees will be an economic burden, with half or more in five nations saying that refugees will take jobs and social benefits.
EU leaders are facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and are urgently seeking to secure the help of Ankara in curbing the flow of migrants into the European Union from Turkey — which is giving sanctuary to 2.2 million Syrian refugees. “The refugee crisis and terrorism shows us that we are on the same continent, we are facing the same challenges and the more we develop common policies, the better off we will be,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told press.
European publics have been far from satisfied with how the EU has handled the historic number of refugees arriving in EU nations. Disapproval was generally greatest in countries like Greece and Sweden with the highest number of asylum seekers in 2015. Even in countries with a lower number of asylees, disapproval of the EU’s handling of the refugee issue was widespread, including in France (70%), the UK (70%) and the Netherlands (63%). And in Germany, which had the most asylum applications in 2015, fully two-thirds faulted the EU’s approach to the refugee crisis.
Asylum seekers and destinations
Much debate has focused on the terms asylum seekers, migrants and refugees etc who are used to describe the rapid rise in the number of people moving into Europe from other countries, many of whom from the Middle East. Generally these are known as refugees.
The number of European Union member states has grown since 1985, with significant increases in 1995, 2004 and 2007. Although applying for asylum has become a common way for migrants to enter Europe, migrants also enter via family ties or employment visas.
The number of asylum seekers arriving from North Africa has remained consistent despite high-profile anti-smuggling initiatives, with almost 160,000 migrants and refugees landing in Italy so far this year. The desperate journeys have made the central Mediterranean the deadliest sea crossing in the world, seeing asylum seekers drown, suffocate or die of fuel inhalation in overcrowded boats.
The overall increase from 2013 to 2015 was reflected in the trajectory of new asylum seekers arriving from each of the three leading origin countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Refugees from Syria numbered 378,000 in 2015, accounting for 29% of all of Europe’s asylum seekers – the highest share of any nation; 193,000 from Afghanistan and another 127,000 from Iraq.
Nearly one-in-five asylum seekers in 2015 came from European countries outside the EU, Norway and Switzerland, including asylum seekers from Kosovo (68,000 in 2015, up from 35,000 in 2014), Albania (67,000 in 2015, up from 16,000 in 2014) and Ukraine (21,000 in 2015, up from 14,000 in 2014), regions that had once sent migrants when they were a part of the former Yugoslavia and USSR.
European Union countries, Norway and Switzerland are leading destinations for asylum seekers and other migrants alike. In 2014, nearly 600,000 asylum applications were filed in the EU, Norway and Switzerland, a 47% increase over the more than 400,000 applications filed in 2013. Germany has long been a primary destination for asylum seekers. Germany received an unprecedented 442,000 individual first-time asylum applications in 2015 – the highest annual number ever received by a European country over the past 30 years. Over the past 30 years, Germany has received at least 3.6 million asylum applications. Hungary received the second largest number of asylum applicants in 2015. Hungary received 174,000 asylum applications. Sweden received the third highest number of asylum applicants in 2015, posting a record 156,000 applicants in 2015. France and the UK were once leading destinations of Europe’s asylum seekers.
Over half (53%) of asylum seekers to the European Union, Norway and Switzerland in 2015 were young adults – those ages 18 to 34. Refugees from Syria (71%), Iraq (75%) and Afghanistan (80%) were also predominately male in 2015. By contrast, asylum seekers from other top origin countries, such as Gambia (97% male), Pakistan (95% male) and Bangladesh (95% male), were almost entirely male. Europe has also seen a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors (children under 18 who arrived in Europe without adult guardians) applying for asylum in recent years.
Refugees did not disperse equally across Europe, with some countries taking in more asylum seekers than the European average. Since 2012, Germany has been the primary destination country for asylum seekers in Europe, receiving 442,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone. Following Germany, Hungary (174,000 applications) and Sweden (156,000) received the highest number of asylum applications in 2015. France (71,000) and the UK (39,000) received roughly the same number of applications in 2015 as in years just prior to the refugee surge in 2015.
In 2015, the EU-28, Norway and Switzerland as a whole had 250 asylum applicants, Hungary had 1,770 applicants and Sweden had 1,600 applicants. Meanwhile, Germany had still well above the total European rate. By contrast, France had only 110 applicants in 2015 and the UK had only 60 asylum seekers per 100,000 people.
Modern slavery: abuse of refugees
Refugees and migrants risking their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe are being forced into “modern slavery” by ruthless people traffickers who are imprisoning, torturing and raping those they exploit.
A new report has revealed the shocking scale of abuse by criminal gangs who prey on asylum seekers travelling across Africa – most commonly in Libya, which has become the main launching point for smugglers’ boats in the chaos following its civil war. Among the horrors described are border guards shooting migrants trying to leave Iran, Syria and Eritrea, and people being raped, kidnapped, beaten and tortured or simply left to die in the desert while journeying through countries including Algeria and Niger.
Treacherous sea journeys are far from the only risk – the failure of the EU to resettle refugees or provide legal routes were forcing people to flee from one conflict zone to another at the risk of violence and abuse by both people smugglers and state authorities. Most people Italy and Malta had experienced physical violence, with watching many of their fellow migrants be killed or die of illness.
Research by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that almost three quarters of migrants attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean have experienced exploitation and human trafficking. The group said practices occurring with “alarming scare and frequency” included forced labor, imprisonment, kidnapping, ransom and physical and sexual abuse. Almost half of the men, women and children rescued in the Central Mediterranean said they had been imprisoned for ransom during their journey towards Europe, most commonly in Libya.
Many refugees are being detained and tortured either for ransoms of thousands of dollars, or forced into labor or prostitution to earn their freedom. Libya was once a popular destination for migrant workers from elsewhere in Africa but the deteriorating situation has driven many of those who previously saw it as a safe haven to flee across the Mediterranean.
Many described a living nightmare in Libya, which remains in a widespread state of lawlessness following the US-British-backed removal cum cold blooded murder of President Col Muammar Qaddafi and subsequent civil war, with rival armed groups including Isis locked in bloody competition for control. Leaving Libya via land is not considered an option, with widespread reports of border guards and militias shooting those trying to get out. A Nigerian woman said she saw a border guard pour petrol on a migrant and set him on fire, adding: “You cannot get out of Libya alive”.
The migrants journeying via Libya are between seven and 10 times more likely to be abused than those reaching Europe from Turkey, with the likelihood of exploitation rising with the time they spend in transit at the mercy of smugglers. The group said Libya’s degeneration into chaos following the British-backed intervention to oust Col Muammar Qaddafi in the country’s civil war has left rival armed groups, criminal gangs and Isis vying for power. Armed smugglers are known to frequently detain migrants in squalid conditions, demanding ransoms or forcing them into labor, beating and torturing any who cannot pay. Growing numbers of refugees have been using the more treacherous route since the EU-Turkey deal aimed to prevent crossings over the Aegean Sea came into effect earlier this year.
Some refugees sew money into their clothes in preparation for the ordeal, while others resort to giving up contact details for family and friends in their home countries. Others were shuttled between middlemen and “brokers” for forced labor on construction sites or farms, and were locked up in warehouses at night, until they paid their way out of captivity. A Somali man said he was “sold” by a Sudanese trafficker to a Libyan man for $2,000 (£1,600) to carry out agricultural labor, and saw several of his fellow captives die in the detention centre where they were held at night. Lami, a 26-year-old Senegalese man, said he watched another man slowly die from illness, adding: “In Libya, if you don’t have money to pay back the people that assault you, then they beat you. I prefer to die at sea.”
Selling people is normal in Libya. Everybody has a gun in Libya – children too. The reward for those who work or pay their way out of captivity is to be loaded onto a boat over the Central Mediterranean – now the most dangerous sea crossing in the world.
Women are frequently sexually abused or forced into prostitution by traffickers, with many arriving in Italy pregnant with their abusers’ children. Maria* a Cameroonian woman rescued from a migrant ship in June, was abducted by four armed men who forced her into prostitution and raped her repeatedly.
Almost 320,000 asylum seekers have arrived by sea this year, with the majority travelling over the Central Mediterranean after the controversial EU-Turkey deal came into effect in March, seeing anyone arriving on Greek islands detained under threat of deportation. Around 1,800 refugees have reached Greece this month, compared to almost 13,000 in Italy, where most arrivals are from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Gambia, the Ivory Coast and other African nations.
More than 3,100 migrants have died on the route this year – drowning or suffocating in overcrowded holds – putting 2016 on course to be the deadliest ever year for refugees trying to reach Europe. Those who survive the journey often arrive injured or scarred. For others the scars are harder to spot – more than half of asylum seekers arriving in Italy are diagnosed with mental health issues, mostly triggered by trauma in their home countries or during their journeys to Europe.
A key focus for the UK and other governments must include collaborating with partners to prioritize safeguarding against the risks of modern slavery as part of the response to the migration and refugee crisis, in addition to scaling up targeted frontline anti-trafficking safeguarding and law enforcement operations.
The migration crisis is clearly being used by human trafficking networks to target and brutally exploit the most vulnerable.
Sources complicating refugee crisis
A report has found that Britain and other European nations are making the refugee crisis worse by forcing people fleeing conflict and persecution to undertake covert and treacherous journeys. Politicians have been wantonly ignoring the reality of the crisis to maintain ill-informed government positions. The damning report by the Unraveling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis project concluded that the refusal to open up legal routes for those seeking safety in Europe has increased demand for people smuggling on ever more dangerous routes.
Operations to combat the thriving trade has driven the use of smaller and less seaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean, contributing to the deaths of almost 4,000 migrants so far in 2016 – now the deadliest year ever for refugees. The problem is there’s a huge political agenda around migration, so more pragmatic of effective alternatives are being overridden by political aspirations of leaders across the EU. The UK’s initial refusal to resettle refugees who had already crossed into Europe was “appalling” as an estimated 60,000 migrants remain trapped in Greece alone.
European politicians frequently depict smugglers as part of vast criminal networks but the report found they are often found in asylum seekers’ local communities or social networks, with names and numbers travelling by word of mouth. State officials, the military, law enforcement, and border guards are also involved in smuggling, researchers said, citing numerous testimonies of smugglers bribing police in Greece, Turkey and other countries of transit.
Far from combating people smuggling, border closures and the tightening of asylum regulations in several countries was directly driving refugees into their hands, with every single person interviewed using a smuggler for at least one leg of their journey.
The closure of borders seems likely to have significantly increased the demand for, and use of, smugglers – who have become the only option for those unable to leave their countries or enter countries in which protection might potentially be available to them. One in 10 had attempted to find a legal way to enter Europe but failed, resorting to almost a hundred different and potentially deadly routes that often cost far more than a legal journey. Many used smugglers for boat crossings but needed them to leave conflict-ridden countries like Syria, where hostile governments or militant groups have attempted to seal borders.
Boat journeys across the Aegean Sea have dropped sharply since the controversial deal made between the EU and Turkey in March, which is seeing migrants arriving on Greek islands detained under the threat of deportation. The agreement’s impact has been widely hailed a success but it has been made fragile by growing tensions with Ankara.
EU politicians and policy makers have repeatedly declared they are ‘at war’ with the smugglers and that they intend to ‘break the smugglers business model’. The evidence from a research suggests that smuggling is driven, rather than broken, by EU policy.
Turkey’s role in reducing refugee crisis
The major consequence of refugee crisis in Europe is patch up efforts between EU and Turkey and restart of EU negotiation with Turkey on the latter’s entry into EU as a rich and influential European state. Turkey serves as a transit corridor for refugees from Syria to EU. Another consequence is the Brexit.
The most important transit nation, Turkey in Europe has welcomed 1.59 million refugees while Lebanon brought in 1.15 million. The 2015 surge marked the largest annual flow of asylum seekers to Europe since 1985. By comparison, the second largest came in 1992, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when 697,000 applied for asylum to the nations that make up current EU countries, Norway and Switzerland. Upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, several thousand people also migrated from East to West Germany, but these individuals were not considered asylum seekers because of Germany’s reunification in 1990.
Turkey and the EU signed a deal on working together to stem the flow of migrants and refugees pouring into Europe and to revive membership talks. Recently the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) called on Turkey to return to a peace process amid the escalation of fighting between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in urban areas across the country’s southeast.
Turkey has agreed in principle to an EU refugee action plan, which is expected to be finalized. In return for its help, Turkey has demanded the EU provide three billion Euros ($3.3 billion) a year in funding and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals as well as a resumption of negotiations on its long-stalled application to join the bloc.
The EU’s 28 leaders hosted Turkey for an extraordinary summit to improve ties and help tackle the unrelenting migrant crisis. In November 2015 EU and Turkish officials have met in Brussels for a summit aimed to tackle record influx of migrants into Europe. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and EU representatives signed a special agreement at a summit to discuss the refugees fleeing for Europe. The EU bloc is offering Ankara an aid package and closer ties in return for help in curbing the flow of new arrivals. European countries pledged to provide Ankara with three billion Euros ($3.2 billion), reduced visa restrictions for Turkish visitors to the EU, and other benefits – in exchange for help coping with nearly two million Syrian refugees on its soil. EU has also pledged to renew talks on Turkey’s EU membership.
In return, Turkey said it would crack down on human smugglers and prevent economic migrants from crossing over into Europe. The talks focus on the role of oil exports in financing the self-styled “Islamic State” (ISIS), after Russia accused Ankara of enabling the ISIS to smuggle oil.
Turkey’s long-stalled EU ambitions have been boosted by Europe’s desperation on issues like refugees. For the 1st time in years, Turkey became the largest refugee-hosting country w/ 1.6 million and EU displays sympathy towards Turkey in solving the deadly humanitarian crisis. The EU revived Turkey’s membership bid, in a sign that the migration crisis due to terror wars in Middle East has prompted the bloc to seek closer relations with its neighbours.
In fact, Europe’s need for help slowing down the wave of people seeking refuge in the EU revived the appetite for accession talks with Muslim-majority Turkey. The EU promised €3 billion for the more than 2 million refugees living in Turkey and to end the visa requirement for Turkish visitors to the passport-free Schengen zone.
Turkey first sought EU membership in 1987 but its bid has made poor progress, with issues such as fundamental freedoms and the future of Cyprus proving to be major obstacles. Disagreements over Turkey’s rights’ record, its democratic credentials, and especially its troubled ties with EU-member Cyprus are among the major impediments to EU accession. Turkey’s EU membership talks started in 2005. Since then, the process has all but stopped. Crisis in Kurdish towns in southeastern region of Turkey as well as human rights violations by Turkish government is an issue EU talks with Turkey as a part accession process.
Owing to Cyprus, the EU decided in 2006 to suspend negotiations with Ankara on key themes like the free movement of goods, freedom to provide services, customs and external relations. Turkey may not become an EU member any time soon, and its full membership still faces resistance from major European nations like France and Germany.
The Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D) group and other officials have urged Turkish authorities to restart the stalled peace process. Turkey, however, resents EUs constant interference in Turkey’s internal affairs in order to block its entry into EU. Earlier, EU was critical of Turkish atrocities in Kurdistan region but now it seems to have changed its position now by criticizing for the first time the “terrorists” as well in Turkey, thereby strengthening Turkey’s bid EU membership.
The EU and Turkey would start working together to open five to six more chapters in 2016. Although the process of resumption of accession talks between EU and Turkey is certainly a positive move, whether or not it is a mere tactical move by EU to solve the European refugee crisis alone by using Turkey or indeed it is a genuinely accession move as well, remains to be seen.
The Commission supports refugees in Turkey who have fled violence in both Syria and Iraq, with particular emphasis on vulnerable people living outside of camps. Since the beginning of the Syria crisis in 2011, the Commission has provided a total assistance of €455 million in Turkey, including humanitarian aid and longer-term assistance.
Combating refugee crisis by humanitarian aid
The EU has taken a comprehensive approach to tackle the refugee crisis in Europe with its European Agenda for Migration, drawing on the various tools and instruments available at the EU level and in the Member States.
Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the European Commission has provided humanitarian aid amounting to over €22.5 million to the Western Balkans, notably to Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Aid is channeled via humanitarian partner organisations to the most vulnerable people, and consists of emergency assistance like food, water, hygiene, non-food items, health, basic protection, etc, distributed at transit points such as borders and registration facilities.
In November 2015, the EU set up the Refugee Facility for Turkey. EU institutions and Member States committed to funding up to €3 billion to be coordinated via the Facility. Over €240 million worth of projects have already been released to date. In April 2016, the European Commission announced an initial €83 million worth of humanitarian funding for emergency support projects to assist refugees in Greece. The projects address the most urgent humanitarian needs of some 50 000 refugees and migrants currently hosted in over 30 sites in Greece.
The emergency support funding is made available to EU Member States whose own response capacities are overwhelmed by urgent and exceptional circumstances, such as the sudden influx of refugees. The assistance is provided in close coordination with the countries concerned, as well as the Commission humanitarian partner organisations such as UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and international organisations. This funding can be used for the provision of basic necessities such as food, shelter and medicine.
The EU, together with its Member States, is a leading donor of humanitarian aid in all the major countries and regions, from where refugees currently arriving to the EU originate. This includes Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. In 2015, the European Commission provided over 72% of its annual humanitarian aid budget (over €1 billion) to projects helping refugees and internally displaced persons.
The Commission has stepped up its resources targeted to refugees and internally displaced persons by €200 million for 2015 and €300 million for 2016. At the donors’ conference in London in early February 2016, the EU and its Member States pledged further €3 billion to assist the Syrian people inside Syria as well as refugees and the communities hosting them in the neighbouring countries.
This type of aid helps people caught up in or fleeing man-made or natural disasters, wherever they are. The EU’s humanitarian assistance goes directly to people in distress, irrespective of their nationality, religion, gender, ethnic origin or political affiliation.
In Libya, the Commission has contributed more than €8 million in humanitarian aid since mid-2014, supporting internally displaced people and other vulnerable groups with the provision of protection, health care, cash support, psycho-social assistance, as well as non-food and hygiene items.
The UK has committed more than £2.3 billion to help displaced people in Syria and neighbouring countries and almost £65 million to support humanitarian assistance within Europe. The Royal Navy also started training the Libyan coastguard in October as part of the EU’s Operation Sophia, which sees boats patrolling the Mediterranean tracking smugglers and performing rescues. “They provide financial and practical support in conflict regions, working upstream to stop the most vulnerable making perilous journeys and providing protection to those who need it.”
UK claims they have made an historic £33.5m investment in modern slavery from our aid budget focused on high-risk countries, “where we know victims are regularly trafficked to the UK”.
EU humanitarian aid does not address the root causes of displacement and migration, such as conflict, human rights abuses, economic poverty or climate change.