Apr 20 2016

The myths that are preventing us from solving the refugee crisis

By Zoe Gardner

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.

The preventable deaths of another 400 people in the Mediterranean on Monday morning must be a wake-­up call. The British and European approach to the migrant and refugee humanitarian crisis simply isn’t working.

For all of the outcry we’ve seen in the past six months over the plight of refugees desperately attempting to cross to Europe, for all of the high-­level summits and meetings between European leaders, and for all of the billions that have been thrown into border control operations, no credible solution has yet been found to prevent the ongoing tragic deaths at sea.

In a smaller version of what is going on in the Mediterranean, we in the UK regularly hear horrific reports of the corpses of migrants and refugees being discovered frozen in refrigerated trucks or suffocated in lorries in Kent. Human beings who may have survived an initial Mediterranean crossing, dying in their attempts to cross to England from their squalid camps in Calais.

So why have the attempted solutions – expensive and politically wrought border control agreements, aimed at saving human lives by preventing and discouraging these dangerous journeys – so comprehensively failed?

Because they are based on several fundamental myths and failures of logic. Let’s go through them one by one.

Myth one: “The smugglers are to blame”

Smugglers are the symptom, rather than the cause of the refugee crisis. As long as borders are closed and people are desperate to leave, there will always be a lucrative business model for human smuggling. Rather than reduce this trade, our efforts to curb smuggling thus far have almost certainly only empowered smugglers, and made them richer. History has shown that when we crack down on one popular smuggling route, smugglers, who move flexibly and without the constraints of bureaucracy, simply start using alternative, often more dangerous routes. It used to be that refugees crossed the land border from Turkey to Greece. The Greeks built a fence along that border and increased surveillance at vast expense. Since then the route has merely shifted to the Mediterranean, with the resulting increase in deaths.

With our new focus on preventing refugee journeys from Turkey to the islands, the likelihood is that activity will shift again to the yet more dangerous central Mediterranean route. The only way to put smugglers out of business, and prevent further deaths, is to provide alternative routes for their clients.

Myth two: “The pull­ factor”

There has been lots of discussion about the ‘pull ­factors’ for refugees. But in reality the only pull factor that exists is the fact that Europe is a relatively rich, stable, safe and peaceful region. Human beings in Europe are protected from torture and war, guaranteed basic human rights and have recourse to independent courts if those rights are denied.

The only way to eliminate these “pull­ factors” would be to deliberately worsen conditions for all European citizens. This would be absurd.  Instead we should concentrate on the ‘push factors’. Look at asylum seekers’ countries of origin and they follow a predictable pattern: where there is war, brutal repression and large scale human rights abuses with impunity, people will inevitably flee.

Currently, Syrians make up the largest group of asylum seekers in Europe. In the UK, Eritrea, Iran and Sudan are also key countries of origin. People from these countries are pushed to seek protection abroad because their lives and freedoms are at serious risk where they live. It is absurd to suggest that someone at risk of arbitrary incarceration and torture would stay put if only we cut asylum seeker benefits.

Some have claimed that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean are a pull­ factor. However, a study published this week by Goldsmiths University shows that the scaling­ back of search and rescue operations since November 2014 has not decreased the number of attempted crossings, while the death ­toll has significantly increased.

You do not cross a busy road because you know there is an ambulance service to help you if you’re hit by a car, you cross the road because you need to get to the other side.

Myth three: “We can keep refugees away by funding camps in the region”

Over 85% of people who flee their country because of war or repression worldwide are hosted in developing countries. The vast majority of people do stay in camps in the region close to where they are displaced, only a small minority make onward journeys and come to the borders of Europe to seek protection and new lives here. So funding for those people in the region is obviously desperately needed.

However, in many cases, prospects for refugees staying in camps inside developing countries are grim. In Turkey and Lebanon, where millions of Syrian refugees have found shelter, there are huge problems with trafficking, forced marriage, and sexual assault of women and young girls, not to mention the risk of being arbitrarily returned to a war ­zone.

Refugees in these countries do not have legal status, even if they do have a tent. After spending months, or years in one of those camps, many refugees lose hope of returning home, and some will attempt onward journeys. Furthermore refugee journeys are not simple, many sub­-Saharan African refugees found de ­facto safety and employment in Libya until the war there drove them to attempt to cross the Europe. Of course we must support efforts to develop peace, stability and opportunity in the Middle East and Africa, but we cannot realistically pretend that we are providing enough to prevent all onward movement.

Beyond the logical failings of our approach to the refugee crisis, there is the question of what we have not done. For all the billions we have thrown at Turkey to contain refugees, we have not invested even a fraction of that money in decent and humane reception conditions for asylum seekers in Europe.

When Syrian mothers wash new­born infants in muddy puddles in the field where they are camped, it’s clear we have our priorities all wrong.

Our current strategy suggests that we’d rather see toddlers fleeing tear gas and rubber bullets on the Macedonian border than offer to take them in from another European country. If our approach was a genuine attempt to protect human lives, we would not act as though we cannot see the lives that are in ruins on our doorstep. It’s time we looked again at the real solutions to this crisis.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics. It has also appeared on politics.co.uk and is re-posted here with their kind permission.

Zoe Gardner is a communications officer for Asylum Aid. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

The International Politics of the Refugee Crisis

Europe’s Human Rights Crisis


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3 Responses to The myths that are preventing us from solving the refugee crisis

  1. Catherine Briddick says:

    To Zoe’s article I would simply add the following in support:
    – Deterrence policies, such as interception on the high seas and the use of border walls, fences and exclusion zones, do not ‘work’ (in that they do not deter for the reasons that Zoe so eloquently describes) and actually serve to increase the numbers of those who die seeking protection, see http://www.europarl.europa.eu/hearings/20070703/libe/briefing_paper_en.pdf
    – As a matter of law, a person is a refugee (and is entitled to the rights and protections that go with this) when they meet the criteria in Art 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention (they are outside of their country of origin, they are unwilling or unable to available themselves of the protection of their country and they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for a Convention reason (e.g. their race or religion). The granting of refugee status by States merely recognises this. Refugees (whether recognised or not) have rights, including the right not to be returned to a situation where their life or liberty may be at risk. A significant proportion, if not the majority of those seeking protection in Europe at the moment are refugees http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a02d9346.html.
    – The current refugee crisis, or crisis of protection in Europe, will only be solved through voluntary large-scale resettlement, the use of humanitarian visas and collaboration with non-European partners (such as Turkey) to improve conditions for refugees (such as enabling refugees to work and access education).

  2. Roberto Orsi says:

    So far the political effects of this crisis are a growing hostility towards any kind of migration (legal, illegal, for justified or non-justified asylum), the erection of physical barriers (which do work, of course), and the devastation of the political capital of the EU along with the entire European political class. A year ago Mr. Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, was considered a monster, today, most countries are doing precisely what he advocated and did. Is this a coincidence? Not at all. The point is that the ideological position of “total humanitarianism no matter what”, attempted by Italy, Germany, Austria last year, soon runs into severe problems. It is politically and anthropologically simplistic to think that you can transfer masses of millions of people from one place to another without facing some kind of resistance. Humans are not simply interchangeable mechanical pieces. They build unique relations to their history, ancestors, lands. This precedes any form of nationalism. Humans are and remain political beings. Even the refugees soon cease to be refugees, they become political actors. For many, considering the precedents of immigration in the past decades, this is a massive problem for the future of a still recognisable and worth inhabiting Europe. In a few years we have gone from “integrating some immigrants in our societies” to a full-fledged “Europeans will be wiped out and replaced by incalculable masses of migrants with the collapse of any border or rule” (see the famous video produced by the German TV channel ZDF about how great it is that the Germans will be replaced by migrants). Even if the latter position may appear paranoid, the impression is that there has been a huge shift in the manipulation of Europe’s demographic landscape, a shift which does constitute an active policy potentially running against vital strategic interests of the European peoples, a shift which has no democratic majority in any country and occurs in violation of the most elementary constitutional norms, despite all propaganda. It is just normal that such a shift is producing a defensive reaction. And if one looks at the demographic perspectives and the growing chaos in the Middle East, the chances are that walls will rise everywhere. The triumph of multiculturalism or better its hybris, may also be the beginning of its long overdue demise.

  3. Michael Stein says:

    Idiotic article. I’m all for helping people, but what Zoe Gardner advocates is unlimited access and no possibility at all to distinguish between real refugees and economic welfareseekers before they land at the European mainland, during which the latter often ‘mysteriously’ disappear, often helped by the type of organisations ms. Gardner works for.

    Only way to stop the influx and with it the increasing xenophobia, is to make shifts beforehand, remigrate those already here without asylum claimant status to their countries (or suspected countries, if they refuse to cooperate) and set up camps on non-European soil. Together with the ‘Italian plan’ that should effectively disperse those who only seek to profit, and help those who really need help by having a less clogged-up system so their claims can be processed faster and fairer.

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