This isn't a refugee crisis, it's a policy crisis

This isn't a refugee crisis, it's a policy crisis
Comment: Europe has completely mismanaged its relative 'migration crisis', and created an actual crisis in its wake, writes Sophia Akram
7 min read
11 Nov, 2016
The total number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea this year is around 4,220 [Andalou]

It's been two weeks since the notorious refugee camp in Calais was cleared.

Thousands residing there hoping to make it to the UK, were bussed to alternative centres throughout France. But far from the safe and more stable accommodation authorities claimed this would provide them, many have gone into hiding and others have taken to the streets.

One week later news emerged of more drownings off the Libyan coast making the total number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea this year around 4,220, a number that has been steadily increasing.

These passing news reports are brief highlights of a continuing "crisis" - so-labelled two years ago. But if the unprecedented flow of migration to Europe was seen as a crisis then, what do we call the humanitarian fall-out and needless death that has followed?

The hard truth is that Europe has completely mismanaged its relative crisis, and created an actual crisis in its wake.

A broken asylum system

At the foundation, fault lines emerge from EU's asylum policy, which has struggled to manage asylum seekers effectively at the best of times. Arrival numbers in some parts of Europe has increased four-fold in some areas compared with the previous year. It's no surprise then, that this exponential growth in migration is straining immigration resources even further.

The EU's Common European Asylum System (CEAS) was designed as a baseline of practice to serve refugee rights in uniformity through the bloc. But in reality, member states have differed in their approach to asylum procedures, so the system is inconsistent and unharmonised.

At the core of the system is the provision for an EU member state to send an asylum seeker back to the first EU country they entered, with the exception for family reunification, as long as it is considered a safe country and it upholds the rights of asylum seekers.

Family reunification often dismisses the culture of joint family structures

But those seeking refuge in a specific country, often have very valid reasons to do so and have found no remedy in these procedures. Family reunification often dismisses the culture of joint family structures. Aunts and uncles can provide vital support networks, particularly for a child or young person who has already experienced multiple levels of hardship or even trauma.

Language motivates many to seek certain countries, where it is easier to find work and settle where you speak the language. But some states have already eroded the trust that exists between them, and those seeking refuge. Met with violence and intimidation, the propensity to stay in countries that exercise these measures is unsurprisingly, weak.

However, at the root of why these policies fail is quite simply the political will to appease concerns over immigration. Uncompromising positions and controversial policies are somehow easily swallowed by Europe's native base. Policies such as the immigration swap between Greece and Turkey therefore raised few questions on the right of the political aisle. But as a consequence, many are left languishing in open air detention centres, in limbo.

A counter-productive war on smugglers

Recent weeks have seen increasin numbers of deaths at sea. And although dangerous boat journeys for the purposes of migration are not new, the rate at which these shipwricks are occurring is breaking new ground each year.

Unfortunately, the bloc's leaders called it wrong again. One report that looked at the cause of deaths in the Mediterranean, went as far as to say that EU policies were boosting the crisis, rather than concentrating on the real drivers of migration - conflict.

The anti-immigrant sentiment rages on despite the empirical evidence

Failing to do so meant they had missed the fact that migration is not a linear pattern across the Mediterranean. Counter-smuggling efforts had therefore, been counter-productive.

Coupled with the fact that fewer safe and legal methods to cross the seas existed, European navies were also destroying the fishing vessels the smugglers use. And smugglers are simply taking greater risks. Flimsy rubber dinghies that are greater risk of capsising are used in longer and more fraught journeys.

Fully aware of what lies ahead, smugglers transfer the risks onto the inexperienced passengers, forcing them to navigate the boats themselves.


In April 2015, the Mare Nostrum Search and Rescue (SAR) operation that operated between Libya and Italy was replaced by Operation Triton, run by Frontex.

Saving lives was considered a pull factor for migrants, so rescue operations were deterred and replaced instead with Triton. This came with a series of policies that meant more lives would be lost. This wasn't just the reluctance to rescue overcrowded boats in the middle of the ocean but also actual rescue attempts, which placed lives in danger and caused fatalities.

'The European Union's actions will one day be judged as a crime against humanity.' - Italian MEP, Barbara Spinelli

This is because Triton's aim was to protect the Schengen zone through border control, not to attend to stranded boats or drowning passengers. The burden of rescue was thus transferred to commercial vessels that offered humanitarian assistance, but it also led to several shipwrecks and more deaths as they were ill-equipped to deal with the situations.

This shift in mission left boats and migrants without a lifeline, as smuggling missions became increasingly reckless while they attempted to avoid getting caught near the shores.

Even Frontex foresaw this inevitability and they stated this in their own concept document.

Local protocols and militarisation

This fortification of borders has also meant that local protocols have become more militarised. The perception that we can criminalise irregular migration somehow makes heightened measures and brutal tactics justifiable.

In Calais, residents were accustomed to face offs with police armed with teargas, in Bulgaria migrants are met with attack dogs and beatings and in Greece, shootings of undocumented migrants has been deemed a result of the standard rule of engagement of Frontex.

Volunteers trying to aid the situation through life-saving skills are thus also at risk of harm. Something as simple as providing lifejackets or sailing out to rescue a stranded boat and its passengers can be misconstrued as an act of smuggling.

Doing the right thing

As Europe closes itself off from what is seen as a crisis, at what point will someone with any power ask whether we are doing the right thing?

€17bn has been spent on deterring migrants from Europe, but they still arrive in European countries and claim asylum. The only impact of the EU spending is that migrants are using increasingly dangerous methods to get to Europe, and so many may die before they reach their destination.

The impact on the bloc's resources was grossly overstated but billions of dollars more spending was apparently warranted at 10 different borders across Europe. In addition to costs, these border measures have wider impacts and the cost to the economy as a whole has been the subject of various studies.

Tourism, transport costs, labour, trade and investment will all take a hit. That's not to mention the increased aid we're paying to countries to take asylum seekers, instead of us.

Even if these efforts were not completely futile given the overall increase in numbers, there is still the misconception that migration hurts us. But studies such as that conducted by UCL, show immigration actually makes a positive contribution to our society. And this could be a much needed injection when you take from the same study that native born residents of the UK at least, have an overall negative effect on our own economy.

But the anti-immigrant sentiment rages on despite the empirical evidence. And it does nothing to change the fact that the consequences are damning.

Barbara Spinelli, an Italian MEP once said of the situation the Mediterranean:

"The European Union's actions will one day be judged as a crime against humanity".

The question is how much humanity will be wasted until then.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.