2015 and 2016: The international refugee crisis and the failure of Europe

IzmirIt’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, and you’re in a car with three aid workers and a driver, heading from Izmir to buy blankets from a town three hours’ drive away. It’s freezing. Literally. There is snow in the air, and ice on the wind. In Izmir itself, a city not known for cold weather, people have stepped out of their apartment blocks, offices or cafes, stopped, stared and shrugged at the snow, buttoning coats faster and higher, tightening scarves and walking headlong into the wind.

As we travel further inland, on a road lined by mountains, brutalist factories, statues of Ataturk, grimly – and strangely – staring at the ground beneath him; and at one point a vast corrugated iron warehouse which appears to be filled with cake, the snow gets heavier.

You and your partner were supposed to be doing New Year’s Eve things, though in all honesty it’s never been too clear what those things actually are (lazing around in bed? Lining one’s stomach? Inventing industrial-strength cocktails which will probably not be served wherever you go?).

But last night, sipping drinks at the table of a bar you’d ducked into to escape the bitter wind (last night’s temperatures were much lower than this morning’s), and discussing the fact that in Izmir and many other smaller towns and cities at the farthest eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, thousands of Syrian (and other) refugees are ‘living’ in cellars, or rooms without heating, glass in their windows, and in some cases even all four of their walls, you came up with a new plan: people are freezing – buy blankets.

It’s not a perfect plan. The perfect plan would be for a lasting peace in Syria and everywhere else; a good second option would be finding safe places in Europe as well as Turkey and other states for people chased from their homes by war, terror, hunger or oppression.

But neither of those options are being seriously worked on by anyone, anywhere, and in their absence, you must deal with the immediate problems if you can. A combination of circumstances have conspired to give you a rare opportunity, and so your journey begins…

… There are 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey at the moment.

Eighty-thousand are registered in Izmir, but the estimates suggest that anything from 20,000 to 220,000 more people are in the city unregistered. There could be as many as 300,000 Syrian refugees hiding, waiting in accommodation so poor it really doesn’t deserve the name, and literally risking their lives on land, for the chance to risk their lives at sea.

And Izmir is not alone. Not only in terms of sheer numbers of desperate people, but in the fact that – in common with every place to which Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Eritrean, Somalian and other people have fled – when even the most simple of questions to answer is asked, ‘how many people are here and need help?’ the answer is always the worst possible: no-one knows.

As it’s New Year, the tradition is to look back at what has happened, and ahead to what might be. So we should perhaps expand our view from Izmir in late December to take in Europe and the Western Middle East through the last 12 months.

It is not a pretty, or reassuring sight.

A war in Syria – which has been raging for almost five years and is a multi-sided conflict in which even if any single group ‘won’, millions of Syrians could justly fear for their lives in the resultant ‘peace’ – has intensified, rather than edged towards an end.

Simultaneously, in Libya, a four-sided civil war is now in its twentieth month, wrecking and ending lives. And the Libyan chaos is also impacting on the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict, terror, oppression, starvation and shortage in sub-Saharan Africa. For them, Libya was once a destination, or at least a place they could stay for a while, to gather their wits, their family members and what few possessions they could lay their hands on, and decide where to go from there.

Now, it is a place to pass through as fast as is humanly possible, to get into boats which are likely unsafe, and flee a second place – for who in their right mind would run from war and terror to settle in a country at war, and existing in a permanent state of terror?

And so, instead, people have come to Europe.

Europe is the world’s single richest continent, and a place where, for reasons of conquest, empire and indeed outright theft, many of the languages spoken across the world (particularly French and English, for the purposes of this analysis, but of course Spanish and Portuguese also) originated.

It would be foolish to deny that these two factors (one which means whatever some people might suggest, Europe CAN afford to give shelter to refugees, the other which means those people are extremely likely to be able to contribute to their new, temporary homelands) have played a part in what happened in 2015.

But it would also be a denial of the major – overwhelmingly the largest – factor at play: people have not run TO Europe, they have run FROM death, terror, oppression and torture. They have not woken one morning, looked out on the country they grew up in, where they went to school, worked, have friends, family, and where they belong and thought ‘I want to work in Starbucks in Chesham’.

They have been forced from their homes, smashed out of the places where they lived and loved, and forced to run, and keep running until they are somewhere they can live and breathe freely once more.

Europe is the single most obvious place – even if it were not so rich (of course, that is not to say everyone living in Europe is rich – the extraordinary and vicious economic system under which we now live means that is certainly not the case, but that is a topic for another day. Possibly under the title ‘where the hell is all our money?’) – because it’s quite clear that if you run North or West from war, starvation and death, you will likely end up in a landmass north and west of you, where there is no war, terror and there is enough food.

The problem is, no-one, even in the world’s richest continent, actually knows exactly how many people have made the journey this year.

On 23rd December, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced that the total number of people to have entered the EU by crossing the Mediterranean since 1st January 2015 had hit one million.

Six days later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made exactly the same announcement, only it claimed the millionth person (and in fact 537 more) had entered the EU just the day before, 28th December.

A difference of less than a week is not impossible to understand, but the international refugee crisis is the single largest crisis of modern times and the European Union the world’s single richest and closest-organised political bloc.

This is a matter of life and death, and at its heart is the best-equipped region of the planet to deal with it, yet even on an issue as vital as this, the best of what we are cannot even ascertain how many people have reached it in need of aid and assistance.

UNHCR’s figures suggest that in 2015, 1,000,573 people have crossed the Mediterranean to enter the EU.

It states that 844,176 of those landed at Greece, 152,700 at Italy. 3952 in Spain and 105 at Malta, and adds that 84 per cent of them came from the world’s top ten refugee-producing nations (a point forced to be repeated over and over again by completely fact-free claims by right-wing politicians and campaigners that people are risking their lives and families simply to ‘steal cash’ from Europeans: they are not).

It also notes that 80 per cent of those who have made the crossing (49 per cent from Syria, 21 per cent from Afghanistan, eight per cent from Iraq, two per cent from Pakistan), originated at points east of Europe, entering via Greek coasts, via Turkey (the remaining 20 per cent came from sub-Saharan Africa, through Libya. The largest number of them are Eritreans, then Somalis).

With the exception of the ‘landmark’ one million figure, not very much of this is new. The problem is, neither is the discrepancy between the figures being announced by different – all equally committed, dedicated and capable – agencies.

Both UNHCR and IOM – whose roles are not, we should remember, to be the overall headcounters in the international refugee crisis, but are instead to save lives all over the world – have taken their figures not from the EU itself, but from individual European states.

And this makes even those figures unreliable, for the following reasons. First, because the EU’s own border patrol organisation, Frontex, only really began to make any real effort to count the number of people relatively late in 2015 (late August), well after it was clear that the number of people fleeing to reach the EU was far higher than in previous years*.

*In January, slightly more than 2,000 more people made the Mediterranean crossing than had done so in the same month of 2014. In August, almost 100,000 more had done so, increasing to 132,000 more in September and 198,000 more in October 2015 than in October 2014. The complete figures according to UNHCR are:

January 2014; 3,270 people – January 2015; 5,550.

February 2014; 4,369 people – February 2015; 7,271.

March 2014; 7,283 people – March 2015; 10,424.

April 2014; 17,084 people – April 2015; 29,864.

May 2014; 16,627 people – May 2015; 39,562.

June 2014; 26,221 people – June 2015; 54,588.

July 2014; 28,303 people – July 2015; 78,433.

August 2014; 33,478 people – August 2015; 130,839.

September 2014; 33,994 people – September 2015; 163,511.

October 2014; 23,050 people – October 2015; 221,374.

November 2014; 13,318 people – November 2015; 154,467

December 2014; 9,107 people – December 2015; 104,690.

Lists of figures can be rather daunting and slightly wearing. I would only point out that these are people, and that there are 582 million people in the EU – the world’s richest single political bloc. Even at the highest estimate, the refugees who have entered the EU this year constitute just 0.00171 per cent of the entire population of the EU.

It is also worth remembering that in March 2015, the Syrian Civil War entered its fifth year – a significant and potentially dispiriting anniversary. Give a month for the crossing of Turkey and finding a boat, and we see in April the first ‘leap’ (rather than ‘large step up’) in numbers – from slightly more than 3,000 more crossings between March 2014 and the same month in 2015, to nearly 13,000 more in April 2015 than April 2014.

In October 2014, numbers fell from the previous month’s total. In October 2015, they were massively higher: almost 60,000 more people crossed in October than September. October 2015 was the first full month of Russian bombing of Syrian positions. This appears to be concrete statistical evidence that Russia’s activity is worsening the Syrian conflict and international crisis – another reason why it should desist immediately.

Frontex’ own analysis of the figures it was taking was, in the main, suspect at best.

Image sourced from Wikipedia: (figures based on Frontex analysis)

By 13 October, just days after announcing 710,000 people had entered the EU via the Mediterranean between January and September 2015 (some 190,000 more than UNHCR’s estimate), it admitted it had been ‘double-counting’ refugees: that is, every time a person left the EU – but remained in Europe – and then re-entered, they would be counted as a new entry (there is, I suppose, something mildly positive that it was so up-front about this so quickly).

What that meant was that if a person arrived in Greece, but then travelled through the Balkans to Hungary, they were being counted as if they were two different ‘entrants’. It meant that a potentially huge number of people were simply counted twice.

UNHCR and IOM are not using the official Frontex figure to calculate the number of desperate people who have entered the EU. They consult individual states directly, compiling data from what is shared by them.

But Frontex’ wild estimates contaminate those numbers, too. Because the EU, in its desperate, late scramble to address the crisis, used at first Frontex’ numbers to distribute money and resources to states – particularly Italy and Greece – where refugees are landing. The higher those numbers are, the more the EU provided.

This is not to criticise Greece or Italy. Both states have worked extremely hard to provide for the hundreds of thousands of desperate people who have arrived on their shores, and along with Germany, Sweden and Austria, (and definitely unlike Hungary, the UK and Spain) deserve great credit for their response.

And of course, the EU’s contributions to those states are set at the lowest level the EU believes they might need to provide assistance (food, shelter, medicine as a first step, but later on also education, housing and other services) to desperate people – a lower amount than many working within Greece and Italy believe is necessary to do so.

But the fact is that if two numbers exist, it is simple common-sense for both to lean towards the higher, because that is the number which results in greater contributions from the EU, and greater likelihood that both will meet the vast challenge they face, and deliver the assistance people need and deserve.

So even when considering the IOM and UNHCR’s lower (than Frontex’) estimates, one has to conclude that the EU’s own figures have corrupted the data, and significantly compromised our chance of addressing the issue as it actually exists.

And this failure is important. As noted above, neither IOM nor UNHCR should have to devote their time and energy to counting refugees. The numbers should be provided to each so they can focus on giving aid and assistance to people who need it, safe in the knowledge that they have been provided the correct data on which to base their response.

The EU, as the world’s richest political bloc, and the ‘owner’ of the border these desperate people have been forced to cross, should possess and share that data. Its failure to do so is a dereliction of one of its basic duties.

It is also important because the EU could have done so much more.

When we talk about ‘solutions’ to the international refugee crisis, we are actually talking about many different things.

At the crisis’ centre are war and shortage. If we actually wished to ‘solve’ it, we would need not only to end each war currently taking place across the world, we would also need to address their causes, and the fact that we currently live in a world where because one per cent of the global population holds well over half the world’s wealth, literally billions of people are at risk of death by starvation or preventable disease due to intense poverty.

In fact, the latter two are closely connected (because virtually all wars have at their heart either the hope to gain more material wealth, or to hold on to what is already in a person or group’s possession – often, both) and as the EU is one of the few centres of global wealth concentration it could, along with the US, Canada, China, Japan and a few others, actually solve both if it were so inclined.

That it has not, is unfortunately an indication that it simply does not wish to.

The ‘solutions’ to the Syrian and Libyan civil wars are discussed at length elsewhere on this site, and in the case of Libya, also my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis. But it is clear than all conflicts are difficult to unpick and solve, and we must accept that people’s immediate needs must be met while we do that.

Because as well as working to ‘solve’ the crisis by improving people’s lives so they do not have to become refugees, we can and must also deal with the ‘crisis’ element itself. Here, too, the EU can succeed, and here, too, its failure is an indictment, either of its willingness to act, or to its organisational skill.

The ‘crisis’ is caused by three major elements. First, the fact that people are literally dying in the attempt to make the crossing from Turkey or North Africa to the EU.

UNHCR’s estimate is that 3,753 people had drowned from 1st January to 29th December 2015, dying on the world’s calmest large stretch of water, in a sea which is shared as a holiday destination by Europeans, Africans and people from the Middle East alike.

It’s a figure which should bring shame on the human race – and in all likelihood, given that we simply do not know how many people are attempting to make the crossing, it is almost certainly far, far lower than the true, grim, Mediterranean death-count in 2015.

And it was completely avoidable. The EU has every capacity – financial, spatial and organisational – to have met this challenge head-on, tackled its central issues, and diffused it.

Not only would this have saved lives and provided desperate men, women and children with safety and security, it would also have directly benefitted the EU itself; at the very least by preventing the ludicrous chaos that ensued instead throughout 2015.

The EU’s two major failings came in the area in which it is almost uniquely able to have acted: centralised planning and organisation.

In the face of an almost unprecedented – and undeniably illegal – movement of people desperate to escape violence, poverty, terror, starvation and death, the EU should have automatically centralised its response.

The first advantage of doing so would have been that it could have legalised the crossing process itself.

This would have enabled it – at a stroke – to have regulated the system, ensuring that no-one would have had to lose their lives making unsafe sea crossings on packed boats owned and operated by self-interested privateers, and also that the systematic exploitation and mistreatment of desperate men, women and children by those same boat owners could have been entirely wiped out.

It is no exaggeration to state that the EU’s failure to take even this step led to the killing of almost 4,000 people, and prolonged the misery of at least one million more (including, of course, those who have been left to grieve the loss of a husband, wife, brother, sister, son or daughter – often more than one of the above).

Once again, it is a shameful indictment.

The common counter-argument is, of course, that if the crossing were ‘easier’, it might ‘encourage’ more people to come. At best, this argument is always conjecture – no-one suggesting it has ever produced any statistical evidence that others have been ‘put off’ by how hard it might be to get to the EU.

But in the current situation, it is particularly nonsensical. Even given the widespread disparity over numbers, we can be certain that somewhere in the region of one million people have entered the EU as refugees in 2015.

They have not left their homes by choice, but rather been forced from them. And to reach Europe, many have made dangerous land voyages, through deserts, mountains, at the mercy of cold, hunger and exploitation. All have made a dangerous sea crossing. That is, people are already coming. The difficulty of reaching the EU has not stopped them. There is literally no benefit to claiming otherwise.

What the EU did instead was to threaten – and attempt – to crack down legally on the process, by arresting boat owners, and handing cash to other, often oppressive, states (including Eritrea, which practices unlimited conscription and torture) so they can arrest people within their own borders.

But this policy – based as it was on several misunderstandings, including that boat owners were forcing people onto boats and that state police and a policy of government crackdowns were a benevolent part of the solution, rather than a central part of the problem – not only failed, but in fact made things far worse.

Because in response to the heightened risk of arrest, boat owners did not stop charging desperate people vast sums of money for places on overfilled, unsafe vessels, they just did so more covertly; making it even harder to attempt to improve safety.

And facing the same increased risks, desperate people did not stop fleeing the looming threat of death, they simply became even less likely to attempt to use proper legal channels, such as applying for legal refugee status or contacting UNHCR for shelter and support. Their lives became more dangerous, not less, because of the EU’s approach, and made it harder even for humanitarian actors to help them, and help reduce the international crisis.

As if it were not enough that the EU’s mistakes caused thousands to die, and made hundreds of thousands more lives considerably worse even than they had been before, they also made things worse in the EU itself.

Its policy of arrest actually caused more, not fewer, people to cross to the EU, by preventing some from seeking help, and meant that rather than a regulated, centralised process under which applicants for refugee status could be sensibly evaluated, and transported in safety and at set intervals, arriving to decent places to live and with opportunities to learn and work, it presided instead over a chaotic rush to the continent, where those who made it entered under-resourced states without the capacity or cash to deal with the situation alone.

The second factor is extremely closely-related. Because the EU failed to meet its responsibilities to centralise and organise a response, it instead handed individual states a job none could handle alone – deal with one million or so new entrants to the region.

Some states have done better than others. Greece, Germany, Sweden and to a certain extent Italy and Austria deserve credit and recognition for their efforts.

But others have been far worse. Hungary and the UK have both built walls and actively attacked men, women and children (the UK with armed police and dogs, Hungary using tear-gas and rubber bullets), while Spain has forced people back to North Africa under a system some allege breaks international law by disregarding evidence presented that supports applicants’ rights to refugee status.

And the result has been that in thousands of cases, people have simply disappeared, terrified that having escaped death at the hands of warlords, armed forces and terror groups, then escaped death at sea, they will be shot at, beaten and sent home to face the bullets, bombs, missiles and terror all over again.

At The Jungle, Calais, for example, there may be 6,000 people. It is perfectly possible that there are many more, but we cannot know because no system is in place to enable us to be sure, and the French and UK governments have simply ignored the entire camp.

We are now in a position in which even if we know roughly how many people are in the European Union, (and we do not know exactly why, for the reasons of resource and support already noted), we have almost no idea where a fairly large proportion of those people actually are within the Union.

It’s not only a massive, unacceptable failure which threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of desperate people. It is also a debacle which could reduce living standards in a way a simple assimilation programme never could, because it risks driving hundreds of thousands of people into black market labour, depressing wages and in some cases pushing normal people into violent and other forms of crime. Every time this happens, while we must not forget that people are responsible for their own actions, it can and should also be regarded as a failure of the EU

This is the story of 2015. It is a story of failure on a grand scale.

Of EU failure to do any of the things it can and should have done, of its failure to live up to or even acknowledge its responsibilities, of its failure to control its very worst members (Hungary, the UK and Spain) or properly assist its best (Germany, Sweden and Greece), and of its failure to rise to the single most important challenge it has ever faced.

But towards the end of the journey back from the blanket buying journey, during a conversation about exactly these failures, you realise that this is also cause for hope.

Because the EU has failed. Unutterably, inexcusably, and unavoidably.

But it has failed because it didn’t even try, which means it can easily still succeed.

It can succeed by centralising its assessment and transport process, so no-one has to risk their lives at sea, and can be guaranteed a safe place to stay while they await the outcome. By centralising its asylum-granting process, it can assure no state risks being ‘overwhelmed’ by human beings attempting to find somewhere safe to stay, and ensure there are homes, work and services to help those people contribute.

It can remember that even if one million people have entered the EU, that is still just 0.00171 per cent of the Union’s total population, and that the Union is the world’s single richest political bloc.

2015 was a story of failure for the EU, which was bad for men, women and children within its borders and outside of them. But it can – and must – do better.

Now would be an excellent time to start.

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