Migrants stuck at the Greek-Macedonian border. Demotix/Tasos Markou. All rights reserved.With the closure of the Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and Macedonian borders to all migrants who are not of Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan nationality, the international community has sent out a strong signal. Any migrant who is not from one out of three nationalities and attempts to travel via the Western Balkan route to the EU is not welcome.
The distinction which Slovenia and the other countries sought to draw quite crudely was between “refugees”, desirable because they're deserving, and so-called “economic migrants”, un-deserving because they're greedy and opportunistic.
The reality, of course, is often much more complex than that, as illustrated by many accounts of individuals I met on their journey to Europe.
A wealthy and educated Syrian, whose journey from Aleppo to Munich can take as little as eight days, who takes relatively comfortable means of transport, who pays a little something here and there for a quicker handling of his registration papers, who takes advantage of his advanced language skills to strike out little extras that make the journey more bearable (the occasional blanket, extra food etc.), the Syrian who pays several hundred Euros for a private taxi across Austria is entitled to international protection.
On the other side, the Pakistani who may have travelled for months to reach Europe, who may have been detained as many as four times in Iran, every time imprisoned, every time paid ransom, every time deported back home, dropped somewhere in the steppe, only to start again. The Pakistani who may be kidnapped along the Iranian Turkish border, who arrives in Turkey and is not welcome, who stays there to get together his money for the onward journey, to reach Greece on a boat which is even worse than many others, only to arrive and be told:
You do not qualify for international protection.
You are not welcome.
The raison d’être for the distinction between “refugee” and “economic migrant”, at least in international refugee law, lies in determining an individual’s asylum claim, their rights and entitlements in the destination country. However - and this is often overlooked in this discussion - there are international protection mechanisms available to individuals, whose reasons for flight do not fit the narrow definition outlined in the Refugee Convention of 1951.
So-called “subsidiary protection” is available to individuals who have been subject to particular violence during their migratory journey and entitles them to at least temporary stay. As such, it is to the legal system of the destination country to determine the merits of any claim for international protection, not to a neighbouring country to reject a whole range of nationalities pre-emptively.
People who have gone through so much to leave their lives behind, be it in Syria or in Pakistan, are unlikely to be willing to return. Whilst Greece is part of the EU, most migrants do not believe that the country will be able offer them the better life opportunities they made the journey for. As such, the aim is and remains to move on, towards Central and Northern Europe.
Instead of pushing people back, the present policy then puts already vulnerable individuals in a potentially even more vulnerable situation, as tragically showcased at the Greek-Macedonian border right now.
Several thousand migrants are currently stuck in Idomeni in Greece and few are taking on the offer to be driven back to Athens. Instead, tensions between the differently profiled nationalities are running high, people walk kilometres trying to find a hidden way through the newly erected fence, rumours of smugglers are shared, demonstrations become increasingly violent. The police clash with people who are stranded in a makeshift transit camp for now over two weeks, in a place where they cannot stay but are also not allowed to move on from.
All humanitarian actors, including UNHCR and MSF, have reportedly left the camp today because of safety reasons. The place, it seems, is not safe, not even for trained humanitarian protection professionals. But the migrants are still there, currently 5000 of them.
I wish I did not feel the need to write an article on why all migrants matter. As things stand now, however, solutions are needed and understanding that categories do not help us to understand the vulnerability of any given person is the first step in the right direction.