June, 2014, San Giorgio, Central Mediterranean
“My baby, my baby!” A woman being led up from a dinghy screamed, catching her breath as if she were swallowing water – her agony, an unsettling contrast to the rest of the group filing out of the vessel with remarkable composure. They were shell-shocked.
Throwing quizzical glances at each other, the coastguard staff tried to find a lone child in the boat. We were aboard the Italian military ship San Giorgio, witnessing a rescue at sea, part of Mare Nostrum, the largest ever Search and Rescue (SAR) operation in the European Union.
The rest of the mother’s words poured out in Arabic. “It is no more,” she tried to explain in vain.
“We will find it. Where was it last?” The marine looked around haplessly for the only translator on board, his English layered with an Italian inflection.
“Here,” the woman said, holding on to her swollen belly that was still in a state of shock over the sudden emptying of its womb. She had given birth to a still-born amid 70 other people in a dinghy – without a moment of dignified privacy to mourn the loss.
We were skirting Libyan territory. Malta was visible as a blob. Over those summer and autumn months, the largest recorded number of asylum seekers would arrive by sea to Italy, hovering around 170,000, only to be outpaced the following year. The fleet would be tested to its full capacity.
Few things can make one feel more disingenuous than trying to console a mother stricken over the loss of her child. “At least you survived. It will be okay. Please be patient.” Mere platitudes for an inconsolable parent.
Over the next hours, the transfer of the human crush of 1171 men, women and children from the seas into the basement of the ship followed a rhythmic sequence: a few minutes of silence as the boats entered, followed by frantic cries, and then a quick calm as they queued up to be registered.
Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Gambia, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunis, Sudan – the list was exhaustive.
They had been rescued from ten separate boats, all unseaworthy.
“I don't think I have come across people from the Central African Republic and Kashmir in the same group before,” the Marine jotting down the names and nationalities remarked. He would continue the process, without a break, for the next 12 hours.
Conflict, threats against individual safety, political and religious persecution, general lack of protection, destitution, economic servitude, false promises of work by criminal gangs – a myriad motivations prompted their journeys.
After all those deemed most ‘vulnerable’ were registered, the male refugees were allowed to disembark, a clear majority of this group, faces lined with fatigue and many with the awkward stubble of adolescent years. The men traveling without families would be the last to get help from humanitarian organisations or asylum, but the first to be targeted as a threat to European security.
In the following years, over the course of reporting on the Mediterranean crossings and beyond, I have watched European governments distort the most natural phenomenon, spanning millennia – migration – into an anomalous occurrence. A regressive narrative of the ‘encroaching migrants’ has coloured the discourse in Europe. Generations of Europeans with migrant backgrounds, and newer migrants making their homes on the continent feel tested, while those who came through irregular means are warehoused, their futures held hostage for years on end. All negative experiences related to these communities are amplified by anti-migration politicians and media and seized as exemplary.
A majority of legal migrants in most EU countries have proven year after year to be model citizens yielding tangible returns to the host economies. Refugees, when resettled and given the means to recover, have started contributing in kind. Yet, the evidence is sidelined. European politics have been taken over by a blanket anti-migration rhetoric that deliberately misrepresents both migrants and refugees, portraying the former as job-stealers, and the latter as an unalleviated economic burden.
The following timeline of accounts from my migration coverage since that rescue episode, when the first major Mediterranean crossings surfaced in the media, is an attempt to trace the flash-points of the migration tourniquet that Europe has employed to stymie these human flows. This tourniquet, formed by border closures and deterrence policies, is now unravelling, creating new pressure points.
A day and a half after that rescue in the summer of 2014, the ship docked at the harbour of Taranto in southern Italy, where everyone disembarked, and were put on buses transporting them to reception centres that served as resting stops. Freshened up, they moved on – upwards to Milan – and from there to European countries in the North and the West. Very few would remain in Italy, most of them African nationals who lacked the resources to move on, or felt that they might not be ‘favoured’ elsewhere. Over 80 per cent of those arriving in Italy in 2014 qualified for asylum, according to the UN.
Most arrivals were not stamped by the Italian authorities, so that they could evade deportation back to Italy under the Dublin Agreement. This was Italy’s middle finger to its northern neighbours in Europe for not helping it cope with the increasing numbers of arrivals. The neighbours would respond by closing their borders, and later, with the EU–Turkey deal.
While Italy's Mare Nostrum raised the ire of anti-immigration parties across the continent, Greece silently acquiesced with EU policies, privileging border protection over safe passage.
This was Italy’s middle finger to its northern neighbours in Europe for not helping it cope with the increasing numbers of arrivals.
Greece as the new epicenter
“ Before August 2013, we had arrested 6000 people here. After erecting the fence, by next January it fell to 45”, explained the chief of border patrol. His statistics were meant to prove the effectiveness of the 12-kilometer-long fence.
Fast forward to autumn 2015 – the Greece-Turkey border at the Evros Crossing
When I visited them in autumn 2014, the border police at Evros had their reasons to be proud. They had successfully thwarted “illegal crossings” at that infamous border between Greece and Turkey, a decade-long access point for migration.
But, what my patrol-man conveniently failed to mention was that the fortification that would expand in the coming period, induced a palpable collateral surge.
During the same period, the number of arrivals by sea increased by a startling 450 per cent.
In the absence of options by land, individuals and families started taking to the turbulent waves of the Aegean sea. Although in much smaller numbers, this continues to the time of writing. Malek and his family were a case in point. From a Yezidi minority community in the Kurdish part of Syria, the father, Malek, fled with his wife and three kids, travelling from Damascus to Istanbul with the aim of eventually reaching Greece.
Their options oscillated between being sent back to a refugee camp in Turkey or embarking on the dubious journey. As with most who pay large amounts – often their life savings – they were completely trapped at the mercy of the smuggler. So Malek decided to get on the boat with his family. As he recounted the journey in vivid detail, his eyes lowered with shame over the hysteria to which he had “subjected” them. “I did not realise that I was taking them from one death to another. I could have been responsible for killing the very loved ones who are closest to me.”
That Greek authorities push back migrants was no secret. Speaking with asylum seekers in Athens quickly revealed that it was common practice and one that was increasing with the continuing arrivals. But push-backs, especially at sea, are difficult to corroborate, given that the obligations of individual states are limited to their waters and that the boundaries are difficult to ascertain. Such gross violations at sea continue to this day but without as much scrutiny as in ‘pre-crisis’ years.
Despite the official policy of not turning back anyone in distress at sea or those who have entered Greek territory, Malek claimed the Greek coastguard repeatedly pushed them back to the Turkish coast, sometimes coming menacingly close to the dinghy. Next time, the family tried by land and failed again. After six attempts and relentless persistence, they finally entered Greece by sea.
Like Malek’s family, refugees trying to reach Europe find that the more they try, the harder it becomes to stop trying.
The alarming state of detention centres and prolonged waiting periods for asylum seekers in Greece revealed a deliberate policy of dissuading ‘irregular migrants,’ from coming. This continued until the holding centres could no longer cope with the pace of arrivals.
Stories similar to Malek proliferated over the next season.
Italy halted Mare Nostrum by 2015, while Libya suspended visas to Syrians. The transit country’s terrain became increasingly inhospitable, as the country mired in conflict faced its own displacement crisis. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict also escalated and more refugees fled, desperate to find new routes to Europe.
By the end of 2015, one million migrants and refugees, a majority Syrians, followed by Afghans, entered Europe – collectively billed as the ‘European Migration Crisis.’ Over 850,000 of them entered Greece by sea.
Those arriving on the Greek Islands were barely processed before they were allowed to board the ferries to Athens. Most traveled towards Austria, Germany, France and Scandinavian countries in hopes of better treatment.
In reaction, Germany temporarily suspended the Dublin Agreement, opening its doors for asylum. Over 890,000 asylum seekers entered the country in 2015 alone. A majority of other EU countries responded with alarm, once again shuttering their borders.
One in-One out– the zero sum game of the EU-Turkey Deal
In the following months, EU leaders would serenade Turkey, luring the government with renewed talks of membership and generous financial support for taking in more refugees. Under the EU-Turkey deal, Europe would return all those arriving in Greece from Turkey after March 20, 2016, and relocate one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for every Syrian sent back. In turn, Turkey would patrol its borders around the clock to prevent irregular arrivals reaching Greece.
Those who arrived after this agreement came into effect, and others who could not leave Greece because of the closed border with Macedonia, became indefinitely stranded.
Fast forward to summer 2016 – Lesbos Island, Greece
“The children are trapped under the boat!” The faint cries for help that Ramy Qudmany heard, as he started to swim towards the Greek shore, echo in his ears from time to time.
The 23-year-old from Syria arrived in Lesbos after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect. The fishing trawler that he shared with a dozen others succumbed in the turbulent 6-kilometer stretch between Lesbos and Turkey. When the boat overturned, some of the passengers were trapped underneath, including a little girl, also from Syria. He dived in and managed to bring her to the surface. As he towed them to safety, he realised he was holding a lifeless body. Still, he held onto her. The child is buried in one of the cemeteries created for people who died at sea.
Qudmany and a few others were rescued by a Greek boat that was scouring the coast, looking for distress calls. He then proceeded to one of the reception centres. Despite being in need of legitimate asylum, not to mention, psycho-social support for his accumulated trauma - losing family members to conflict, fleeing home and surviving the deaths at sea, he was now stuck in a reception centre with little visibility over his asylum case. Last time I checked on him in 2017, the computer science graduate was still in Lesbos, which has become a repository for refugees.
Such repositories are expanding in European cities – from Paris to Athens, with squats and tented communities resembling informal refugee settlements. Much of this is the outcome of political inertia from European leaders who had promised to tackle the ‘crisis’, following the EU-Turkey deal. As member states repeatedly fail to find common ground in distributing the ‘burden’ of taking in refugees, EASO – the Common European Asylum System – has become somewhat of a misnomer.
The deal did indeed reduce migration flows over 2017 and 2018. But, very few asylum seekers have been sent back to Turkey from Europe. They remain in limbo. Similarly, very few Syrian refugees have been relocated to European countries, so far. The ‘one-in-one-out' part of the agreement has failed and the deal itself will collapse as soon as Turkish conditions change, prompting the entry of many of the more than 2.5 million refugees that are in Turkey.
Over 2016, as arrivals from Turkey trickled in, yet another negative side effect emerged. Families and individuals started to take to the Balkan route that promptly gained notoriety for the inhumane tactics of its border police and the cunning of its human traffickers.
The treacherous Balkan Route
"I am waiting to play the game, to cross this last border to Europe" 11-year old Abuzar told me. He appeared resolute, despite being on his own. The ”game” is a codeword that smugglers and refugees use when referring to clandestine border crossings between the Balkan countries.
Fast forward to winter 2017 – Belgrade Train Station, Serbia
I found Abuzar among 1500 men and boys that were biding time behind Belgrade’s main railway station, while waiting to reach northern Europe. Many had re-routed since the closure of Greece’s borders with Macedonia and Turkey.
As commuters entered and exited the station, asylum seekers wrapped in layers of blankets walked in and out of adjacent warehouses which had once stored farming tools and animals, now derelict and without heat or insulation.
Over those frigid winter days, Belgrade, which experienced its share of strife during the 1990s Balkan conflicts, appeared a perfect case study of social dissociation – a condition whereby people can ignore perturbing sights, even when they occur in front of their eyes. Despite sleeping rough and wandering the streets, children like Abuzar were hidden in plain sight to the locals passing through.
The boys in the warehouses could have sought shelter at the local reception centers, but most were determined to reach countries like France and Sweden. Abuzar believed that the Serbian centers would eventually turn into closed detention and that he would be deported to Bulgaria, where the border police had already beaten him up and robbed him of everything, including his only change of warm clothes.
The ripple effect of border closures meant that these refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, were being "ping-ponged" between different Balkan states, and unwittingly ended up in Serbia, a non-EU country.
Having hiked all the way from his home in Baghlan province, Afghanistan, and through Baluchistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia – Abuzar was determined to press on. He had come too far to turn back. His family had forked out their life-savings in hope that he would bring this back in kind.
"Once I cross this last border, I will reach Europe and then be able bring my family," he told me. The boy bore the weight of being the oldest son in his family on his shoulders, as he made his decisions.
The next day he crossed the border to Croatia and disappeared. He remains missing.
Over 2016, about 100,000 other children were reported missing in the Balkans. The same year, the highest number of children died in Afghanistan, compared to the previous decade’s annual death tolls.
Re-classified as a ‘country at conflict’ by NATO and its allies, Afghanistan is one of the longest displacement crises in the world and a major source of asylum seekers in Europe. The Afghan conflict is far from over. In fact, it has taken a more tumultuous turn, with increasingly complex bombings and suicide attacks in urban centres forcing civilians to flee.
The source of the wound – Afghanistan
“You cannot possibly help every child in that crowd. I have seen the number of working children in this city mushroom over the years as the war continued and institutions collapsed,” the Afghan social worker who accompanied me explained, as she ushered me into the backseat of a taxi.
Remaining gentle with the children, as she shooed away their prying hands, a silent consternation lined her face. Dozens of young hands and faces were thrust against all four windows of our vehicle, pleading for ‘spare change.’
Fast forward to autumn 2017 – Kabul, Afghanistan
Very few acts induce as much self-loathing as walking away from desperate children. I had been visiting Kabul’s sprawling neighbourhoods and it was in that market of an impoverished suburb that despair, masked as panic, got the better of me. Surrounded by the group of boys and girls that had gathered like a maelstrom within the blink of an eye, the bazaar was imploding with abject poverty, government neglect and malaise.
These disparate neighbourhoods surrounding the centre of Kabul were saturated with people that had been repeatedly displaced.
Amid the unceasing hostilities in Afghanistan, the growing demographic, classified as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), is the most vulnerable, but also the least protected – by the humanitarian community and the Afghan government.
A pragmatic and humane European migration policy would address the social, economic and political realities inside countries like Afghanistan and understand the root causes of displacement, to prevent the cycle from repeating. Instead, the European approach continues to be one of constricting the source of the wound, by tightening the tourniquet – i.e. more border closures, less resettlement, and in some cases even returns.
Those prematurely returned, particularly in Afghanistan’s case, end up in IDP settlements inside the country, suffering yet another round of displacement. Faced with more dismal conditions than before, many get back onto the migration trail to Europe. In comparatively newer conflicts like Syria, some refugees are returning “spontaneously” – in other words, without any UN assistance – from neighbouring countries. A vast majority do not want to go back, and when they do, it is simply because the push away from the host countries, due to prolonged limbo, lack of livelihood and sufficient education, is stronger than the pull towards their homes.
A growing threat of internal displacement
“This medication is supposed to reduce my anxiety, this one is for the headaches I get when stressed, and these are for my children as they have persistent colds because of the dampness in the camps,” Mahmoud listed the medicine he was purchasing, as he prepared to move back to his hometown in Syria.
Fast forward to June 2018 – Masnaa border crossing (with Syria), Lebanon
The 26-year-old has suffered constant nightmares and was diagnosed with severe trauma due to losing his father. After 5 years in Lebanon and no semblance of stability, he returned to Syria last June, with his wife and two children.
As he coddled his newborn (not registered in Syria or Lebanon, therefore stateless), he paced back and forth, anxiously. It was a sultry summer morning and beads of sweat lined his face, as he awaited the vehicle that would transport him and his family across the border to Syria. A handful of other families sat by the road, some stacking their belongings into large trucks and others with scant essentials packed into plastic bags. After several years of being away, Mahmoud’s return home felt unceremonious.
He had been forced to choose between the lesser of the two evils – a dismal existence in Lebanon as a stranger or return to a familiar home, but with several uncertainties.
Eights years into the Syrian conflict, “I would rather die in dignity at home than suffer this slow death in Lebanon” – has become a slogan among the displaced. UN agencies have estimated that 250,000 refugees may return to Syria this year, while about 6.2 million are already displaced within its borders.
The EU has been evading the Syrian returns issue, instead calling for “political solutions” to end the conflict. Speaking about returns, reintegration and reconstruction in such abstract terms is a mere political charade and downright obscene when millions are still awaiting basic services. In parallel, wealthy countries like Denmark are unilaterally deciding to send back Syrian refugees this year, prodding other anti-migrant governments to follow suit.
Meanwhile, a vast majority of those who have entered Europe in the past five years remain suspended in purgatory, yet invisible to the ‘citizens’.
Latest EU statements are far removed from stagnant realities, and doused in cognitive dissonance.
The European Migration Crisis is Over?
Over recent months, the EU Commission launched an audacious public relations campaign declaring “Europe’s migration crisis is over.”
Fast forward to early 2019 – the European Parliament, Brussels
Countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, especially neighbours to Syria, who are hosting millions of refugees, often ridicule the European use of the term ‘crisis.’
So, what constitutes a crisis? The capacity of the hosts to respond, or their willingness? Or is it the failure of foreign interventions in countries at conflict and ‘liberalisation’ policies in recovering economies, and the dearth of legal migration channels, which together prompted these human flows in the first place?
For every asylum application that was accepted in the EU last year, two were rejected – a pace that ought to enthuse Italian and Danish governments. But despite four straight years of reduced refugee arrivals to the EU and only a fraction of the promised refugees resettled, the rallying cries for stopping the ‘influxes’ continue unabated. Anti-migration rhetoric has become the lowest common denominator for rightwing populist politics in many of the 28 member states.
What is clearly needed is a crisis of conscience among the governments that have evaded their individual responsibilities, followed by collective introspection as the Europe Union to transform shortsighted prevention tactics into longterm protection of those in need.
The real power to change this status quo and to open humanitarian corridors is ultimately vested in the political will of individual European countries and their citizens. If the EU still holds meaning as the gatekeeper of Europe’s liberal order, it must lead by reforming its own migration and asylum policies before mandating member countries.
Awakening from this 5 years of slumber will require concerted, conscientious efforts to move the asylum seekers through the supposedly functioning EASO system. Their futures can no longer be suspended in stasis. We are already inexcusably late.
There have been some suggestions in the right direction among European policy circles, for instance, “controlled centres” that would determine the asylum eligibility of applicants. But European leaders are at loggerheads over the premise and it is unclear whether these centres will allow freedom of movement, or constitute a new form of detention.
On the international front, European governments remarkably overcommitted funding at the Brussels conference on Syria this month, to support the recovery of refugees in neighbouring countries. While supporting and stabilising the sources of the outflows is key, the funding has often only led to temporary respite, but little in the way of longterm recovery.
This is largely because refugee camps and settlements, whether in the Bekaa or the outskirts of Athens have become indefinite holding cells. As a result, more and more refugees avoid camps and centres. Instead, they seek smugglers to move forward, or return to their unstable communities. If these places actually aided them in their transition, irregular migration would subside.
The more Europe lags in taking concrete steps, the more they embolden global smuggling rings that have proliferated over the changing seasons of migration. From local middlemen who manipulate impressionable people into making arduous migration choices, to the lower echelons of border patrol that turn a blind eye to crossing migrants in lieu of bribes, to the highest levels of government authorities that rely on these security forces - the rings are intertwined and embedded in the migration landscape. And the former flashpoints are re-emerging.
The tide turns back – to the Central Mediterranean
Retracing Europe’s migration tourniquet, we find ourselves back in the central Mediterranean, where the Strait of Gibraltar experienced a ten-fold increase in arrivals in 2018, becoming the latest flashpoint.
Fast forward to the present day - 2019, Strait of Gibraltor, Spain
With ‘border management’ as its raison d’etre, Operation Sophia that currently patrols the waters between Libya and Italy makes Mare Nostrum appear legendary. Militarising the Mediterranean has clearly failed to dismantle smuggling networks.
While the mission rescued 50,000 people last year, outsourcing border patrol by supposedly “training” the Libyan coastguard and navy dominates its mandate. Despite a purportedly more progressive government recently taking charge in Rome, the anti-migration deal signed between the former administration and the Libyan government in Tripoli was automatically renewed on November 2. This is despite EU officials admitting (in internal documents) that dismantling the smuggling networks while working with Libyan naval authorities is an unlikely brief, as the country’s various public outfits are intertwined with the smugglers. In some cases, those rescued by Sophia described their smugglers as men in official Libyan uniforms.
While the arrival numbers are manageable at the moment, a change in political realities in the Maghreb could unleash a new tide. If the ongoing protests in Algeria were to escalate, several armed groups might fill the political vacuum in the Mediterranean country which neighbours Libya and the Sahel, both riddled with internal strife. The ensuing conflict and displacement would unleash a new wave of migration towards southern Europe.
Rome’s memorandum of understanding with Tripoli is ironic, given that the head of the infamous Zawiyah coastguard has been involved in the smuggling rings operating from the Libya-Tunisia border. Italy’s own defence ministry has confirmed his culpability in a May 2020 report. Yet, in the absence of an EU wide strategy and concerted efforts from fellow members, the Southern European country, is reeling under the burden of geography and continues to apply counter-productive measures.
The Southern European country is reeling under the burden of geography and continues to apply counter-productive measures.
Meanwhile, the migration tourniquet is coming full circle. The start and end points are becoming one.