Mediterranean journeys in hope

Mediterranean crises: how many and for how long?

Narratives of forced movements in the Mediterranean change according to the different political attempts to deal with their management, making clear that policy-making is stuck in an old cliché about migration. 

Valeria Bello
20 April 2016

Macedonian police used tear gas against those stuck at Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border, on 10 April 2016. Amel Emric/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

One of the most pressing questions in Europe when it comes to the current Mediterranean crisis is: ‘how many refugees and for how long?’ Before answering this question, it is perhaps worth asking whether or not the term ‘refugee’ is correct. How we name the world in which we live is deeply important. The current ‘Mediterranean crises’ show this with clarity.

The Mediterranean Sea is, by its own name, the sea that is placed in between lands. Since time immemorial, it has been the contact point of many different cultures and the liquid bridge that has allowed exchanges and trade between different peoples and cities on both shores, such as Carthage, Alexandria, Capua, Rome, Saguntum, Rhodes and Jerusalem. When the Roman Emperor Augustus founded the Roman Empire, he changed its name to Mare Nostrum (our sea).

Since then, the way different peoples over time have called it has followed the saga of diverse politics, yet at many points in history the name Mediterranean returned to Mare Nostrum. For instance, when in 1861 the Savoia army of the Kingdom of Piemonte and Sardinia conquered the southern lands of the Italian peninsula, its name was changed again into Mare Nostrum to mark the colonial aspiration of the newly formed ‘Italian nation’. The name Mare Nostrum became fashionable again with the fascist government of Benito Mussolini, since it was more agreeable to the fascist government than the ancient expression Mediterraneo. For this reason, when the Italian government led by Enrico Letta named its new border control operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ in October 2013 as a consequence of one of several Mediterranean crises that happened after the end of the Cold War, it must have raised a series of questions and exclamation marks among many experts of the Mediterranean area. The new initiative of the most recent Italian government led by Matteo Renzi to open a humanitarian air corridor for Syrian refugees gives new hopes for different policies to manage the current situation and can, indeed, represent a model for other countries to follow.

Post-cold war crises in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean crises, collectively, refers to a series of crises that have happened in the area since the end of the cold war as consequences of forced movements produced by conflicts and instabilities in the vast Mediterranean region. When the world was no longer dominated by the contrasting powers of two geo-political poles – the liberal United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – some areas of the planet in which we live once again became targets of new hegemonic aspirations. In classes of the history of international relations, students are told that, when an international political system is no longer governed by balancing powers, states with hegemonic aspirations will try to conquer new lands – and mainly those richest in key resources – and establish new patriarchates.

The intertwined conflicts of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the United States entailed the first displacement crisis in Middle East and Central Asia after the end of the Cold War, with roughly 10.5 million persons who were forced to move in the area. Only some – those who could travel furthest – engaged in longer journeys across the Mediterranean, hoping for better possibilities than those offered in refugee camps in the Middle East, northern Africa and central Asia. This is exemplified by the fact that while 7,700,000 individuals reached western European countries between 1990 and 1995, only about one million of them (13%) were from a northern African, Middle Eastern or a central Asian country. The trend was similar in the subsequent five years; although in Europe the share of migrant inflows from Middle East and central Asia rose to 16%, over the course of the 1990s approximately two million migrants reached Europe from these areas.

Border technology and the categories listed in the computers of security professionals cannot recognise the human faces of forced migrants.

With following wars and consequent crises, the numbers have changed but not the trends. According to UNHCR, the Afghanistan war has displaced almost four million people in total, 2.6 million of which are outside the country. As such, Afghanistan was the world’s main source of refugees until the tensions in Syria deteriorated in 2014 – yet most of those have not left Pakistan and other countries in the region. The situation has worsened with the upsurge in violence in Syria and Iraq, which are now the newest top countries in terms of origin of forced movements of people. Again, most of them are displaced in the Middle East, northern Africa and central Asia, while only a few – those who can afford the travel, both physically and economically – will eventually reach the coasts of Europe.

UNHCR only mentions refugees, as it is its mandate to protect this category of migrants. UNHCR does comprise in its data and takes care of all those forced to move, including internally displaced persons and other persons of concern. However, as a consequence of the Syrian case, the term ‘refugee’ itself seems to have now emerged in public discourse and in media coverage as opposite to ‘economic migrants’, where the first are ‘the good migrants’ and the second are ‘the bad migrants’, those who do not ‘deserve’ to find a shelter. The right to asylum depends on the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol but the actual granting of the status depends on national applications of these legal tools in those states that have signed them. In light of how the international right to seek asylum finds applications in the actual national implementations, in strictly legal terms “refugees” are only those who have been already granted the status of refugees by those institutional apparatus they have eventually had the luck to reach to seek asylum. Those who can actually claim the status but are still awaiting its confirmation are asylum-seekers. But many do not even reach this point. Yet, a vast majority of them are anyway forced to move.

Once forced migrants reach Europe, they need to go through border controls. Many will have lost their documents or had them stolen along the way, or will discover their documentation not to be the ‘right one’ for a variety of reasons. Perhaps some were migrants themselves in Syria or Iraq, and while they were forced to move due to violence they cannot claim asylum because they are not of the right nationality. Some of them are unaccompanied children. Some of them are de jure stateless because the country in which they live does not recognise them as ‘worth’ documenting. Most of them are de facto stateless, and for this reason they cannot satisfy the conditions established by European member states in order to enter their territory or seek asylum.

Searching for opportunity


Migrants wait for Pope Francis at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Saturday April 16, 2016. Petros Giannakouris/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

And yet, these forced migrants, no matter the reasons for which they leave their home and their nationalities, see the Mediterranean as a bridge over troubled waters through which they can find improved opportunities of life. They all hold aspirations for a better life and these aspirations should not depend on nationality. In many cases, these better opportunities translate into a forced stay in a detention centre, often called ‘welcoming centres’, of up to 18 months before being returned back to their place of origin, where the conditions that led them to move in the first place have not changed. It is astonishing to acknowledge that the 18 months of maximum detention has been somewhat of a EU ‘achievement’, as the EU tried to establish a maximum period of time during which they could be detained, as some countries had established even longer periods of detention or very short periods of time. The latter, while it may sound better, comes with its own problems, as it often means that migrants are expedited out of the system before they have time to collect the evidence supporting their asylum claim.

However, all these forced migrants have something in common. The faces behind those gates are those of human beings who, in most cases, have committed only an administrative offence: travelling undocumented or travelling with the incorrect documents to claim asylum. In general, their nationality is not among those ‘desired’ by the specific EU member state that is detaining them. Their movement is forced as a consequence of war, conflicts, political and economic instabilities, fear of persecutions, hunger, starvation, desertification, poverty and, above all, climate change – be it political, economic or meteorological.

War, as death, does not recognise the human face of forced movements. Wars and bombs, no matter how intelligent they are, do not have pity for children, women and men. Border technology and the categories listed in the computers of security professionals cannot recognise the human faces of those forced migrants. The only ones who can recognise human beings escaping from threatening climates are other human beings. But we see them only when the media in Europe decide that it is the right time to capture the picture of the situation.

When this happens, many European citizens express their will to host and welcome refugees. And yet, when governments deal with the concrete management of migration, they find themselves lost. Perhaps, they lack the expertise and the capacities to deal with the crises, when instead scholars of migration studies and experts everywhere in the world try to make their voices heard. Their findings are quite clear and contest some recurring ideas: the hardening of borders will not discourage people from trying to escape from war and death; also, in spite of what scholars presumed in previous decades, long-term migrants will not increase prejudice in host countries, because the longer they stay, the better they integrate. Instead, (forced) return migration does increase prejudice as it only makes more visible the flows of migration to host societies, and provides a confirmation from the state that such individuals should not be there and are not wanted. Furthermore, recent research has shown that prejudice is only to a minimum extent associated with labour market competition, while positive attitudes towards migrants mostly depend on the abilities of countries to create inclusive societies.

In particular, security reasons are often called upon to justify such treatments. However, it is well known that the gravest threats that EU citizens face come from other sources. According to EU statistics, the main causes of death in Europe are diseases – mostly heart disease and cancer – accidents, intentional self-harm and alcoholic abuse. In public discourse, migration is often connected with security reasons and, in particular, with terrorist threats, although radicalisation and fundamentalisms more often than not are internal phenomena and find their root causes in a variety of structural and political reasons. Security policy should, therefore, address these structural and political reasons in order to guarantee human security for all. Forced migrants are not actual threats to European citizens but they are often, consciously or unconsciously, socially constructed as such. Even in the labour market, differently from the past, citizens do not perceive migrants as real competitors: recent studies have shown that, even during periods of economic crises, it is not labour market competition that more strongly leads people to hold negative attitudes towards migrants. Citizens probably know from practical experience better than governments that those who are most likely to lose their jobs during crises are indeed migrants.

Those who do not feel positive about the presence of migrants do so mostly because they do not hold intercultural values that foster tolerance. However, research shows that with few exceptions, such as Greece and Cyprus, in all other European countries a vast majority of people holds positive attitudes towards migrants and is willing to offer them a shelter. Anyway, if governments would want a precise answer to the pressing question of “how many forced migrants and for how long”, the response is easy: as long as there are wars in the area surrounding the Mediterranean and political, economic and environmental contexts are threatening, there will be forced movements to Europe.

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