“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.