LONDON – Oxfam has spoken out many times about how Europe is failing to provide safety and dignity for people who are arriving on its shores. But talking to people making the journey through Greece, Italy and the Balkans, I would go one step further: The European Union is proactively doing harm.
To end what they call a migration crisis, European governments are relying on keeping refugees and other migrants out of Europe. But they are completely underestimating the determination of people seeking to build a safe and dignified life for themselves and their families. Closing borders only leads people to take even more dangerous routes to Europe. Those who do arrive after perilous journeys often find poor living conditions, and an achingly slow asylum process.
Death Toll in Mediterranean Increasing
Over the past year and a half, almost 1.3 million people seeking a new beginning, and in many cases refuge, have traveled to Greece and Italy by boat. At the same time, European governments are determined to create a “Fortress Europe”: bribing countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia to stop migrants coming to Europe, closing their borders and pushing people out of Europe.
This approach has forced ever more people to choose increasingly risky journeys. More than 3,000 people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean, almost as many as the total for all of 2015.
Deterrence Won’t Stop People Seeking Safety and Dignity
Despite all this, migrants, including refugees, remain determined to travel in order to rebuild their lives. In Northwest Greece, I met a Syrian man who told me: “I tried to cross the border into Albania last night, but didn’t make it. I will try again tonight. My wife and children are in Germany and have been waiting for me for four months. I will not wait any longer.”
Like so many others, he has lost faith in the Greek registration and asylum system, which is struggling to cope under pressures from the European Union. He has given up waiting and is taking his chance to move across the Balkans by other means.
Mounting Tensions on Greek Islands
On the Greek islands migrant camps are overcrowded and the conditions increasingly tense. So far, Syrians have been prioritized for admissibility screening on these sites, leaving Afghans, Pakistanis, North Africans and people of other nationalities stranded and waiting endlessly for someone to hear their case.
“Route of Hell” to Europe – and Hell in Europe
In Italy, people from across West, East and the Horn of Africa have endured crossing the Sahara – the “route of hell” – into Libya and across the Mediterranean. This is the most dangerous and deadly migration route in the world. All have left their homes looking for better and in many cases safer lives.
Europe isn’t always people’s intended destination. I met Ghanaians who were doing construction work in Libya, but had to flee to Europe as the violence escalated. For others, such as the West African human rights activists I met, Europe is a place of sanctuary.
As in Greece, the struggle is not over once people arrive in Italy: Children stay in detention centers for months; most people need psychosocial support, but very few receive it; people aren’t given enough information on the asylum procedure and some are being arbitrarily kicked out of the asylum system with no support.
A Battle of Wills
There is a battle of wills going on. But European Union member states, the European Commission and countries in the Balkans are underestimating those arriving in Europe to build better lives. One of Oxfam’s partners in Macedonia met a 16-year-old boy who had been pushed back by Macedonian officials into Greece 20 times. And yet he was still determined to cross. He is definitely not the only one.
The collective failure of the European Union to manage the arrivals and asylum claims of migrants is harming people who have already suffered immensely to make it to Europe. Those who are moving through the Balkans and European Union on their own or with smugglers are doing so at a very high cost. For example, Oxfam partners in Serbia and Macedonia talk about the abuse, violence, robbery and kidnapping that people have endured as they travel through the Balkans and when they are pushed back from European member states.
European Countries Must Show Collective Solidarity
It is unjust and unrealistic for European member states to put the weight of managing this situation onto Italy and Greece alone. It is also completely unacceptable to manage migration by bribing countries to stop migrants and refugees traveling to Europe, rounding people up and pushing them back into other countries and arbitrarily closing borders.
Collective action by all European countries is needed to provide safe and regular routes through the European Union and the Balkans, to provide decent living conditions and an efficient, fair and transparent asylum procedure without discrimination by nationality and to ensure that children have access to education and adults have the right to work. Ironically, this is what European countries ask of other nations around the world.
As European countries travel to September’s twin migration and refugee summits in New York – the U.N. summit for refugees and migrants and the Leaders’ Summit on refugees – they must come together with the rest of the world to back a more humane and coordinated approach to migration. It is time for a more effective international response based on shared responsibilities.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply