Many more asylum seekers from Syria and other countries may die in the Mediterranean as European states cut back or even eliminate their search-and-rescue programs, one of the world’s top refugee experts has warned.
Dawn Chatty, professor of anthropology and forced migration at Oxford University, says that, in one of the deadliest years ever for refugees crossing the sea, things will likely become much worse. This is due to the sheer number of Syrian refugees and the fact that those hoping to seek asylum in Europe have little choice but to cram themselves into boats operated by unscrupulous human smugglers.
In total, some four million people have fled the violence and persecution of the Syrian civil war, making this the world’s largest ongoing refugee crisis by far.
So far this year, more than 1,700 people have perished attempting to cross from Africa and the Middle East to Europe – a ten-fold increase on the same period last year.
With almost no legal or safe way for Syrian asylum seekers to travel overland through neighboring countries to the E.U., they are forced into the overcrowded rubber dinghies of human smugglers. As a result, the Mediterranean Sea is now considered the world’s most dangerous border crossing between countries that are not at war with each other.
While some European media have sought to cast the asylum seekers as economic migrants driven by welfare benefits, Chatty says this is a heartless fallacy.
Those who opt to put their families on rickety boats and into the hands of smugglers usually don’t have any other options, the former director of the Refugees Studies Centre at Oxford told Syria Deeply, noting that most Syrian refugees – about 96 percent – remain in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, where they have limited legal ways to earn a living or enroll their children in schools.
“In Europe, they talk about these people as waves of migrants rather than as refugees fleeing conflict who have the right to ask for international protection,” she says.
Currently, European countries accept only 4 percent of those seeking asylum, the majority in Germany and Sweden.
Additionally, if Syrian refugees actually get to Europe, under an E.U. law – known as the Dublin Regulation – asylum seekers must remain in the first European country they enter. This places an unfair burden on so-called entry-point states such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain.
These countries have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, generating additional tensions between refugees and local people. Dawn Chatty spoke with Syria Deeply about why the crisis is about to get worse.
Syria Deeply: How has the media coverage affected the current refugee crisis?
Chatty: There was a huge outcry in the media about all the deaths at the sea, but one of the main issues that shaped the discourse about it was the description of those who died as economic migrants, even though it was clear that somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of those rescued at sea are people fleeing conflict and have the right to ask for international protection.
The photographs the media use of people being saved usually show young men from sub-Saharan Africa, which plays into the European populist narrative of keeping migrants out because they are just coming to Europe for social welfare benefits. A lot of the politicians colluded with the media focus on these people being migrants rather than people fleeing war and deserving of sympathy.
There is a woeful neglect in terms of how these countries have risen to the challenge. The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention,Article 31, makes it very clear that people fleeing war or because they’ve lost the protection of their state may use illegal means in order to reach a state where they can seek asylum and they cannot be criminalized for it.
Syria Deeply: How has Europe responded to the migrant crisis?
Chatty: The E.U. is really struggling to put a proper search-and-rescue operation in place. When Italy set up the Mare Nostrum program in October 2013 in response to the large number of people drowning at sea, they ran it for a year without any support from the European Union. They approached the E.U. for help in October 2014. However, critics of the program argued that it was basically creating a pull factor for people to cross the sea illegally because they knew they would be rescued. This sentiment won the day – the Italians did not get any support and were forced to close, even though the program was credited with saving up to 100,000 migrants since its inception.
Instead, the E.U. lent its support to a program call Triton, which is not a search-and-rescue program – it basically protects the borders of the northern Mediterranean.
At the same time, a growing number of civil society initiatives were created in response to the crisis. For example, there is huge activity coming out of Malta, where a private boat refurbished by an American millionaire is going out to rescue people at sea and bringing them back to Malta.
Syria Deeply: Can you describe the disparities that currently exist between E.U. states in terms of their individual responses to the Syria refugee crisis?
Chatty: The E.U. is getting a lot of negative feedback from individual states who say they don’t want to be told how many people they should grant asylum to. The U.K., for example, has said it won’t accept the quota, but that it would voluntarily take people.
One of the founding principles of the formative treaty of the E.U. actually says that in cases where there are mass influxes of people needing international protection, the E.U. will help distribute them E.U.-wide, so that one country doesn’t have to take an unfair burden.
Unfortunately, some countries such as Ireland, the U.K. and Denmark have opted out of the E.U. quota plan despite the migration crisis.
On the positive side, we know that Germany and Sweden have each taken large numbers of Syrian refugees. Germany has accepted close to 50,000. So too has Sweden, even though its population is only 10 million compared to the 80 million in Germany. The U.K., on the other hand, has taken only 2,000.
It’s astonishing how much civil society has stepped up to the plate. Lots of local organizations are trying to help Syrians adjust to being in Germany – helping them register their children in school, for instance – and many are offered welfare so that they can support themselves. They are also offered language support.
The U.S. is planning to accept a large number – 100,000 – but they have to go through Homeland Security screening, which could take up to another year.
On the other hand, Syria’s neighboring states that have accepted refugees are afraid to offer them too much because they are scared they will stay. Most Syrians living in these countries are therefore not going to get opportunities to create a sustainable life – they are merely surviving.
Syria Deeply: Is there a historical precedent for dealing with this type of crisis?
Chatty: In the past, when crises were particularly acute, a CPA (Comprehensive Plan of Action) has been put in place. For example, a CPA was established to deal with the boat people fleeing Vietnam after the collapse of South Vietnam. It was a program that saw a million people being resettled throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.
In the case of the former Yugoslavia, there was a similar program where thousands of people got protection in neighboring states until they could return to their countries.
Syria Deeply: What actions can be adopted to enable Syrians to claim asylum without the need for recourse to people smugglers?
Chatty: Civil societies are pressing for some kind of comprehensive plan that would grant temporary protection in Europe to Syrians so they can come to Europe without the fear of being sent back.
As in the case of Bosnia, such temporary protection would be given until it was feasible for people to return home.
They aren’t looking for welfare benefits or to take on a new nationality, they simply need to find a way to survive, to work and support themselves, and to educate their children over the next 5–10 years without being considered illegal.
Half of the refugees from Syria are under 18, many of whom have had no education for three or four years. This is a lost generation because many of the families that want to educate their young people are unable to do so. These kids are going to grow up illiterate with no education, and they won’t be able to rebuild Syria when the time comes.
Syria Deeply: What are the ramifications if E.U. countries don’t step up to the plate soon?
Chatty: Once you’ve received protection and refugee status in one country, you should be able to move around because of the open border policy in the E.U., but this is not the case for Syrians.
The E.U. is requiring Italy to register and give protection to everyone who comes in, even though Italy can’t provide for all of the people coming across it’s border
It’s a heavy burden on the Italians, and other countries need to step up to the plate.
Syrians need to get to places where they have networks and can get work. To force them to stay in places like Italy where they can only get limited work makes no sense.
We know that a lot of people are slipping through the cracks in Italy and going to other countries to seek asylum.
Syrians are trying to get to places where they have established networks. If a Syrian family from Aleppo has family in Edinburgh, they will try to go there. If they have to be registered in Italy, you can be sure that they’ll keep moving until they get to the U.K.
Syria Deeply: In the next year or two, what would make the biggest difference to the lives of Syrians trying to get to Europe?
Chatty: The most effective thing would be to allow people to apply for asylum at the embassies in Lebanon and Jordan and to speed up the refugee status determination process – some people have to wait two years for an interview. One way to reduce the number trying to cross illegally is to find legal means for them to register for the process. People are using smugglers because they don’t have any other avenues to cross the Mediterranean.
Photo Courtesy of Hani Abbas