World Refugee Day 2020
22nd June 2020
World Refugee Day 2020
22nd June 2020
Living in Fear: Residents of the Moria Refugee Camp
19th June 2020
As restrictions lift across Europe and the wider world, an atmosphere of nervous excitement and relief is rising throughout the country. After almost three months in lockdown, we are eager to get back to life in this ‘new normal’. Unfortunately, for so many, the COVID-19 virus still poses a very real concern. On the Greek island of Lesbos, residents of the Moria refugee camp live with this constant threat. An outbreak in the camp would be undoubtedly disastrous.
In 2015, Camp Moria was built to house a maximum of 3000 people temporarily. In mid-May of this year, conservative estimates put the number of asylum seekers living in the camp at well over 17,000. This high volume is in part due to the 2016 migration agreement between the EU and Turkey. This requires that all, except for the most vulnerable, must submit their asylum claim in the first island in which they land. The agreement, which was an attempt to reduce the number of refugees travelling through mainland Europe, also requires that once a claim has been submitted, the applicant must remain there until it has been completed.
As a whole, Greece has had a startlingly low number of COVID-19 related deaths sitting at 183 at time of publication. This is largely in part to the quick and decisive action of the government who chose to shut down traditional gatherings, schools and universities in February before any viruses had been reported. By mid-March most of the country was in lockdown, this also includes Moria. Prior to the restriction, residents were able to exit the camp while remaining on the island. Now, however, excluding those with medical appointments, only people with one of 70 daily permits can exit the camp.
“Poor sanitation and lack of self-isolation facilities, would be catastrophic should there be an outbreak“
On the 12th of May, two migrants who arrived at Lesbos by sea tested positive for coronavirus, despite Greek authorities being successful in preventing an outbreak in the camp so far. We know that it can take up to two weeks for those carrying COVID-19 to display symptoms. This, in conjunction with the poor sanitation and lack of self-isolation facilities, would be catastrophic should there be an outbreak.
According to the ‘Watershed Foundation’, a German NGO whose mission is to bring adequate water and drainage to the most vulnerable, state stagnant water remains an enormous problem in many refugee camps, including Moria. With limited water access points, people are resigned to collecting barrels of water and carrying them back to their tents. In many areas of the camp, toilets are 1 to 210 people with some showers 1 to 600 people, making access to regular basic sanitation almost impossible.
The serious congestion, along with the poor sanitation facilities, and the looming threat of this global pandemic is causing increasing tensions, with intermittent fights breaking out. In mid-May, two serious fights erupted, from which a 23 year old woman died and a 21 year old man was left in a critical condition.
While many industries in mainland Greece are preparing to open, lockdown in the camp, which measured a little under 1 km² began to ease on the 7th of June, although strict restrictions are still in place. As the Greek government continues to call for other countries to relocate asylum seekers, to help ease overcrowding, a potential outbreak in Moria should still remain heavy on everyone’s mind.
Featured photo by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly
EU ‘Covered Up’ Croatian Border Brutality against Migrants
16th June 2020
While COVID-19 figures dip throughout the EU, borders are once more becoming increasingly open. However, this does not apply to the Croatian-Bosnian border, where reports of abuse by police officers against those seeking asylum within the EU have once more come to light. EU officials have also been accused of an “outrageous cover-up” after withholding evidence of a failure by Croatia’s government to supervise this police brutality. This throws a spotlight on both the Croatian government’s human rights record and the apparent willingness of the EU’s executive branch to cover for its failure.
Croatia, an EU member state since 2013, is home to the EU’s longest external border. Its closest neighbour is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country continuously refused entry to the EU. The so-called Balkan Route is a popular course for both migrants and those seeking protection in the EU, arriving through Croatia via Bosnia. In one week in May alone, 2,700 people entered Croatia with 600 of these being non-EU residents. Footage of police brutality along this border, which has since been nicknamed “the game” by asylum seekers, was first reported in 2018. Each night, as asylum seekers attempt to cross the border, squadrons of patrolling police await them. Several incidents have resulted in shootings, while aid workers, border guards and UN officials have reported “systematic abuse and violence” perpetrated by Croatian police along the border, with migrants and asylum seekers beaten, robbed, and stripped of their clothes and belongings.
“Officials in Brussels had been fearful of a backlash when deciding against disclosing Croatia’s lack of commitment to a monitoring mechanism”
Further to this horror, the Guardian has reported that internal European Commission emails reveal officials in Brussels had been fearful of a backlash when deciding against disclosing Croatia’s lack of commitment to a monitoring mechanism. The establishment of a commitment to ensure the humane treatment of migrants at the border had been a condition of a €6.8m cash injection announced in December 2018 by the EU to strengthen Croatia’s borders with non-EU countries. Croatian ministers claimed last year that the funds had been handed over to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Croatian Law Centre to establish the supervisory mechanism. Both organisations deny receiving the money.
Images obtained by Border Violence Monitoring Network last month show orange crosses spray-painted on the heads of asylum seekers who have repeatedly attempted to cross the border from Bosnia into Croatia by police. Such ‘branding’ of asylum seekers is degrading behaviour, and particularly uncomfortable in light of cross symbolism targeting predominately Muslim asylum seekers. A father and son who were branded with this cross described border police telling them it was a “cure for coronavirus”. Figures from the Danish Refugee Council, who reopened their operations in Bosnia in 2018, also show the extent of recent violence inflicted on refugees and migrants pushed back to Bosnia from Croatia. In April 2020 alone, 1,641 people were reportedly pushed back. Of these, 445 people reported being denied access to asylum procedures in Croatia upon request, 871 people reported having their identity documents confiscated by border police, 891 people reported violence/physical assault, and 1,253 people reported having their belongings confiscated or set on fire.
“Ignoring Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders makes the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for human rights just meaningless talk”
The European Commission ruled in October 2019 that Croatia is ready to join the Schengen travel area. Senior Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch, Lydia Gall, has said that “ignoring Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders makes the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for human rights just meaningless talk.”
Yet, Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenković has praised his country’s approach to border control in recent months, claiming that the absence of barbed wires along the border is due to the “friendliness” of neighbour Bosnia-Herzegovina. He told reporters in Zagreb: “what we shall do in preventing illegal migration is to respect our laws, international standards and conventions and all humanitarian aspects. If there are any allegations which might be problematic, everything we have heard is verified, checked and investigated.” There has yet to be a public investigation into the reported abuses along their border.
Featured photo by Free To Use Sounds
Concerns Grow on Coronavirus Spread in Bangladeshi Refugee Camps
4th June 2020
While the coronavirus pandemic creates chaos and trauma in communities across the globe, rather than being a ‘great equaliser’, the virus, in many cases, is causing the greatest harm to those already vulnerable. Many of those at risk throughout the world are those living in cramped conditions, those living in homes which are unsafe, those living without access to decent sanitation, and those living with chronic health conditions caused by poverty. The Rohingya Muslims are one group identified by organisations such as Oxfam and WHO as being at risk of coronavirus spreading rapidly through their community. In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh while fleeing violence in their native Myanmar. In attacks which have been described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the United Nations, nationalist militias torched villages and displaced thousands. The leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her years of pro-democracy resistance, has been criticised for failing to condemn this violence against an ethnic group within the state. There are now around one million Rohingya living in refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh.
In mid-May, WHO confirmed the first cases of COVID-19 in these refugee camps. Most residents of the camps live in cramped, multi-generational huts, with four to five people living together in one small room. The sanitation, sewage facilities, and water supply are inadequate, and since 2017 there have been outbreaks of contagious diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, aid organisations such as Oxfam and CAFOD have been getting soap and face masks to residents, and 6000 handwashing stations have been installed. Despite these efforts, adequate personal hygiene is still out of reach for many Rohingya living in the camps.
“At the end of April, a group of around 500 Rohingya refugees asked for international intervention after they were stranded on cramped boats for several weeks”
As well as the technical difficulties in providing services to a million people living in vast camps, there are also issues of cultural dissonance which leads to many Rohingya ignoring the advice. The marginalisation which they have experienced in Myanmar often means that they have little experience of or trust in public health, with many choosing to rely instead on traditional medicines and guidance from spiritual leaders. Reaching such isolated communities is aided by a culturally sensitive delivery of information, helped by working alongside local religious leaders. While there are still only a few cases, there are fears that the conditions in the camps could lead to the virus spreading quickly throughout the population.
Outside of these Bangladeshi camps, other Rohingya refugees are facing obstacles created by the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of April, a group of around 500 Rohingya refugees asked for international intervention after they were stranded on cramped boats for several weeks. Fleeing the dire conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps, they became stranded at sea after being turned away from Malaysia and then prevented from returning to Bangladesh. Both governments cited the coronavirus as an excuse to close their borders, as worries grew that lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus could be mobilised against those seeking refuge across borders. Within Malaysia, a country which does not recognise refugees, the containment of the coronavirus was used as an excuse to round up and detain hundreds of undocumented migrants. The UN has condemned campaigns such as this, which claim to be an attempt at reducing the spread of the virus, but which could, in fact, aid its spread as it pushes vulnerable communities into hiding, and make it unlikely that they will seek treatment. The ‘stay home’ messaging employed by many countries across the world means very little to those forced to flee.
Featured photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development
Historically a popular destination amongst tourists, in recent years the Greek island of Lesbos has become a gateway for hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. Their already treacherous journey was compounded by the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal in 2016. This deal resulted in Turkey blocking refugees from reaching and crossing EU borders and, in return, the EU would grant visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and provide a financial aid package of six billion euros. Critics of this deal have argued that this violates human rights and international law. As Amnesty International outlines, there are fundamental flaws regarding how the conditions of this deal have been implemented. However, it has not deterred those seeking refuge. Many arrive in Lesbos by 4-hour boat ride from the Turkish coast and some die attempting the crossing. Most are unaware of the conditions and cycle of containment that they face, as they await their asylum cases to be heard.
Moria, the largest refugee camp on Lesbos, has now far exceeded its capacity, and its living conditions are coming under increasing scrutiny. Originally built to house 3,000 people, it’s population increased to approximately 5,000 in July 2019. It now houses around 20,000 refugees, with more arriving daily. The living conditions have worsened due to overcrowding and policies both the Greek government and the European Union have adopted. In July 2019, the Greek Government revoked access to public healthcare for refugees and undocumented migrants. This includes those, among them children, who suffer from serious conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes.
In January 2020, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) called for the immediate evacuation of refugees suffering from serious, complex or chronic illnesses to the Greek mainland, an opinion echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The president of MSF, Dr. Christos Christou, described the living conditions in Moria as ‘comparable to what we see in war zones’ in an open letter released to European Leaders on the 27th November 2019. He details the impact these conditions have on those trapped in Moria, with many, including children, turning to self-harm and suicide. Violence in the camp has become widespread, particularly sexual assaults and stabbings. Similar conditions can be found in refugee camps across the Aegean Islands of Greece. The calls for emergency intervention from UNHCR and MSF have, to date, been ignored by the Greek government. Meanwhile, the number of refugees across these islands has risen to over 42,000.
I spoke to Fellipe Lopez, a 33-year-old Brazilian filmmaker and photographer living in Ireland for the past 8 years. He aims to highlight social issues, refugee crises and climate change issues through his work and in December 2019 he travelled to Moria refugee camp. In discussing the conditions he witnessed, he expressed how hard it is to prepare for the level of violence within the camp. ‘It is a place that has no hope… the energy in the camp is really tense’ Fellipe said, echoing the concerns of MSF, before adding that ‘people feel unsafe in the camp, most parents are afraid to let their kids go around the camp because they could be raped… they could receive aggression from other people… a lot of murders happen in the camp, a lot of stabbings. When I was there it happened twice… It feels like a post-war zone’. I asked Fellipe: what could be done to alleviate the suffering of these refugees? ‘[The] EU should stand up and say we are going to relocate these people straight away…the refugee crisis is not stopping. The numbers, unfortunately, is going to keep increasing…those people are dying over there [in Moria]’.
Lesbos, in particular, has seen mounting tensions in the past month. The start of February saw protests by refugees residing in Moria, aiming to highlight the dire living conditions in the camp. They were met by riot police, multiple people were arrested and those protesting, including children, were teargassed. Mid-February saw Greek residents on Lesbos also clashing with riot police, whilst protesting against the proposal to build more camps on the island, rather than relocating refugees to the mainland.
On 28 February, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he was opening the western border to Greece to allow refugees to proceed into the EU. This, he claimed, was in response to a lack of support from the EU and a delay in providing financial aid under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal. Many travelled on transport provided by the Turkish government and were met by Greek border patrols firing teargas and denying entry for these refugees. In response, the Greek government has increased the number of ships patrolling waters around Lesbos in an effort to deter further boat crossings. Despite this show of force, on 1 March, as many as 400 refugees arrived on the shores of Lesbos. Meanwhile, thousands more are attempting to brave the crossing as the news of the first fatality surfaces due to a capsized boat, a Syrian boy aged just four years old.
Since early March, multiple fires have broken out in the camp. One of which, on March 16th, resulted in a child perishing in the fire. Meanwhile, MSF have intensified calls for the evacuation of refugees from these ‘squalid’ camps amid the coronavirus outbreak, as the first case on Lesbos is confirmed. The Greek government has stated that the coronavirus risk on the island is less than that on the mainland. The fragile atmosphere on the island has prompted NGOs to limit their services and volunteers to evacuate. The urgent needs of these refugees have been lost amongst the panic caused by the coronavirus outbreak, resulting in the residents of Moria taking matters into their own hands and sewing their own facemasks.
In examining the humanitarian situation in Lesbos, it is clear that refugees are being used as a pawn in a geopolitical game. Those seeking refuge stand to lose the most, with uncertainty surrounding the life that awaits them, whether that be in the EU or Turkey.
Photo credit: Moria camp, Lesbos, 12/2019 – 01/2020, Fellipe Lopes
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Studying migration makes you face a lot of assumptions that you have about the scary and controversial topic that it is. The politicised nature of migration and the way discourse is manipulated means that migration might just be one of the most misunderstood areas of life, governance, and public policy. Below we lay out some of the most common myths about the topic, and bust them for you.
You would be forgiven for thinking this if you just looked at the media. Discussions about migration are often about refugees coming to Europe, irregular border crossings, and deportations to migrant-sending countries. All of this portrays migration as a Global South-to-Global North phenomenon. But the reality is very different. As you can see from the infographic below this flow only represents around 35% of overall migration. The biggest migration flow is from South-to-South. The next biggest flow is from North-to-North, and furthermore there are about 14 million North-to-South migrants. North-to-North, South-to-South, and North-to-South flows get very little media coverage or public attention. While migration is perceived as a problem when it’s from a ‘developing’ country to a ‘developed’ country, despite migrants undertaking key roles in labour markets in developed countries, it is not perceived as a problem when the flow is reversed. It could also be argued that those from ‘developed’ countries take key opportunities away from those in the countries to which they migrate.
This is, even more, the case when we talk about refugees. Around 84% of refugees live in the Global South, because most refugees find safety in neighbouring countries. Although we talk about refugees in Europe, the vast majority of refugees have not travelled a long distance from their countries of origin, and many live in extremely poor conditions in camps in neighbouring countries.
We hear this narrative of migration a lot. How do we solve the problem of migration? How do we stop migrants from coming to Europe? But migration is not really a problem to be solved. Migration is a fact of life, it has always happened, and it will always happen. Irish people have migrated around the world for centuries, and we still do. For some reason, we don’t perceive this as a problem with the same level of concern. Migration can be managed, just like any other area of public life. Like infrastructure development or public education, it is neither desirable nor possible to stop it from happening, so the real question is: how do we manage it so that it works for everyone, and so that we uphold the values that we profess?
In 2015, about 1 million people arrived in Europe, often irregularly (without travel documents). As many of our readers know, Europe panicked: countries stopped rescuing those drowning, , confidence in the system was lost, the extreme right rose to prominence for the first time since World War II, and countries like Italy and Greece who had little capacity and the largest numbers of refugees and asylum seekers were more or less abandoned. Many people referred to this as a ‘migration crisis’.
The European Union has a population of around 500 million people. It is one of the largest economies in the world, with incredible resources at its disposal. 1 million people arriving in Europe is not a crisis. At the time that Europe was talking about a migration crisis, Lebanon had opened its border to Syrians fleeing civil war, eventually accommodating about 1-1.5 million refugees. This is in a country of around 5 million people (excluding half a million Palestinian refugees who were already in the country), with already struggling infrastructure, and resources that were not even a fraction of those available to the EU. This arrival put a severe strain on vital public services such as healthcare, education, and electricity. Many Lebanese schools started a second shift in their schools to educate the new population. That is a crisis.
What Europe experienced was a policy crisis, and a confidence crisis, both of which were, in my opinion, completely avoidable. The crisis was caused by terrible EU regulation that put all of the burden of accommodating and deciding on the asylum processes of the arrivals on some of the poorest countries in the EU. These countries (understandably) felt abandoned, disillusioned and out of control, and turned to strongmen politicians. It experienced a confidence crisis on multiple counts. Many people lost confidence in both the EU and their member states to cope with stressors such as neighbouring conflicts and to respect human rights in the process. Those who came at the problem from the perspective of the migrants were disgusted at countries that professed to uphold human rights but watched men, women, and children drowning in their seas, and didn’t save them because they were somehow labelled as undesirable. Those who came at the problem from the perspective of the nation and national security were disgusted at the fact that camps filled Europe’s cities, homeless people filled its streets, and the systems that had been built were overwhelmed, with the EU’s ‘burden-sharing’ mechanism exposed as useless when it was really needed.
When we think about migration, conversations about illegal border crossings often dominate the conversation. While many policymakers do perceive irregular migration to be a problem (both for the destination societies and for the migrants themselves), the vast majority of these cases involve overstaying visas. Illegal border crossings actually play quite a minor role in irregular illegal migration. The story often goes like this: somebody gets a visa, be it for tourism, study, or work. Eventually, the visa expires, but the person doesn’t leave. Voila – this person is now residing illegally.
As migration becomes increasingly politicised, people have the perception that there is more migration now than before. But this is contradicted by the figures. Although in absolute numbers, there are more international migrants than ever before, the percentage of the population that has migrated has hovered at around 3% for decades. So in relative terms, international migration hasn’t really changed.
Like the issues outlined above, media discourse about migration (especially in recent years) is dominated by a discussion of refugees and asylum seekers. But refugees only represent around 10% of the global population of international migrants, with around 26 million refugees around the world.
This is a pretty popular myth among politicians (especially the populist ones). Migration is perceived as a very simple problem with a very simple solution: close the borders. Of course, no politician is advocating for actual closed borders – the only country that has this is North Korea, and even then a few slip through, and they allow tourists in on guided tours. This rhetoric is usually aimed at stopping clandestine border crossings – which as discussed earlier, really are not a big problem or even a significant source of illegal residents. There are several problems with this, one of which is that it just doesn’t work.
Migration between two places that border each other is pretty natural: US-Mexico migration has been happening for centuries. Often Mexicans moved seasonally to the US to fill temporary gaps in the labour market, for example during harvest or planting seasons or during a particularly busy manufacturing period – and Mexicans were often recruited by US firms. When they closed the border, they presented Mexicans with à dilemma: they could not support themselves entirely in Mexico, and had been relying on cross-border working, seasonal migration, or selling their crops across the border. Now, if they wanted to continue to provide the same standard of living for their families, they had no choice but to move permanently to the US. So when countries close borders, often permanent immigration goes up. This was the same for Moroccans in Europe (especially Spain) in the 1990s, when European countries introduced visa requirements for Moroccans: they stopped going back. Moroccans also used to come as seasonal workers to Europe, filling key gaps in the agriculture sector. With visa restrictions, once you’re in, you don’t leave because there’s a chance you won’t be able to come back, especially if you’ve overstayed your visa. This leads to more permanent migration, and more illegal migration because people who can’t afford visas or who have been refused no longer have a legal means of arriving.
So overall, closing borders doesn’t stop illegal migration, and it increases permanent migration. But it also makes migration much more dangerous. The fact that over one thousand migrants died in the Mediterranean last year attests to this. Closing borders does not do away with people’s desire to improve the lives of them and their family by migrating. It just makes the journey much more dangerous for them.
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