Several shocking events that transpired in Greece last year have not been met by truly humane solutions, showing that the performative moments of ‘refugee crises’ are not enough to move EU leaders into adopting a different approach toward refugees. The EU’s long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum is supposed to change how refugees are treated, but with the European Commission set to promote ‘a European way of life’ through the pact, harsh practices are bound to continue, writes Zeynep Kaşlı.
It has been almost half a year since the catastrophic fire razed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in September last year, leaving around 13,000 residents without shelter in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown. Some were immediately relocated to mainland Greece; however, over 7,000 refugees had no choice but to move to another makeshift camp, awaiting the processing of their asylum applications through ‘accelerated’ procedures. In this context, the question arises: will the EU change its approach toward refugees by introducing the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and will anything change this year for refugees themselves?
A worrying development that almost went unnoticed
In March last year, at the time when the first COVID-19 cases appeared in most countries across the globe, Greek and EU authorities had to take immediate action at the Greek-Turkish land border when Turkish authorities announced they would not stop passage to Europe and allowed thousands of refugees to pass the Turkish side of the Kastanies-Karaağaç Border Gate in Edirne. In response, the Greek government suspended the submission of asylum applications for one month, and the European border and coastguard agency Frontex deployed 100 additional border guards from 22 EU member states to halt the influx of refugees. Their ardent resistance to forced migration ended with the killing of refugee Muhammad Gulzar, leaving others wounded. Many thousands of other refugees who could not enter Greece were left with no place to go, stuck in limbo between fleeing and surviving.
What do these events tell us about the EU border and migration regime? Do they have any transformative role to play in EU-level policy making, and, if so, what is that role?
The news of these rather shocking and extraordinary events quickly spread across Europe, evoking strong emotions and triggering actions, from deep empathy to suspicion of the intentions of displaced people waiting at the borders. Under these circumstances, the long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum was launched by the European Commission on September 23, 2020 as a “fresh start on migration: building confidence through more effective procedures and striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity.”
The initial assessment by civil society organizations of the legislative and non-legislative proposals clearly show that the New Pact is considered far from a novel approach in terms of the guarantees put in place for compliance with international and EU legal standards, in promoting the fairer sharing of responsibility for asylum in Europe and globally, or in terms of the kind of migration management practices it is likely to accelerate. These include ‘return sponsorship’ and the increasing use of detention, as well as the restriction and criminalization of all sorts of humanitarian activities.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned ‘shocking’ events are about to become (from a European gaze) an intermezzo of what van Reekum calls a routinized emergency visualized through images of migration by boat. I agree with van Reekum that as manifested in ongoing rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, emergencies gain a routine character due to the unresolved ethical questions that the New Pact seems to be far from solving.
Really ‘shocking’, or history repeating itself?
The events at the Greek-Turkish land border were not new. We witnessed a similar ‘shock’ back in mid-September 2015 when over 3,000 people marched to the Turkish border province of Edirne asking for safe passage to Europe. At that time, they were forcefully stopped a few kilometers before the Kastanies-Karaağaç Border Gate and were allowed to wait until the EU heads of state had an informal meeting on September 23 to discuss the implementation of the European Agenda on Migration and how to increase collaboration with third countries like Turkey to alleviate the migratory pressure on the EU’s frontline member states. Just like in 2020, they were put in buses and transferred to other Turkish cities, while quite a number of them were detained and forcefully expelled to Syria without due procedure.
Hence, what we can call the first intermezzo in 2015 led to the EU-Turkey Statement aiming for a fast-track return of the rejected asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey as a “safe third country.” Five years after this first intermezzo, we can confidently say that the EU’s hotspot approach combined with the EU-Turkey Statement proved to be a highly ineffective policy at best, demonstrated by the low number of returns under the deal, the declaration of the suspension of the deal by the Turkish government, and the order of the Court of Justice of the European Union questioning the authorship and responsibility of the deal.
The second intermezzo in 2020 coinciding with the launch of the long-awaited New Pact further revealed two things. First, the EU has become more dependent on the willingness of its neighbours near and far to continue hosting millions of displaced people. Second, the only action plan the EU and its member states are able to come up with is greater militarization at the border and fewer rights for thousands of people who have already survived different forms of violence throughout their journey to and in Turkey and are in search for a life with dignity and peace.
Going back to the question posed above, the performative moments of the crises seem to play only a reproductive, rather than a transformative, role in shaping the EU-level migration and asylum policy. While the violent encounters at the land border further strengthen what van Houtum and Bueno Lacy call the ‘iron borders’ of fortress Europe, the burning down of camps such as Moria and ‘compassion fatigue’ in the Greek islands are the epitome of the ‘camp border’ within Europe that basically brings home the EU’s decades-old externalization policy. Seen from this perspective, the extraordinary events we witness at the land borders, hotspots and camps described above are only a byproduct what Jeandesboz and Pallister-Wilkins also call part of the routine work of bordering to order politics.
This routine work of bordering already became crystal clear in the discussions on the title of Commissioner-Designate Schinas’ portfolio on migration, security, employment and education. Even though the portfolio title was soon changed from ‘Protection’ to the ‘Promotion of the European Way of Life’ due to sharp criticism, even the changed title remains symbolic of the failure of the EU to transform its refugee policy. This is particularly visible in its reference to a singular European way of life that is to be promoted across Europe. While the EU means different things to different sides of the European public, from the populist right to the green left, it remains a union of free mobility for the lucky few, whereas it has also become a deportation union for many.
As the relatively shocking news from Greece has slowly turned into an intermezzo of routinized emergency, in the face of allegations against the EU agency Frontex, a deeper discussion is necessary on what a ‘European way of life’ entails in the face of EU member states’ responsibility for displaced people arriving at their borders or in the neighbourhood of Europe.
About the author:
Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.
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