The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

Over the past few years, the European Union has used deterrence as its main strategy to prevent an influx of refugees, becoming more hard-handed as the number of refugees has ...

Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

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While Germany has been lauded for agreeing to take in 1,700 refugees from refugee camp Moria that recently burned to the ground, the country has been cited as a role ...

Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else

The recent fire that razed refugee camp Moria in Greece has left around 13,000 refugees homeless and fleeing once again—this time to an unknown destination where they hope to find safety at most, or temporary shelter at the least. While humanitarian aid organizations have scrambled to provide aid to the destitute refugees and Europe’s leaders have assumed a cold and calculating approach, it seems that refugee men are being forgotten. Dorothea Hilhorst argues that all refugees, regardless of age or gender, should be helped and that the plight of young men, who are often not considered ‘real’ refugees, should also be highlighted.

Camp Moria, housing 13,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, burnt down on 8 September. The tragedy has been long in the making—Europe has failed the migrants in Moria for years, forsaking them to a sub-human non-life in overcrowded refugee camps. Those of us who hoped that the dramatic fire would act as a wake-up call have seen little progress this past week in the wake of the fire. Europe, except for Germany, has so far responded in a cold and calculating way.

The little response we have seen has mainly focused on unaccompanied children and to a lesser extent on families. The Netherlands, for example, has offered to receive a few hundred families from Moria. The ‘offer’ is even less generous than it appears, as their number will be deducted from the total number of vulnerable refugees to be received by the Netherlands on the basis of a standing agreement with UN refugee agency UNHCR, much to the dismay of the agency.

The focus on unaccompanied children plays into the primary feelings of sympathy of many Europeans. A Dutch woman who started a campaign to collect sleeping bags for Lesbos told a reporter from the national news agency in the Netherlands: “I am a mother. When I see children sleep on the streets, I must do something, no matter what”. It may be natural for people to respond more to suffering children than to adolescents and adults, but surely politics should not only be dictated by motherly instincts alone?

It remains important to unpack the thin policy response to the fire in Moria. The focus on children and families makes a false distinction among refugees that makes it seem as if only children are vulnerable. It is a cheap, yet effective trick that puts 400 child refugees in the spotlight to distract the attention from the almost 13,000 others that live in similar squalid conditions.

Unfortunately, we have landed ourselves in a time where official politics are not guided by cherished and shared institutions like the refugee convention, which stipulates that people fleeing from war are entitled to be heard in an asylum procedure and, while the procedure is pending, received in dignified circumstances. Instead, policies seem cynically oriented towards one goal only: deterrence. The underlying idea of policy comes across as something along the lines of “[l]et 13,000 people suffer in front of as many cameras as possible so that desperate people will refrain from crossing the Mediterranean to seek shelter and asylum in the affluent countries of Europe”.

While 13,000 people suffer, the gaze of Europe singles out several hundred children for our solidarity. The distinction between these children and the other refugees rests on two equally weak arguments.

Firstly, it is implied that children are more vulnerable than other refugees. Whereas this is true in some respects, the level of despair and hopelessness experienced by all people in Moria is shocking. During my visit to Lesbos last year, aid workers told me that many refugees in Moria—children, adolescents and adults—suffer from a triple trauma. The first one was caused by the violence that triggered their escape, the second by the long passage to Europe and the crossing of the sea, and, finally, new trauma arising from the dismal conditions in the camp, the permanent state of insecurity, and the lack of future prospects. A vast majority of the people in Moria qualify to be seriously considered in asylum procedures because they fled from the violence of war and are extremely vulnerable.

Secondly, the focus on children leans on an idea of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ refugees. Children cannot be blamed for their situation and are presumed innocent. The same applies to women in the eyes of most people. Adult men, and especially single (young) men, on the other hand, are looked at with a multitude of suspicions. Men are associated with violence and often suspected to be culprits rather than victims of war. They are also distrusted as they may be associated with sexual violence against women that is indeed widespread, but certainly does not hold true for all men. Finally, they don’t solicit feelings of sympathy because they are considered strong and capable of managing their own survival. Or worse, they are considered fortune seekers instead of bare survivors of war.

However, it is a myth that men should not deserve our sympathy! In situations of war, men are more likely than women to be exposed to violence – killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced subscription in a regular or rebel army. Traumatized and destitute, they find themselves in a situation where they do not qualify for many of the aid programmes that are based on the same gender biases and reserve their resources for women and children. Quite a lot of young men see no other option than to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

Singling out unaccompanied children therefore is delusional. It seems to be designed to placate the large numbers of Europeans who want to act in solidarity with refugees. Our politicians keep telling us that social support for refugees has dried up, but while they listen in fear to right-wing populists, they are blind to the wish of equally large constituencies that want to welcome refugees.

As we are left in anger and shame, let us not step into the false dichotomy of deserving/undeserving refugees. Policy should be guided by legislation, not by false distinctions that are based on and reinforce popular sentiments. All refugees in Moria, irrespective of their gender or age, should be able to tell their story while being sheltered in dignity. All these stories need to be heard in proper asylum procedures—without prejudice.

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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‘I will not return unless the regime of Assad falls’ by Nawras Al Husein and Natascha Wagner

The award-winning documentary film ‘For Sama’ tells the story of a mother who filmed her life in war-torn Aleppo for her newborn, Sama. The mother documented her daughter’s first moments, but also the context in which they tried to live, including the regular bombing of the hospital, the blood-covered victims, dead people and, by and by, the destruction of the city. A recent study by ISS researcher Natascha Wagner and Nawras Al Husein highlighting the voices, fears and perceptions of Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey and Germany shows that decisions by refugees to return to their country of origin are complex; the general assumption that Syrian refugees wish to return to Syria after the war has ended should not be taken as a given. The research shows the necessity of engaging with refugees to inform decisions on their future.


With the recent spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, leading to lockdowns and causing thousands of deaths, our attention has been diverted from other ongoing crises. June 20 is International Refugee Day, and amidst the many other crises we find ourselves in, we are experiencing one of the biggest refugee crises of our time. In March 2020, the Syrian civil war entered into its 10th year. While the war is still ongoing, the future of Syrian refugees—victims of the civil war forced to flee their home country and temporarily residing in neighbouring countries and beyond—is already heavily debated.

The Syrian civil war has resulted in more than 5.9 million internally displaced people and more than 5.6 million refugees as of 1 July 2019. The majority of Syrian refugees are concentrated in the countries that border Syria, particularly Turkey, but a significant number are also hosted in EU countries, mainly Germany. Turkey hosts almost two-thirds of the Syrian refugees, while Germany had 568,785 officially registered Syrian asylum applicants by December 2019, making it the host country with the largest Syrian refugee population in Europe.

For the UN, a number of European countries hosting refugees, as well as the Syrian government, the return of Syrian refugees to their country of origin is the desired solution. The unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees over the last years has resulted in political, social, and economic challenges for host countries, with social tension rising in the wake of the mass migration in 2015. The discourse of the alleged threat that refugees pose to host communities is used by right-wing populist parties to win votes. Thus, host governments are under pressure to consider return migration scenarios given the political challenges they experience. But do Syrian refugees feel the same?

Inclusivity for informed and data-driven decision-making

The voices of Syrian refugees have seldom entered the debate on refugee policy. Therefore, in 2018, we interviewed 577 Syrian refugees in Germany (241) and Turkey (336) and explored whether they consider return migration an option, and, if so, when. We wanted to highlight the needs, aspirations, and agency of Syrian refugees in deciding upon their future. Understanding decision-making about return migration, particularly in the case of refugees, is not an easy task. Yet, for this very reason it is important to provide informed and data-driven information from the refugees themselves to host-country policy-makers.

Some of the main considerations or views informing the decision to return to Syria include:

Regime Al-Assad. We found that of the interviewed refugees in Turkey, 76% want to go back home. Among the Syrian refugees in Germany, only 55% wanted to go back. The current political regime under Al-Assad plays an important role concerning their desire to return to Syria. For the majority of refugees, an end to the current regime is needed to ensure their eventual return. For the German group, the likelihood of intended return increases by 21% if the Al-Assad regime is to be discontinued. Given that Al-Assad is still in power and the Western world is to a large extent inactively watching the conflict, host countries should not count on a speedy return of Syrian refugees, at least not voluntarily.

Civil and Political Rights. We also inquired whether other institutional preferences affected intentions to return. While refugees appreciate the democratic values of freedom of speech and belief, the data suggest that the existence of these liberties does not feed into the return migration decision in either of the host countries. Thus, simply imposing these values on the Syrian regime is unlikely to trigger mass return movements.

On-the-spot Information. Our research further analyzed whether exposure to positive or negative information regarding return migration impacted refugees’ intentions to return. The negative news item shown to respondents presented the latest facts about numerous challenges faced by Syrian refugees who returned home from Lebanon. The positive news item consisted of a leaflet with encouraging information on support for returnees, including relevant links and addresses in case of interest. We found no systematic impact on the decision to migrate back. This suggests that host governments cannot expect (rapid) information disseminated by refugee agencies—even if it is positive and provides support—to impact refugees’ decision making about their return.

Infographic Syrian Refugees returning home
The infographic can be downloaded here: https://www.iss.nl/en/news/return-migration-syria-voices-refugees-germany-and-turkey

Moving beyond repatriation agendas

 If large-scale return migration is desired, we should try to better understand the preferences and concerns of the refugees themselves. We would do well to listen to the voices of the refugees themselves, since they have very clear ideas about what would make returning worth the effort. The situation in Syria continues to be unstable and it remains to be seen whether the country can find a way back to peace in the near future.

As our research shows, the end of the war and even political change would not be enough for all refugees to consider returning. Consequently, host countries should already start investing in the integration of those refugees who stay on. Taking the stance that the presence of the Syrian refugees is entirely temporary is not what the data suggest. The integration of the Syrian refugees within the host countries, regardless of how long they intend to stay, is an opportunity that can also support return migration, as it will give visibility to the refugees and their concerns.


Source: This blog is based on Nawras Al Husein & Natascha Wagner, “Determinants of intended return migration among refugees: A comparison of Syrian refugees staying in Germany and Turkey“, June 2020.


About the authors:

Nawras Al HuseinNawras Al Husein is an ISS alumnus and currently works for CARE Netherlands as project manager and cash advisor. He is a humanitarian and development practitioner who has been managing complex emergency responses in Syria and Turkey for the last 8 years as well as early recovery and development projects in Syria and Yemen. His most recent research focuses on identifying the determinants of intended return migration among Syrian refugees hosted in Germany and Turkey.

 

Natascha WagnerNatascha Wagner is associate professor of Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (Netherlands). Her research interests lie in international economics/ development, ICT for development and health. A recurring theme in her research is gender and female empowerment as well as social exclusion. Natascha has published articles in, among others, Health Economics, Economics of Education Review, Journal of Development Studies and World Development.

 


Title Image Credit: ekvidi on Flickr. The image has been cropped.