How Europe’s (anti-)migration policies are fuelling a humanitarian crisis

How Europe’s (anti-)migration policies are fuelling a humanitarian crisis

When some one million people crossed the Mediterranean in the course of 2015 to seek refuge, European countries called it a crisis. Yet the real crisis was created by European ...

When the storm subsides: what happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

When the storm subsides: what happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

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The EU’s new pact on migration: what’s next after all the shock, sadness, and solidarity talk?

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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Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

ICTs are changing how marginalized communities connect with each other, including those in fragile refugee settings, where ICTs have been used to share information and organize in collective enterprise. This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, WhatsApp has taken on a critical health function. Holly Ritchie here discusses how Somali women refugees are using this platform particularly in this challenging time and discusses the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance.

Somali women Nairobi
Somali refugee women in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Holly Ritchie.

ICTs as fundamental ‘frugal’ innovations, and growing use during the pandemic

Information Communication Technology (ICTs), for example mobile devices and applications, are arguably the dominant technology of our time. From a consumer perspective, ICTs may be considered a form of ‘frugal’ innovation, as they present innovative, low-cost solutions to everyday problems that are flexible and accessible for users with limited resources. If used effectively, ICTs have been cited to be a major ‘game changer’ in human development, driving progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fostering potential gender equality and empowerment.

Beyond basic connectivity, there is increasing use of mobile technology in humanitarian assistance, for example enabling cash transfers through mobile money, and facilitating access to basic utilities including energy, water and sanitation. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, governments and agencies in Africa have started to draw on mobile phone apps for public information and support, for example the establishment of WhatsApp chatbot servicesYet there has been little discussion on the use of such technologies by vulnerable groups themselves that may present both simple and socially embedded frugal solutions which can be employed during the health crisis and beyond.

Insights into Somali women refugees and ICTs in Kenya

My research with Somali refugees (in Kenya) and Syrian women refugees (in Jordan) has explored gender and the influence of social norms in refugee livelihoods.1 More recently, I have looked at the grassroots use of ICTs by refugees, and links to cultural dynamics in refugee inclusion and integration. On the back of these studies, in 2018, I started a small self-funded project to promote the well-being and leadership skills of a group of 25 Somali refugee women2 in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya.3 As a trial in digital communication, in the early stages of the project I set up a WhatsApp group to facilitate coordination, despite limited smartphone ownership amongst the refugee women.4 It emerged that it was eventually possible to reach all of the women in the group however through either children’s or neighbours’ devices. And whilst the women were largely illiterate, women used voice messages and pictures to communicate on the platform.

Initially conceived as a means of simple coordination, the WhatsApp group soon took on a new social dimension with some women sharing inspirational Islamic messages during special days. Later as the women began a small tie-dye business, progress and designs started to be shared on the platform. The experience of the online group has permitted both a renewed sense of personal confidence and connection in a hostile setting, and the development of new collective agency and economic coordination. At a deeper level, for women that have direct access to smart phones, the technology enables new forms of cultural solidarity between the women, reinforcing identities through sharing of religious messages.

Refugee ICT experience during the pandemic – from health to livelihoods

This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform has taken on a critical health function, as vital health information, advice, and government directives are shared with the refugee group in English and Somali.5 This is further shared by the refugee women themselves with close family and friends, indicating the importance of refugee-own networks during a crisis. 
Beyond health information, the group has also provided a forum for situational updates and social support, as Eastleigh has faced rising levels of Covid-19 cases, and there have been increasing reports of police violence as malls have been forcibly closed and street trading prohibited. Working primarily as petty traders, the lockdown in Eastleigh has had a significant impact on the refugee women’s (safe) daily work and wages, and households are struggling to make ends meet. Whilst this remains an extraordinarily difficult time, the combined experience of digital communication and physical restrictions has accelerated refugee women’s interest in online business and marketing of their new textile products, particularly by younger group members.

Emerging lessons learnt – the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance

The refugee WhatsApp group has illuminated various ways that ICTs can boost refugee women’s self-reliance and resilience:

  • Simple ICT tools can be useful in local digital communication, including reaching poor and illiterate refugee groups (through voice messages/pictures)
  • ICT tools can permit vital social solidarity and economic coordination and online marketing
  • ICT tools can also facilitate the sharing of public health and security information, and the countering of fake/false news that is often distributed via social media or ‘on the streets’

In this fast-moving digital world, it is clear that ICTs are playing an increasingly important role in refugee socio-economic lives, although actual usage and adoption may vary at a local level, with differing levels of connectivity, support and access.6 Notably, ICTs can also be misused at a local level, with apps being employed to instigate unrest or violence. Further, there may be additional access barriers in refugee settings with clampdowns on connectivity imposed by local authorities.

Despite such challenges, in times of crisis, it is crucial for policy makers and aid agencies to recognize and draw on locally established ICT platforms and community groups to facilitate critical information dissemination, and local exchange and support. Over time, to better appreciate ICTs and gender in fragile contexts, aid groups should consider both physical access to mobile devices, but also links to social norms, cultural ideas (and ideology) and the role of local actors. This will permit a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of ICTs in refugee women’s empowerment, social protection, and broader integration.

1. Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.
2. With outreach of up to 100 refugee women.
3. Due to its high presence of Somali traders and concentration of Somali refugees, the district is also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’.
4. An estimated 40 percent of the refugee women had smartphones.
5. For example, health advice from the Ministry of Health in Somalia.
6. Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA) and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Holly A Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.