The EU’s shield and the institutionalisation of protracted displacement

TRAFIG researchers are deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation at the Greece-Turkey border, on the Aegean islands and, of course, in Idlib. We are irritated about the political framing of recent developments, in particular by the European Union. 'Shielding Europe from refugees' and keeping them in protracted displacement is no sustainable solution. Instead, providing ‘protection shields for refugees’ and supporting them to find pathways to the future, whilst respecting legal and moral principles and counteracting racist violence must become utmost priority (again).

Protracting displacement

Displacement situations are becoming longer, more deeply entrenched and ever harder to resolve. This is a global, yet hardly new, trend, reflected by the notion of ‘protracted refugee situations’ introduced as a technical term to denote such situations about two decades ago. However, protracted displacement used to be considered as a dysfunctionality typical of developing countries (see TRAFIG working paper No. 2 on the history of the notion of ‘protracted displacement’).

But a few years ago, things started to change, also in Europe. On the Greek islands, in Italian agricultural fields, along the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia, in (non)places like the Calais ‘jungle’ and even in the heart of European capitals like Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Rome, the number of marginalised forced migrants with a precarious administrative status (if any) and extremely limited options has not only grown over the years, it has become chronic. This is a clear symptom for a malfunctioning, but above all selective implementation of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), in which ‘European values’, ‘solidarity’, ‘shared responsibility’ and ‘fundamental rights’ are mere buzzwords but not guiding principles for all member states.

Rather than aimed at ‘ending displacement’, the policies currently pursued by the European Commission and its member states’ governments seek to contain displaced people at places outside or at the margins of Europe and thus purposely limiting the options available to them. It is nothing new that Europe’s approach to displacement is characterised by two competing policy frames—refugee protection and humanitarian aid on the one hand and internal as well as border security and the externalisation of control on the other (see TRAFIG working paper No. 3). That the latter agenda now prevails is only hard to accept. Especially, if the sole purpose is political bargaining on the international arena, pleasing the local or national electorate and mobilising support around anti-migration- and anti-refugee-positions. The recent developments at the borders of Greece clearly point to this direction. They might even be considered as a historical turning point in this regard.

Recent developments at the Greek border and on the Aegean islands

Since last Friday, the 28th of February, when Turkey’s President Erdogan had announced the ‘opening’ of its border to Greece, more than 13,000 refugees have moved towards the Greek border. According to media reports, they have mainly fled from Syria and Afghanistan and had lived in Turkey for months and years, apparently without finding a ‘durable solution’ for themselves. Thousands also made their way to Turkey’s southwestern coast to cross over to one of the Aegean islands — around 1,200 arrived on Lesbos, Chios and Samos on 1 and 2 of March alone. Erdogan’s announcement meant the de facto end of the controversial EU-Turkey deal, which had been struck in March 2016 to stop mass mobility of refugees along the so called ‘East Mediterranean Route’ into the EU.

The Greek authorities reacted immediately to a renewed influx of refugees with enhanced security and violence right at the land and sea border as well as illegal pushbacks and arrests of those who managed to cross over. Importantly, they also announced that they would stop accepting asylum applications for one month from migrants who had crossed the border irregularly. Together with employing a chauvinist rhetoric portraying refugees as an ‘asymmetric threat’, these moves seem to encourage alarmingly escalating racist violence at Evros as well as on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios, where armed groups of extremists indiscriminately attack migrants, refugees, volunteers, activists, NGO staff and humanitarian workers.

Taking sides – EU support to border enforcement and to the confinement of refugees

Instead of urging Greece to adhere to international laws such as the non-refoulement principle and fundamental human rights and in particular the right to asylum, the European Union jumped to the side of the Greek state and applauded its efforts to protect the Greek, and indeed the European external, borders at all costs. Last Tuesday, the 3rd of March 2020, the three EU presidents (Commission, Council and Parliament) visited Kastanies, a small town in the Greek Evros region close to the Turkish border. After a short helicopter flight over the border area, on which they were accompanied by the Prime Ministers of Greece and Croatia, they addressed the press to officially endorse Greece’s policy of systematically denying admission of asylum seekers. In her brief statement, the Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, did neither mention refugee’s plights nor their rights but only circled around the protection of Europe’s external borders. She reiterated that Europe will stand together in unity to “hold the line” and concluded by thanking Greece “for being our European ‘ασπίδα’ [English: shield] in these times”. Even coming from a politician known for her taste for stark language (remember the portfolio for ‘protecting our European way-of-life’?), it was quite a shocking phrase.

But the problem here is clearly not one of language. Greek border guards are using violence to push back forced migrants, including children, from EU’s sea and land borders (as documented by videos circulating on the web) and even more FRONTEX forces and equipment are deployed to support and actively reinforce Greece’s role as a ‘shield’ for Europe. Reframing the function of EU’s external border—from a ‘filter’ ruled by law into an ‘emergency shield’— has fundamental political and legal implications.

First, it means de facto endorsing violations of the non-refoulement principle (and even the EU-Turkey Statement itself). Second, from a geopolitical point of view (one programmatically so important for von der Leyen herself), it means stirring up conflict with Turkey rather than looking for sustainable solutions based on a proper understanding of Erdogan’s goals (apparently more related with the situation in Syria than with the expectation of additional EU money for containing refugee flows).

Finally, from the specific point of view of TRAFIG, the landmark development in Kastanies can be interpreted as a (long) further step towards the institutionalisation of (en)forced protracted displacement as a fundamental method of governing mixed flows at EU’s borders. Establishing concentric buffer zones far into the neighbouring continents and multiple layers of containment — a practice Jennifer Hyndman and Alison Mountz called “neo-refoulement” already in 2008 — has long been acknowledged. With the official forging of the ‘Greek shield’, we see a much more blatant form of deterrence and neo-refoulement and a further step towards an emerging post-Geneva international refugee regime. Moreover, the promise to financially assist Greece with another 700 million Euro for better “migration management”, before discussing any fair relocation measures and without specifying the “infrastructure needed”, turns a blind eye to the Greek government's plans to maintain geographic restrictions on the islands and to generalise mass detention as a means of deterrence. In practice, multiple buffer zones to deter and confine displaced people have not only been institutionalised around Europe, but also within Europe itself.

The way ahead: ‘Shielding Europe from refugees’ or providing ‘protection shields for refugees’?

If the European Commission unequivocally supports Greece’s border protection and containment policies and remains silent to the Greek authorities’ ignorance to the right to seek asylum and the non-refoulement principle, it contributes to violations of international law and its own principles (laid down in the Charter for Fundamental Rights). The Commission itself then also counteracts its own substantial efforts to enhance refugee’s self-reliance and to find durable solutions to protracted displacement situations by better interlinking refugee protection, humanitarian action and development cooperation (see the EC communication on forced displacement and development “Lives in Dignity” from 2016). Yet, sustainable solutions to displacement cannot be developed if further options, including those complementary pathways that go beyond the conventional triad of return, integration and resettlement, are not explored and if refugee’s self-organised (onward) mobility is cut off so radically and violently as we currently witness.

‘Shielding Europe from refugees’ and keeping them outside, or at least at marginal places where their plights are not that visible for ‘us’, is no sustainable solution—neither for refugees, nor for major receiving countries, nor for the countries at the EU’s external borders, nor even for major destination countries within the EU. A Europe that aims to lead by example in terms of human rights and protection must be able to do better. Providing ‘protection shields for refugees’, enhancing their self-reliance and supporting them to find pathways to the future that they deem desirable themselves, whilst respecting legal and moral principles and counteracting racist violence must become utmost priority (again).

Ferruccio Pastore and Emanuela Roman (FIERI, Italy), Panos Hatziprokopiou and Eva Papatzani (Aristotle Unviersity of Thessaloniki, Greece), Albert Kraler (Danube University of Krems, Austria) and Benjamin Etzold (BICC, Germany)

Latest news

Staying Connected No. 2

Find out more about our projects activities since the start of the year. Read our TRAFIG Newsletter Staying Connected No. 2 for an overview or our latest publications, for updates on the state of ou... Read more

First annual review of EU-funded Horizon 2020 research and innovation project TRAFIG

People living in protracted displacement situations are a highly vulnerable—this is not only visible during the Covid-19-pandemic. The EU-funded research project TRAFIG (Transnational Figurations of D... Read more

RSC Public Seminar Series: Strengthening refugee-led humanitarian response during the COVID-19 pandemic

TRAFIG researchers Janemary Ruhundwa, Dignity Kwanza, and Rudolf Markus, BICC, participate in his seminar series, whichs focuses on refugee-led assistance and protection in the context of Covid-1... Read more