Refugee vs economic migrant: Are EU policies changing?
Are European migration policies being driven by efforts to quickly classify new arrivals as either migrants or refugees?
In late January, European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos acknowledged that the European Union’s efforts to manage migration had, until then, “not delivered the expected results”. One million refugees, asylum seekers and migrants had crossed into Europe the previous year. More than 3,700 people had died attempting to do so.
“Europe will provide protection for those who need it,” Avramopoulos proposed, with a note of caution. “But those who have no right to be here have to be returned.”
The European Commissioner was drawing on a debate that has dominated discussions of the so-called migration crisis since last year – how to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. Some have called the distinction necessary at a time of unprecedented human movement. Others say it dehumanises one group in favour of the other, making “migrant” a dirty word.
European countries appear to be designing policy around this loaded distinction. Economic migrants or rejected asylum seekers face increasingly harsh measures, while the public’s mood towards them becomes ever more charged.
Sweden expands immigration policing
Sweden has a history of accepting refugees and asylum seekers from around the world since 1975. In some areas of Gothenburg, the country’s second city, refugees from Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990, live alongside Iraqis and Syrians who have recently arrived.
But in the face of unprecedented migration, the government has gradually rolled back its welcoming policy in favour of border checks and expanded police programmes.
In late January, Swedish Interior Minister Anders Ygeman announced plans to charter aircraft to deport between 60,000 and 80,000 rejected asylum seekers (out of the total 163,000 who applied) from last year.
“We have a big challenge ahead of us,” Ygeman was quoted as saying by the daily business newspaper Dagens Industri, acknowledging that the government fears many of those included in that number may go into hiding.
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The Swedish government has already announced its intention of “vigorously expanding” police numbers and dealing with the “significant risk” of people going underground to avoid arrest or deportation, The Guardian reported last month. Ygeman admitted that the process could take years.
Four years ago, sisters Amira and Zeinab fled their home in northeastern Syria, made it to Europe and applied for asylum in Sweden.
After a long wait, and several appeals, they were told their claims had been rejected for the final time. They believe it is because, despite living in Syria, their mother is originally from Eastern Europe.
They are just two of the tens of thousands now at risk of deportation from Europe.
“We didn’t get asylum, so we’ll be forced to leave the country,” Zeinab explains. She is bitter about what she sees as a palpable shift in public sympathy since the Paris attacks, and allegations of sexual harassment and violence during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, Germany.
“We used to get help from organisations here and it was relatively easy, but now it feels as if there is discrimination based on people’s religion,” Zeinab adds, recounting how even the church where they have been receiving help has started asking questions. “When they find out you’re Muslim, the treatment changes.”
The sisters are trying as best they can to live under the radar, subsisting off charity and help from relatives. And they now live in fear of arrest. For security reasons, they asked for their real names to be withheld.
“We don‘t go out so much these days,” says Amira.
Zeinab nods grimly. “If something happens, no one can help us.“
Garrison states, hotspot borders
Doros Polykarpou, the executive director of Cypriot migration, asylum and anti-discrimination organisation KISA, meanwhile, claims that the migration policies of the Mediterranean island are testament to the fact that policies such as the ones advocated by Sweden do not actually work.
Cyprus has received hundreds of economic migrants since it joined the EU in 2004, while its proximity to the Middle East had already seen arrivals from Lebanon and Syria in recent years.
“In the last 10 years, Cyprus was following a very strict policy … trying to manage migration with the tool of detention and deportation – sending a message to refugees that it’s better not to come to Cyprus and to go somewhere else,” he says.
“If European countries can take an example from Cyprus, and learn something from these last 10 years, it’s that you can’t implement such a policy because you‘ll have more detention places, but it won‘t be easy to deport them back to their countries.” This can get expensive very quickly, Polykarpou says.
Michael Flynn is the executive director of the Geneva-based Global Detention Project (GDP), whose December report, The Uncounted, recently uncovered a “severe lack of information about the number of migrants and asylum seekers in detention across Europe,” including large gaps in statistics or opaque governmental responses to requests for information.
At the same time, Flynn argues, the new proposals present several “practical impossibilities”.
“You’d basically have to create a garrison state to start detaining these numbers of people,” Flynn suggests, referring to the relationship of detention to deportation, because people are usually detained before being returned.
“We‘re talking not necessarily about laws, but the practical impossibilities in terms of how many people do you need to have in place to do this? How many detention centres are you going to have to hold them? How much money are you going to spend to build these detention centres, so that you can prevent people from absconding? What is it that you‘re willing to actually commit to do this?“
Sweden is not alone in pondering such policies. Austria recently announced that it plans to handle rejected asylum seekers and migrants by capping the number of possible annual asylum claims while deporting 50,000 people over the next four years.
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The Austrian government may even pay migrants $542 if they agree to be deported, according to a summary of an agreement between the country’s interior, defence and integration ministries, as reported by Reuters.
Even Germany, often lauded for its progressive approach to the unprecedented influx of refugees in 2015, has discussed returning more North African economic migrants by classifying countries such as Algeria and Tunisia as “safe third countries” – the same tactic by which the EU hopes to fast-track processing of asylum seekers and economic migrants on Europe‘s borders.
Some will be allowed through, others “immediately returned“, according to European Commission documents. So-called “hotspots” are scheduled to open on several of Greece‘s high-receiving islands – including Lesbos.
The threat of sending people back to “safe” third countries, where there is then a risk their rights will be violated through administrative detention or actual return to origin countries, is real, according to Amnesty International.
Since September 2015, the rights organisation has documented the cases of “scores – possibly hundreds – of refugees and asylum seekers” in Turkey being “herded onto buses and transported more than 1,000 kilometres to isolated detention centres where they have been held incommunicado. Some report being shackled for days on end, beaten and forcibly transported back to the countries they had fled.“