Refugee crisis 2015: Chronicle of a foretold crisis

2015 is a hallmark year for migration to the EU. It is the year when the impasses of European migration policy manifested themselves in an explosive fashion. The massive influx of Syrian refugees into European territory resulted in the collapse of the European border and the European political project was once again put into question. The “hot summer of migration[1] triggered the reshaping of European policy, which nonetheless continues to be trapped in the dilemma of border security versus humanitarianism.

The outbreak of the refugee crisis

Since last year already, trends have clearly indicated that the flows would increase substantially in 2015. However, there was no harbinger of their unprecedented intensity. In the beginning of the year, the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government came into power in Greece. As an immediate consequence, the coercive deterrence practices systematically applied until that time by the national security authorities were suspended. The most symbolic measure involved the immediate release of all aliens long held in pre-removal detention centres.

Although this change of heart was a factor that facilitated the flows, the cause of the unprecedented mass influx into the Aegean from the shores of Turkey, just like in the past in the case of Iraq, was the heightened intensity of conflict in Syria and the almost full collapse of daily life organisation in most of the country. Crossing the few miles between the Turkish shores and the Aegean islands is, comparatively speaking, far safer than the perilous crossing of the Libyan sea. Moreover, this entry point to the European Union comes as a natural geopolitical continuation of the main northbound migratory route, currently through the Central Balkans. All of these factors made the journey via Greece far more preferable than any alternative for the millions of migrants who were -and still are- on the move.

The outbreak of the crisis, however, is due to the new qualitative characteristics of the flows, most notably the massive participation of Syrians in the steadily increasing flow from other countries facing similar problems, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, etc. In the first half of 2015 only, over 150,000 people made their way in by some watercraft from the shores (this figure is considerably higher than total arrivals in the year before), and 3/4 of the new entrants came from Syria.

The massive appearance of Syrians, however, had a substantially different impact on European public opinion from the rest of the “usual” flows. Sustained media coverage of the bloody Syrian drama triggered strong feelings of compassion and solidarity for people who were obviously striving to flee a hell we were familiar with on our TV screens. We are not talking about a population of restless and disturbing young, dark-skinned men of other faiths who come to work here. We are talking about families with children and/or elderly, young couples, students, an entire (often Christian) middle class of a country that seems to be losing hope. Emotions rose to the point of identification among the Greek and European public as a result of repeated shipwrecks and the discouragingly frequent drownings, particularly of toddlers. The shared feeling that these categories of newcomers were in need of some sort of international protection inhibited the law enforcement’s natural reflexes to treat them “discouragingly” in most of the cases. This was also partly due to the commitment of a large part of the main new governing party to human rights, under its programme.[2]

However, more decisive than any government stance was the fact that the country’s administrative apparatus, taking time off to celebrate the sealing off of the Evros border and its communication strategy of symbolic sweep operations against “illegal migrants”, was utterly unprepared to face the new volume and quality of the flows. Very few detention centres and hardly any first reception centre, no accommodation or shelter for asylum-seekers or recognised refugees, basic screening and fingerprinting of new arrivals, an asylum service trapped in its bureaucratic organization, etc. In the face of their inability to deal with the magnitude of the flows, the competent security services virtually gave up on surveillance and protection of the border (the external border) and simply limited themselves to rescuing and/or regulating the movement of newcomers, like traffic policemen. Even today, rudimentary control of identification or “separation” in categories in need of special treatment or protection (e.g. families, minors) has not been regained. What came as a relief to the authorities’ self-limitation of their duties was the fact that these populations, Syrians in their majority, were clearly made up of a large number of persons who qualified for international protection.

This was a historic collapse of the external European border. Thanks to the emotion of the European public opinion, this collapse was associated from the very beginning with the humanitarian argument, thus restricting the European leaderships’ room for manoeuvre within a framework of principles. At the same time, expectedly, the collapse of the border triggered a domino effect, as a stronger pull factor for ambivalent populations who hesitated to embark on the perilous journey. Most importantly, though, the Syrian flow also swept along other mixed flow populations, and continues to do so: Iraqis persecuted by the Islamic Caliphate, grandchildren of millions of Afghan refugees living in Iran since 1980, and of course the standard flows of migrants from Africa and Central Asia. However, the first ones to be absorbed by the sweeping flows were the large numbers of long-time alien residents in Greece, who grasped the opportunity to realise their initial plan to move north much more easily now. 

National authorities and European leadership caught unawares

The Greek authorities were caught utterly unawares. After a brief period of embarrassment and inertia, they were finally forced to take action by the provincialist demands of elected local representatives, who protested vociferously over the overcrowding of “illegal migrants” in their insular municipalities during the high tourist season. Thus, at least at first, the key public concern was to step up the continuous removal of the migrant population from the islands, by introducing special chartered or additional boat services for their transportation and dispersal on the mainland.

To date, according to UNHR data it is estimated that over half a million people have crossed on rickety boats the straits between the Turkish shore and some Greek island (according to estimates, nearly 750,000 people, of whom almost 200,000 come from countries other than Syria, most notably Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea).[3] Once there, they move on by boat at their own expenses, like deplorable tourists, to either Piraeus or Kavala and from there, by train, bus or hired vehicles, they flock at the key exit point on the established northbound route, Idomeni, on the Greek/European border with FYROM. Throughout this journey, they are exposed to various shameful exploitation practices by unscrupulous professionals. Very often, though, they come across deeply touching expressions of solidarity and social support by a vast array of Greek and international human rights organisations or spontaneous grassroots initiatives of the local communities, or even the local authorities: the non-governmental or local entities to which the Greek state, and ultimately Europe itself, have virtually passed on the main responsibility for the protection of migrants’ dignity.

The porous borders of FYROM and Serbia, both between themselves and with the European Union (the southern FYROM border with Greece and the northern Serbian border with Hungary), already last year enabled the creation of a channel connecting Idomeni to Hungary and on to Austria, Germany and beyond, to the Scandinavian welfare state promised land, on which an endless human caravan is constantly on the move. Thus, the rapid increase in flows soon became successively felt across the Union and its Balkan periphery. The Balkan countries, which after the war conflicts found themselves mired in the deplorable status of a financially dependent pariah of the Union, are currently seeing their decisions affect European policy and are reclaiming a capitalisable critical role at the forefront of European policy priorities. In Germany and in northern European countries, the unstoppable, increasing new arrivals, over-dramatised by the media, have already stirred ethnic and cultural insecurities, as evidenced by a number of strong protests and the emergence of new and more populist far-right formations (as is the case with the German Pegida). The overall disposition of solidarity among European populations and the humanitarian perspective’s priority, for the time being, have kept such phenomena on the sidelines of political coverage and influence. In certain Member States, however, such as Hungary, such views tend to be massively embraced and are expressed in national public policies in direct defiance of the European human rights acquis. Broadly speaking, from the UK under the conservative Cameron administration to the “new” Member States of Central Europe (e.g. Slovakia or the Baltic states), refugee flows have triggered political reactions strongly marked by Euroscepticism, although these countries are probably the least concerned.

European institutions and national governments were also caught unawares by the rapid escalation of flows. They have minimal room for manoeuvre and remain passive observers of what is happening for a while, trapped as they are in the mainstream humanitarian rhetoric. The collapse of the external border, even when it does not constitute a culpable violation of the Schengen Agreement by one of its signatories, does justify the activation of clauses by the rest of the signatories allowing the temporary suspension of the common European freedom of movement and settlement of persons, and the re-imposition of border checks inside the Union until such time as normality is restored. However, this would result in large numbers of people being immediately stranded en route and in overcrowding, and would soon trigger dangerous tensions with local populations. Most importantly, however, the resolute defence of the Schengen acquis would entail a direct political cost for European governments for breach of their core humanitarian commitments.

This is why the governments of FYROM and Serbia (obviously with reassurances from Germany, Austria and other northern European governments that their national borders would remain open, and of course after securing pledges for European financial support) early this summer proceeded to a semi-official opening of their borders, which were porous anyway, and to openly providing institutional and technical support to siphon the flows to the North through their territories. They even temporarily introduced the free use of public transport along the specific route. At the same time, this marked the end of the short-sighted and hypocritical stance of European institutions and many national governments that, for more than a decade now, have expected that the pressure of migration flows would perpetually remain under the control and the responsibility of Member States in the European periphery. Thus, the consistent implementation of the existing institutional framework, particularly of the Dublin regulations, would transform the border Member States in the South into a kind of “migration buffer zone” for the entire European continent. The European elites found themselves in the unpleasant position to watch the collapse of the external border virtually dragging along the institutional foundations of the geopolitical unity of European space, reflected in the Schengen Treaty. The governments of Greece and Italy could congratulate themselves on their deplorable victory in a struggle in which they were mostly observers: at long last, they have persuaded their partners that the problem of flows is a “European” problem.

Reluctance to officially acknowledge the collapse of the border

In view of these challenges, a reshaping of the European migration policy seems to be urgently needed. The Commission keeps putting forward new drafts with multiple action points. It also puts pressure on Member States to adopt a common distribution system among Member States and agree to the relocation of an even larger number of incoming asylum-seekers than in former discussions. In doing so, it also puts forward a set of criteria, in the form of quotas, which would take into consideration each country’s real capacity, the state of its economy and the relevant labour market. Of course, the proposed figures of persons to be relocated continue to be negligible compared to the real magnitude of the flows. What’s more, it goes without saying that they will only be asylum-seekers, not just any person who can no longer return to his/her country of origin. Still, a prerequisite for the implementation of such a measure is in any case basic control of flows, which can only be achieved through coercive mechanisms to restrict newcomers’ freedom of movement.

Such a measure is evidently insufficient and cannot possibly be implemented immediately. This creates the impression that it is simply a kind of humanitarian alibi, intended to be an unsuccessful counterweight to the need to restore the common external borders, which is the sole concern of all other proposed measures. In addition to the expected reference to the development of surveillance and security systems and the intensification of cooperation between national security authorities and FRONTEX, the Commission proposes concerted operations of a military nature in order to combat human smuggling by destroying the vessels used to this effect while moored or anchored in third countries. Embarrassment and the contradiction between humanitarian rhetoric and the obvious concern about security which permeate the communications of the European institutions illustrate their reluctance to openly acknowledge the collapse of the European border under the pressure of a humanitarian crisis.

This reluctance is also illustrated by the contradictory stance Greece appears to be forced to take towards the massive transit migration through its territory. In spite of its amateurism, the Greek state attempted to organise the siphoning of the newly-arrived by chartered boats to ports in Northern Greece and their onward transportation by rented vehicles to the country’s exit point. When it became public that this operation was coordinated by the state, it was immediately suspended without any plausible justification, obviously following some informal warning that it was in direct breach of the Schengen Treaty.

Even more illustrative was the elimination of the prospect of implementation of the emergency plan drawn up by the Union itself, based on the German experience from the mass influx of refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, in the form of a binding Directive (2001/55/ΕC) “on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof”.[4] Although the main governing party in Greece had repeatedly requested, while in opposition, the activation of this plan as the most appropriate way to tackle the refugee crisis, when it came to power it finally abandoned this prospect for good, although apparently until the latest elections it engaged in negotiations with the European institutions to that effect, without ultimately submitting the relevant request. Any potential activation of the relevant provisions would amount to a solemn institutional recognition that the situation has escalated to the level of international humanitarian crisis, a fact which would formalise the collapse of the external border and entail serious restrictions on European policy’s room for manoeuvre. The concerns of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs lest the implementation of the plan lead to forced concessions in “national issues”, especially with regard to the joint management of national borders with “rival” Turkey, put a low-profile end to this prospect. The Greek administration fully folded back to the role of local traffic policeman and financing intermediary for social support actions in favour of the newcomers.[5] Thus, crowd management and management of their urgent needs overall was rolled over almost exclusively to local and international civil society initiatives and organisations.[6]

In other words, at least on an institutional level, Greece and the whole of the European Union along with it, continue to persistently pretend that, in spite of the difficulties, normality prevails in the promotion and implementation of key European border, migration and asylum policies. However, the price for upholding this political myth translates daily into endless helpless migrants and their families dying at sea while attempting to cross the few miles separating the shores from the area of freedom, security and justice the European Union purports to be.

Sharpening of the internal contradictions of European policy

(a) Entrapment in the humanitarian rhetoric

The refugee influx crisis has inevitably faced the Union with the impasses of its migration policy. Designed and orchestrated by the dominant elites in northern Europe, such policy expressed the strategic ambition for the European West to maintain its course of growth and prosperity within a framework of guaranteed geopolitical security and political normality. It was based on the supercilious expectation that the Union would be able to sovereignly choose, based on the needs of its economy, which third-country (or Third world?) nationals would enter European territory in order to serve its prosperity, while excluding or resolutely forcing back all those who did not meet its standards. 

From that optimistic perspective, commitment to European humanitarianism originally sounded like a relatively costless matter: refugee status is by nature an exception to the principle of external border security, this is why under “normal” circumstances it is something rare. In this way, though, European policy was turning a blind eye to the fact that the Union’s geopolitical periphery was collapsing against the backdrop of exacerbation of political authoritarianism, bloody civil wars, extreme financial inequality and destitution. Much more so, if one considers that Europe and its policies have made a more or less decisive contribution to the creation of this situation.

Soaring mixed flows, coupled with geopolitical instability, have triggered the reflex of concern over external border security, which led the European policy to a gradual shift towards the tightening and militarization of border surveillance[7] and the institution of an exception status for undocumented migrants. This concern peaked to agony in light of the collapse of the border under the pressure of the “sudden” flow maximisation. However, the collapse of the border itself was the outcome of the entrapment of European security policy in the moral / political commitments of humanitarianism, evoked in order to justify it. The massive expressions of humanity and solidarity by the European civil society ended up being the vehicle carrying the migrant population’s silent demand for social justice, over and above borders and fences, to the heart of the political debate inside the Union.[8] In this particular case, however, putting European security policy into question is no longer simply an ideological debate, but rather a radical political question among European peoples about the overall orientation of their common political course. Maybe there is no better illustration of the contradictory nature of the situation than the European public ironically receiving the refugees at the railway stations of the North with enthusiastic applause and cheers for their achieving to overcome the lethal obstacles European policy itself places in their way.[9]

(b) Strengthening the centrifugal tendencies

The explosive potential of the refugee crisis is not limited to widening the gap between the value orientations of the European project. It also triggers trends of national and social fall-back among large parts of the European population. Such trends are now seen not just in the grassroots classes’ swelling the ranks of xenophobic political formations, but also in the strong Euro scepticism expressed at the governmental level, especially in the form of political decisions or attitudes vis-à-vis the European institutions that ostentatiously defy the common position of the rest of Member States.[10]

That was the case with the “new” Member States from Central Europe, expressing reluctance or outright refusing to accept the idea of redistribution even of a minimal number of refugees. Slovakia, for instance, announces that it would be willing to accommodate Christians only. Hungary in particular, governed by an openly xenophobic and anti-liberal coalition, decisively takes an action that Germany, Austria and other northern European countries refrained from taking, following an informal agreement amongst themselves: official suspension of the Schengen rules in effect. This is envisaged by the Treaty and has been used in the past, e.g. by Italy during the mass protests in Genoa. Thus, Hungary announces its intention to fence its external border with Serbia and starts opening and closing its borders at whim, causing sudden disruption of the flows and a domino effect of overcrowding at every border crossing along the “Balkan route”.[11]

For many, especially in Serbia, FYROM and Greece, this is only a foretaste of what a possible blocking of the northbound route would entail. At the same time, the Hungarian attitude indicated how any Member State concerned could satisfy a phobic domestic public opinion in an opportunistic and largely costless way, by shunting the problem of transit flow management onto its neighbours. This is why other new Member States soon followed path, such as Croatia and recently Slovenia.[12]

Such a reaction from the Balkan Member States triggered, in turn, the concerted “border countermeasures” by Germany and Austria. By closing their own national borders for a few days, they hastened to remind their “young” partners after the recent enlargements that such breaches of the spirit of the Schengen acquis may come at a cost.

Such centrifugal attitudes are coupled with the national populations’ distancing from the European project as a result of the long-raging financial and economic crisis. It is no coincidence that, in view of the 2017 referendum on UK membership of the European Union, the anti-European wing of the British Conservatives rallies supporters based on their concern over the country’s exposure to uncontrolled inflows because EU legislation is bound by CoE’s European Convention on Human Rights.[13]

On the other hand, although their starting point is the exact opposite of the xenophobic attitude of the new Member States from Central Europe, when governments of traditionally staunchly pro-European peoples of the European South adopt the motto “We don’t want to be in this Europe” in order to criticize European inactivity in the face of the plight of refugees and protest over the disproportionate burden they shoulder de facto in order to tackle the problem, they actually end up contributing to the growing delegitimisation  of the entire European project.[14]

(c) Borderland

The political showdown within the Union seems to confirm the view that Europe does not have borders, but rather is a border itself in its entirety, as a political and social structure. It condenses successive and intersecting borders (“Borderland”), some of which are immovable in space whilst others are movable and constantly shifting, based on the contradictory needs of EU governance over populations whose physical arrangement and movement both within it and in its geopolitical periphery must be subject to the established relations of political supremacy and the established social hierarchies.[15]

However, the complex and multifactorial field of Borderland Europe is integrated by means of an ambitious strategy to impose and ultimately consolidate a single political jurisdiction over a specific geopolitical periphery. The specific content of such a strategy is certainly not invariable, quite the contrary; it also condenses social and political rivalries and hierarchies within the Union, as structured in opposing argumentations, e.g. for border security, for free movement and humanitarian solidarity, etc.

In this regard, the problem lies in that the refugee crisis, by aggravating to the extreme the aforementioned internal contradictions of this unifying strategy, triggers a self-destructive potential which is inherent to the political project of the construction of a United Europe: “Collective humiliation is a form of auto-destruction. Repeating that the moral foundation of the European construction - its distinctive character...- resides in promoting human rights while constantly denying any sense of obligation is one of the surest ways for a political institution to lose its legitimacy.”[16]

The intensity of such centrifugal and potentially disintegrating trends gives rise, from the perspective of the unionist project, to a strong demand for decisive moves to regain political control and leadership, which have never been the strong point of the functioning of the Union’s political organs. Nonetheless, this is the background against which the rapid developments triggered in the end of the summer by the initiatives of the German government have to be interpreted.

The effort to reshape European policy

To everyone’s surprise and in the midst of fierce criticism by a growing number of xenophobic populists in her country, the German Chancellor announces that Germany intends to accommodate and keep safe from harm up to 800,000 persons in need of international protection. With this initiative, Ms Μerkel did not act extra-institutionally; on the contrary, she used an option provided to Member States by the amended Dublin regulations when they consider that the migrants’ return can jeopardise their safety or their rights. This would be the case, in particular, if they ended up returning to their unsafe country of origin. And it is well known that our country has been internationally condemned for its failure to guarantee that this will not happen.[17]

Such a spectacular manifestation of humanitarianism by the most powerful country in the Eurozone left many people under the impression that an equally spectacular shift in European migration policy was to be expected. Thus, many spoke of abolition of the Dublin regulations in practice, while refugees and solidarity organisations celebrated Mama Merkel’s generosity.[18] Meanwhile, German officials addressed startling successive statements to the domestic public opinion which referred to the need for German society and economy to reflect on how to secure its demographic future.

Later developments, however, would embarrass and ultimately disappoint those who thought that a shift in European policy was upcoming. A few days later, in his State of the Union address, the President of the European Commission would set tackling refugee flows on top of the agenda, at the heart of the EU administration’s concerns. The focus would be on the humanitarian response to the crisis, based on fair burden-sharing between frontline Member States and the rest. Thus, Mr. Jüncker emphasized the need for the Council to adopt a draft that had been published by the Commission on a burden redistribution scheme that would involve the relocation of a specific number of recognized political refugees and asylum-seekers and EU funding for first reception and screening mechanisms on the external border.[19] 

However, although the Commission spoke of emergencies, there was no mention of the need to mobilise civil protection mechanisms or offer temporary protection in the event of mass influx, as already envisaged in EU law. At the same time, increasing references to the need to restore the European border’s security by European leaderships and the Commission itself were creating a feeling that we were falling back on the familiar recipe: the silent shift from humanitarian care to the logic of border control.

As a matter of fact, the informal Council meeting in Brussels on 24.9.2015 clearly demonstrated the intentions of European leaders. At the following formal summit such intentions were detailed and complemented in a Council political decision overtly highlighting the urgent need to stem the flows in cooperation with third countries, Turkey in particular, and adopting the logic of “smart borders packages” promoted by the Commission since spring.

The new policy action plan[20]

The comprehensive plan starts with a scheme for the geographical redistribution of a number of asylum-seekers inside the EU to relieve pressure on Member States on the external borders. The number of persons to be relocated has currently been set at 160,000, whilst the first reception countries committed themselves politically to keeping a certain number of asylum-seekers on their soil (50,000 for Greece).

For such a scheme to function, it is necessary to regain control over the influx, so as to screen new arrivals and identify persons in need of special protection. To this effect, FRONTEX will deploy a robust force that will bear operational responsibility and cooperate with the national border protection authorities. Similarly, the operational involvement of the European asylum agency (EASO) is envisaged. However, the main focus of this strategy is the immediate establishment and operation of a network of reception “hotspots” on the Greek islands, to screen and process incoming persons. Social support will be provided through the activities of the civil society and international organisations, such as the UNHCR, which will receive substantial funding.

However, these “quarantine” hotspots are expected to function not just as a mechanism to ensure that those in need have access to appropriate humanitarian aid, but rather (mainly) as a mechanism to stem the flows, by preventing the entry of those not in need of special protection and ensuring their return. Thus, FRONTEX is expressly assigned both a coordinating and an operational role in enforcing returns. The destinations of returnees will be “safe transit countries”, such as Turkey (mainly) and the rest of the non-EU Balkan countries, including Albania. This, in turn, would require intensive diplomatic, political, even operational cooperation with the countries involved, most notably with Turkey, which will receive substantial financial support in the form of compensation for hosting at least 2 million Syrian refugees on its territory since the onset of the crisis. Most importantly, though, the Council’s policy action plan underscores the decision to “work towards the gradual establishment of an integrated management system for external borders”, in order to “fight against criminal networks” of human smugglers, including by military means. FRONTEX takes the main responsibility for the protection of the external border and may deploy Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITs) in cooperation with the Member States.[21]

The Commission, on its part, commits itself to stepping up work to present the details of the new European border protection system by the end of the year (the notorious Eurosur, the common European security programme under incubation). The German Chancellor personally makes the necessary diplomatic moves and, a few days after the formal Council Summit in Brussels in October, she visits Istanbul for a historic meeting with the Turkish President, Mr. Erdogan, which is translated into full support from European leaders and makes a decisive contribution to his party’s landslide victory in the national elections held one week later. Ms Merkel elicits the promise that Turkey will take action to stem the massive transit flows crossing its borders into Europe, in exchange for the gradual liberalisation of visa requirements for the entry and movement of Turkish citizens in the Schengen area, the “re-energizing” of accession negotiations, and compensatory financial support to the tune of € 3 billion.[22] In early November, European leaders hold an informal meeting in Valetta, Malta, in order to reiterate with satisfaction their commitment to the new action plan, and agree to step up the establishment of the new common European border surveillance system.

Despite the expectations of those who believed in a shift in European policy, it is clear that the European governments’ new action plan is a determined move to regain control of the situation, but in no case does it reflect a new policy concept. On the contrary, it persistently retains all those contradictory elements which have led European policy to a deadlock and extremely aggravates their contradictory nature, by clothing in humanitarian rhetoric a strategy clearly oriented to effectively securing the external European border.

Devising a scheme for the redistribution of asylum-seekers is indeed a critical innovation, reflecting a political perception of solidarity and fair burden-sharing in the medium term. This scheme, however, only concerns a negligible number of persons compared to the real magnitude of the flows and can therefore make no difference on the ground. Most worryingly, it is reserved for asylum-seekers only.

Thus, its symbolic character aside, the adoption of this scheme appears to be more of a humanitarian alibi, an excuse for the development of mechanisms to protect the border and stem the flows. It is becoming increasingly clear that the famous hotspots are virtually nothing more than a confirmation of the reception/identification/temporary detention centres, required for the effective implementation of the Returns Directive. The function assigned to the hotspots is mainly a border security function: screening and identifying those not qualifying for protection for the purpose of their immediate return. This very fact demonstrates that, behind the humanitarian rhetoric, the underlying target population of the European preventive security policy remains firmly the same: undocumented persons, the well-known “illegal migrants”.

If there is a genuinely new aspect to the border security “package” currently promoted, this is the expectation that European policy will be properly supported by the “safe” third countries of transit, such as Turkey and the non-EU Balkan countries: that they will accept the return of those rejected by the “hotspot” screening mechanisms and perhaps also accept the transfer of parts of the screening and identification procedure (or even detention facilities) from European territory to their national territories. This would enable European governments to shift the largest part of their responsibility for treating such persons according to the European humanitarian tradition from their own countries to third countries. The sole fundamental rights safeguard would be the latter’s aspiration to appear harmonized with the European acquis in order to take their accession process forward.

On the other hand, the only function European institutions seem to be willing to organize and decisively take forward, by assigning an increasing number of areas of responsibility to European agencies of an increasingly police/military structure and nature, is border protection and surveillance.

On the border of European humanitarianism

Ιt is not hard to see that the establishment and effective functioning of the mechanisms envisaged in the European governments’ plan to tackle mass flows, given the sheer magnitude of the flows, presupposes that they are significantly curbed, and this can only be achieved through robust police/military measures to prevent entry. The German finance minister, with his usual bluntness and directness, only recently dared point out openly what many European governments discuss behind closed doors, i.e. that we need to clearly show to the millions of people who are waiting to make their way in that they are not welcome to Europe.[23]

However, such determination in practice requires European border surveillance authorities that are ready to impose restrictions and use official force, something European governments find hard to accept, locked-in as they are in humanitarian rhetoric. This is why many of them, for the time being, only react with police/military measures, sealing off their borders and forcing the continuing flow to simply circumvent their own territories. Thus, after Hungary, Croatia also completed its own border “fence”, while the Slovenian one is making fast progress. As a result, the main migratory route has shifted from the Serbia-Hungary axis to the mountainous passages of Bosnia on to Slovenia and Austria.

The insistence of individual Member States on “national self-protection” measures is in itself weakening the determination of European governments and fosters the feeling that, in spite of EU initiatives, the credibility of the European border policy has suffered a major blow. The successive imposition of such measures, however, carries the imminent risk of a full and definitive disruption of migratory traffic on the “Balkan route” and the subsequent stranding of northbound flows en route. This would put extreme pressure on European governments for an abrupt halt of the mass entries from the Turkish coast, otherwise the congested newcomers in the Balkan South, without any way out to the North, would create tensions and social upheaval. Moreover, the fact that the European authorities’ possibility to decongest European territory by returning those not qualifying for temporary protection, based on the new plan, depends on the neighbouring safe countries’ good will to absorb the numbers of returnees is an additional factor safely leading to the conclusion that mounting social tensions are to be anticipated. Such an arrangement would allow Turkey, for instance, to turn the readmissions “safety valve” on and off based on its particular foreign policy pursuits, thus causing at will an “overcrowding” of undocumented persons on the Greek islands. In any case, however, even based on the most optimistic forecasts, it would be utopian to expect the effective removal of such a large number of persons coming in together with persons in need of international protection, particularly when they come from countries to which returns are difficult or impossible.

All of this seems to suggest that the European leaderships’ effort to regain control of the external European border remains irreparably trapped in the “border security first” logic, without being willing -yet- to follow through the radical consequences of such a priority at the expense of their commitment to European humanitarianism. The more the European policy approaches the impasses caused by its contradictions, the more comfortably will the political representatives of far-right nationalistic and xenophobic populism in Europe make the point that the only way out of such impasses is the use of lethal force in order to prevent trespassing of the common European border.

Within the emotionally fraught atmosphere of massive solidarity to those fleeing the Syrian drama, such a prospect may seem remote. However, it would be naïve to hope that it can be averted only thanks to the readiness of a fragmented and volatile European public opinion to efficiently defend the European project’s commitment to the humanitarian tradition of the European Enlightenment.

As these lines are being written, Paris mourns hecatombs of innocent victims of the killing fury of a group of Islamist suicide commandoes, one or more of whom had allegedly just reached Paris with the flows transiting Greece. France declared a state of emergency and closed its national borders for all. The European public opinion, in terror, seems to demand a dynamic intervention in the unstable geopolitical region of the Middle East in order to restore European security, which was hit in an unprecedented manner. Maybe it’s worth wondering what will have remained of European humanitarianism after this new gloomy adventure in which Europe appears to be immersing itself.


[1] The phrase was coined by Kasparek, Bernd / Speer, Marc (2015): Of Hope: Hungary and the Long Summer of Migration, [8.10.2015]

[2] Dimitris Christopoulos, Greece: Refugee Crisis on a Knife's Edge, Analyze Greece! News and Left Politics, 15.11.2015

[3] For one of the most reliable sources of information, see the relevant figures provided by UNHCR. See also, for the last two years, Refugee flows to the EU, Pejl, 3.9.2015

[4] See Yannis Ktistakis, Μεταναστευτικό: κάν’ το όπως με τους Κοσοβάρους, [Migration: Do it like with the Kosovars], Kathimerini, 25.8.2015

[5] EU: Greece just needs to do the paperwork,  New Europe, 2 September 2015

[6] A revealing testimony of the almost full transfer of operational responsibility to the international civil society can be found in the travelogue published in the Guardian, Winter is coming: The new crisis for refugees in Europe, 2.11.2015

[7] See Apostolos Fotiades, The EU’s Emerging Immigration Policy: New Tragedy, Grief, Then More Militarization, Border Criminologies, 23 April 2015

[8] See Ilker Ataç, Stefanie Kron, Sarah Schilliger, Helge Schwiertz, Maurice Stierl, Struggles of Migration As In-/Visible Politics, Movements. Journal für kritische Migrations- und Grenzregimeforschung t. 1/2, 2015. With respect to a globalized class tension expressed by contemporary nomadism, in general, see Sandro Mezzadra, Καπιταλισμός, μεταναστεύσεις και κοινωνικοί αγώνες [Capitalism, Migrations and Social Struggles], Theseis Journal, v. 91, April - June 2005

[9] See, for instance, Vienna stages protest welcoming refugees, The Guardian, 1.10.2015

[10] James Kanter & Steven Erlanger, Plan on Migrants Strains the Limits of Europe’s Unity, The New York Times, 23.9.2015

[11] Kasparek, Bernd / Speer, Marc (2015): Of Hope. Hungary and the Long Summer of Migration

[12] The New York Times: Slovenia builds border fence to stem flow of migrants., The Huffington Post: Slovenia and the refugee crisis

[13] Richard Seymour, Why is there so much hostility to immigrants in the UK?, The Guardian, 14.10.2014

[14] Matteo Renzi: Η Ευρώπη ρίχνει τείχη, δεν τα υψώνει [Europe brings walls down, it does not erect new ones],, 17.9.2015

[15] See Étienne Balibar, Europe as Borderland, Society and Space, v. 27 / 2 April 2009.

[16] Étienne Balibar, Borderland Europe and the challenge of migration, OpenDemocracy, 8 September 2015.

[17] Most notably with the famous decision of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights in the case MSS vs Belgium and Greece, whose content has been incorporated as key regulatory guidance in the amended Dublin regulations (Dublin ΙΙΙ).

[18] Το Μνημόνιο και η κατάρρευση της προσφυγικής πολιτικής [The bail-out agreement and the collapse of refugee policy], Interview with Bernd Kasparek, Ενθέματα [Supplement], Avgi, 13.9.2015,

[19] See the draft Decision published by the Commission on 3.9.2015, COUNCIL DECISION establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and of Greece

[20] See European Council meeting (15 October 2015) – Conclusions, Brussels, 16 October 2015 (OR. en) EUCO 26/15 CO EUR 10 CONCL 4, and also Φύλαξη και επαναπροωθήσεις. Τι προβλέπει το ευρωπαϊκό Σχέδιο Δράσης με την Τουρκία για το προσφυγικό [Protection and readmissions: The EU-Turkey Action Plan on Refugees],, 16.10.2015

[21] For EU security planning, see Apostolis Fotiadis’ enlightening interview with Marianella Kloka: Europe speculates on the refugee crisis, Pressenza, International Press Agency, 28.10.2015

[22] Μέρκελ - Ερντογάν: «Παζάρι» Τουρκίας - ΕΕ για το προσφυγικό, Επανεισδοχή μόνο με άρση βίζας [Merkel-Erdogan: Turkey-EU bargain on refugees, Readmission only if visa lifted], Vima, 18.10.2015

[23] Schäuble warns of refugee “avalanche” in dig at Merkel, Financial Times, 12.11.2015