Crisis in the Eye of Beholder: Contingency and Perplexity Along the Balkan Migration Route

Amanda Russell Beattie

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

Gemma Bird

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Liverpool.

Patrycja Rozbicka

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations / Deputy Director Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University

In October 2017 we argued that, against a back drop of official rhetoric claiming an end to the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep, the refugee crisis in transit countries was not over. We argued this based on our fieldwork experience on the Balkan Route in July of 2017 and supported our claims with interviews with support centres, NGO’s and refugees who experienced chaotic conditions and restrictions on their rights to education, to family, and to self-determination.  Against the backdrop of our most recent fieldwork, we suggest, again, that the crisis remains and that refugees and displaced persons remain vulnerable to the perils of humanitarian deprivation.

Our discussions with EU officials and the UNHCR statistics suggest that the number of arrivals is once again increasing. To date there has been a 400% increase in the number of refugees accessing Europe via land borders and between a 50 and 52% increase over sea in comparison to the same time last year. As we approach the two-year anniversary of the Turkey-EU deal which fostered an initial decrease in the number of refugees (October 2017) it is clear that the original intent and goals are no longer achieving their desired results. Greece has returned very few island arrivals to Turkey. Moreover, a further complication emerged recently when the Greek Council of State concluded that there are no reasons of public interest or migration policy that justifies mobility restrictions for refugees awaiting the processing of their asylum claim. This upends the current practice relegating such individuals to so-called ‘hot-spots’ on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos and Rhodes. 

The decision is important because it reveals that the ‘crisis’ is localised while at the same time there remains a need for a wider regional discussion of the treatment of refugees. When speaking to officials, we were reminded that numerically speaking far greater numbers of refugees are being housed in Lebanon and Jordan. Statistics published online by the UNHCR reveal that in March 2018 991,165 Syrian refugees had registered in Lebanon while another 661,859 had registered in Jordan as of April 2018. So, to claim this is/was a European crisis would be insincere; however, the lived experiences of being a refugee within these countries remains very different. We were told that on a visit to Lesbos, Chios and Samos, the conditions you witness would indeed be crisis like. The disparity of experience, exists not only between states, but within them as well. Indeed, the Council of State’s decision suggested that a refugee experience on the island is at odds with that of those living on mainland Greece and freedom of movement to the mainland could drastically improve people’s experience. 

The EU-Turkey deal has been unable to significantly address this disparity of experience. While initial numbers of refugees decreased, this is no longer the case and overcrowding on the island camps continues to be a problem as refugees are caught in limbo. According to official figures it takes refugees 20 years to overcome the effects of forced displacement.  Consequently, and as a result of this current displacement experience, an estimated 5.5 million people fleeing from Syria, and 65.6 million forcibly displaced worldwide (2017) constitutes a crisis as they remain unable to realize their basic human rights.  Families’ relationships are disrupted, access to education remains tenuous, and the ability to develop skills to contribute to civil society contributes to a ‘lost generation’. 

This discussion raises interesting questions not only about crisis, but on how we think about international relations more broadly, on the relationship between the micro, the everyday experiences of Mayor’s working in hotspot environments, and the macro, official figures which compare arrivals within the EU to arrivals in Lebanon and Jordan. It raises questions about the relationship between courts, nation states and supranational organisations. About whose role it is to dictate migration policy, dictate rights to freedom of movement between the islands and mainland Greece, and to ensure the speedy guarantee of a safe and secure environment in which to develop as a human being and reclaim the years lost to humanitarian crisis.

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