Fortress Europe

The final part of Hussam’s story, set at the intersection of European immigration policy and the Syrian war. By Emily Gowdey-Backus.

Members of the Turkish coast guards hold a baby of a Syrian migrant on the shore in Cesme, near the Aegean port city of Izmir, Turkey, August 11, 2015. by Freedom House

A refugee’s price tag

This is Part 3 of Hussam’s story. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Rescues from the mass crossing of the Mediterranean went largely unnoticed in the wider world until 19 April, when more than 800 migrants drowned off the coast of Libya when their boat capsized.

More than 200,000 refugees and migrants travelled to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2014, more than triple the number in 2013; 30% of those were Syrian. Italy alone received 160,000 of those 200,000 refugees and migrants, at the rate of 480 each day. The Italian-operated Mare Nostrum maritime search and rescue programme, with a price tag of $10.5 million a month, was cut for budgetary reasons in October 2014.

Britain, in particular, argued the programme encouraged trafficking because vessels were very likely to be intercepted, ensuring passengers would reach Europe safely. Lady Joyce Anelay, the current Minister of State of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, called this an ‘unintended pull factor’. Instead, she explained, Britain would support increased border and coastal control of countries of origin and transit.

Daniel Shepherd, spokesperson for Sea Watch, a private German organization that patrols the Mediterranean for illegal boats in distress, believes Europe could be doing much more for Syrian refugees.

‘Sea Watch is sending a strong political message to northern Europe, using the vessel itself as a symbol of what can be achieved and what Europe should be doing,’ he says.

Grassroots organizations like Sea Watch exist because civilians disagree with the inaction of Western governments. As 2015 passes, the sea claims more lives, while those who can save the lives of others refuse to do so.

‘Even when northern Europe does take it upon itself to become involved, it sees [the situation] through a border-security lens and not one of search and rescue or humanitarian assistance,’ says Shepherd. The one exception, he explains, is Germany, which has donated 2 vessels to Triton, a new European Commission-sponsored maritime search-and-rescue operation.

Border control can no longer be categorized as a neutral process of documentation. Over the past decade, dozens of nations have built physical barriers; the position of ‘Fortress Europe’ has been actively to deter refugees.

Hussam and Shadi were relatively fortunate.

The cruiser carrying them docked outside Salerno and everyone aboard was taken to a camp in Potenza, a small village. After diagnosing an emergency appendicitis, Hussam was asked to volunteer with the camp’s Red Cross contingent. It was the first time he felt equal to those helping him.

‘The Red Cross did not call me a refugee. They said “our friend, the doctor from Syria.” That was meaningful for me,’ he said.

When he left, they gave Hussam a letter of recommendation. The rest of the brothers’ journey was relatively simple. They acquired fake passports in Rome, took the train to Munich and flew to Gatwick on 14 August 2014.

At UK Border Control, the brothers were asked about the details of their journey. They told the authorities they had put their lives in the hands of smugglers in order to get there.

The only other question asked of them was which airline flew them from Munich. Border Control wanted to know where to send the fine.

A refugee’s price tag

Hussam and Shadi, like so many others, have risked their lives, paid a fortune to smugglers and broken countless international laws, in pursuit of asylum to which they are already entitled.

Professor Bridget Anderson, of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, believes a more equal system should exist.

‘There needs to be some way of enabling people to come to Europe and claim asylum without having to pay a fortune or get in a dangerous rickety boat,’ she says.

As refugees must first reach Europe in order to claim asylum, ‘states are trying to turn back people on their way. You see that most dramatically on these boats, in order to prevent them from making that initial claim,’ adds Anderson.

In the hope of persuading Western nations to resettle Syrian refugees, the European Commission (EC) devised a very simple reward scheme: cold, hard cash. For every Syrian refugee resettled, each life saved, the accepting government receives $6,600.

On 13 May 2015, the European Agenda on Migration was presented as part of a quota policy designed by the EC to resettle Syrian refugees in European countries. The initial agenda asked governments to provide 20,000 spaces.

Currently, there are 4,015,065 registered Syrian refugees living outside Syria.

For more on Syria, take a look at our September magazine on ‘Syria’s good guys’.

In proportion to population size, GDP, number of spontaneous asylum applications and unemployment rate, the EC has calculated a refugee quota for each Member State. Of the requested 20,000 places, Britain would be responsible for 11.54 %, or 2,309 Syrian refugees.

Calling Britain a country of ‘extraordinary passion’, Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 7 September that the nation would relocate up to 20,000 refugees from camps along the Syrian border. This process will take 5 years to complete and during this time those relocated will be given humanitarian status in the UK. Only in 2020, after the proposed 5 years, will the refugees be able to apply for asylum.

On 27 May, the EC activated the Relocation Emergency Response Commission for the first time in the organization’s existence. Over the next 2 years, 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers arriving and residing in Italy and Greece after 15 April 2015 will be relocated to other Member States.

Even with the new European agenda, nations bordering Syria continue to bear the lion’s share of this crisis, with relatively little support from the international community. Less than 6 per cent of Syrian refugees who have fled their homes have reached Europe. According to UNHCR, 278,551 asylum applications have been issued to European states. There were 138,016 in 2014 alone. More continue to pour in, but this number still only accounts for a fraction of the people whose lives are left in tatters.

UNHCR initially requested nations to resettle a total of 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. That goal was never reached.

Britain has donated $1.6 billion in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, 39% of all donations, second only to the United States. However, even though Britain receives a mere 2.8% of the Syrian refugee asylum applications, it has only resettled 216 under the Syria Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme and up to 750 annually through the Gateway Protection Programme – despite the new financial incentives. France receives a comparable number of asylum applications to Britain and has resettled 503 persons, while providing $69 million in humanitarian aid.

On the other hand, Germany receives 8 times as many asylum applications from Syrian refugees as Britain and alone has pledged 35,000 places for those fleeing the region.

Sweden receives one quarter of all European asylum applications from Syrian refugees. Of the 2,250 pledged places Sweden has contributed, it has so far resettled 1,000 people.

Zoe Gardner of the London-based charity Asylum Aid says the suffering will only increase, and that now is the time for all of Europe to step in: ‘The argument put forward is we shouldn’t have to resettle people because we’re paying money towards their wellbeing in the region,’ she notes.

However, after cancelling Mare Nostrum and other patrol programmes for budgetary reasons, Gardner believes the little action that is taken is over-costly and contradictory:

‘[Britain] is not participating in search and rescue, not saving lives in the Mediterranean and our inaction is leading to families drowning every single day. We’re spending more money on keeping people away and the priority is on our spending. It’s not a realistic way of approaching the subject.’

Fortress Europe must abandon the ideals of state sovereignty, she argues: ‘This idea of state sovereignty and “we have control over our sovereign borders” is something that has been completely ingrained and is taken as wholly political truth.’

Naomi Westland, spokesperson for Amnesty International UK, agrees with Gardner.

According to UNHCR calculations, Britain can afford to resettle 10,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in need of assistance, she says.

‘The response of the EU in terms of resettling Syrian refugees has been pitiful, particularly in Britain, and so far, despite having promised to take hundreds of refugees in February last year, the government has only resettled 187.’

Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.