As people around the world celebrate World Refugee Day, Memet Uludağ looks at the global picture for refugees around the world.
A 2015 Guardian headline said, “Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year”. The article explained, “in the first quarter of 2015, nearly 500 migrants have drowned, ten times as many as in the same period of 2014, leading to fears of a record death rate this year”.
This wasn’t the only warning at the time. Report after report warned the governments of Europe and the world about the preventable loss of human lives at sea and at European borders. Since 2014 an estimated 27,000 refugees have died or have been declared missing while crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The actual number is feared to be higher than this figure, but as the U.S. General Tommy Franks said about the loss of civilian lives in the Iraq War, “we don’t do body counts”. The estimated figures become just another entry in the annual databases.
Over the last 10 years, the Mediterranean has become a mass grave for nameless refugees. Some European leaders were critical of Trump’s ‘border cages’, but the European borders have become some of the deadliest in the world.
The True Meaning of World Refugee Day
World Refugee Day is a celebration of the struggles and perseverance of refugees globally. It is also a day where we need to understand why they must struggle for the most basic human rights and who is to blame for their suffering. True solidarity with refugees will come from a strong resistance against the socio-economic and refugee policies of our governments. At the heart of this refugee solidarity and resistance must be a strong stand against racism and racist policies.
In Ireland we have lots to resist and fight for.
It’s a Housing Crisis, Not a Refugee Crisis
This government, like the one before it, is deepening the housing crisis. In a wealthy country like Ireland, people with jobs can’t afford to buy a home, rents are crippling families and thousands of families are facing evictions into homelessness. While a speculative housing ‘market’ makes the landlords richer, tens of thousands of ordinary people are burnt. As they refuse to build public homes for need and implement genuine “homes for all” policies, the housing crisis is allowed to grow. This crisis pre-dates the relative increase of asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees. Most of the refugees and asylum seekers are not housed in homes; they don’t take away homes from Irish families. The simple fact is that the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party government is not tackling the housing crisis. Refugees and asylum seekers are blamed for housing, but the blame must be with this government.
We must raise the housing demands on the government and call the real issue for what it is: At the core, it is a housing crisis, not a refugee crisis. Stop hiding behind your own failures.
Since the establishment of the Direct Provision System 23 years ago, subsequent governments have failed to establish a care and human-rights focused asylum system. Their focus was on asylum seekers being a problem to deal with rather than people that can bring and contribute so much to the society. The Direct Provision system has become a profit-making institution suffocating innocent people. The current government and the Green Party Minister Roderic O’Gorman have failed to deliver promised changes. What is more, the Direct Provision is now bigger than what it was before. There is a clear agenda of a two-tier response to Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers. This hypocrisy is shameful. The government must provide equal care to all people.
In Ireland we must make our housing demands and fair treatment of refugees a central theme in our World Refugee Day celebration.
This year, like every year before, European states and governments will officially mark UN World Refugee Day.
But here is what happens every other day of the year:
Refugees continue to die at the European borders and out at the sea.
Human rights and search and rescue activists continue to be criminalised.
The pushback of refugee boats by the EU Border Agency Frontex are not investigated or stopped. Deaths have occurred due to these pushbacks at sea.
The EU continues to fund and expand horrible refugee camps and detention centres in North Africa.
The EU States (apart from Germany) continue to take in the least number of refugees, compared to many other countries.
In Ireland, the Direct Provision system is expanding. All promises of ending the system, or in Roderic O’Gorman’s words, taking the “meanness” out of it, are broken.
Refugees fleeing horrors of wars, conflicts, human rights abuses face the horrors of borders and systematic un-welcoming refugee policies.
In Ireland, the long running housing crisis continues to make refugees and asylum seekers homeless and vulnerable to attacks and violence. The Irish Government has no political will to build homes for need.
Climate change continues to create climate refugees. There is no real political will from the EU states to stop climate change. The targets they set are utterly inadequate, and nevertheless they never succeed in achieving even the most unambitious goals.
Wars and conflicts have been (and continue to be) the main reason that people become refugees. The EU wants to further militarise the union and Ireland’s government wants to get rid of our neutrality.
So, on one day, on 20 June, they will issue a press statement and ministers will give speeches. For the rest of the year, they will add to the suffering of people at home and elsewhere.
Our celebration of World Refugee Day is one of solidarity and resistance against the horrors people are facing.
Global Refugee Numbers
There has been much panic among the European governments about ‘protecting EU borders’ against the ‘influx’ of refugees. During the past 10 years we have witnessed numerous EU summits that focused not on the root-cause of the refugee crisis and a human-rights centric response but on securing Europe’s borders. Furthermore, the EU states have engaged in hard bargaining to pass on the responsibility onto each other. We remember the abolishment of Schengen Free Travel Zone, the internal borders erected by various EU states, the failed Refugee Resettlement Programme, and the Readmission Agreements with third parties such as Turkey and Libya. When it came to the war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the EU leaders were less concerned about funding and support. Saving lives at sea was not a cost they were prepared to pay for, however.
In 2000 the number of refugees worldwide was 38 million. This number included 21.2 million internally displaced people (IDP). As of end-2022 there are 108.4 million refugees globally:
- UN Refugees: 29.4 million
- Palestinian refugees. 5.9 million
- Asylum Seekers: 5.4 million
- People in need of international protection: 5.2 million
- Internally displaced people: 62.5 million
There has been a steady growth of global refugee numbers as a result of wars, conflicts, persecution, violence and human rights violations. The U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq caused the displacement of millions of people. The wars in Libya, Sudan, Yemen further added to the rise of the refugee numbers. The war in Syria and the Russian invasion of Ukraine were major contributors to the rising numbers.
- Despite all the fear mongering about refugees, 60%, 62.5 million people are displaced internally.
- A massive 76% of all refugees are hosted in low and middle-income countries, not in the EU states.
- 70% of all refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries and don’t come to Europe.
- 52% originated from just three countries: Syria: 19%, Ukraine 16%, Afghanistan 16%, Others, 48%.
- 41% of world refugees are children.
- 38% are hosted in 5 countries: Turkey, Iran, Colombia, Germany, Pakistan.
Europe, as a continent and the EU states are not at the top of the list of hosting refugees but there always was a political agenda to make sure ‘to take in the least number of refugees in the longest possible time’. Instead of building a coordinated refugee system and humanitarian efforts to look after human beings, the EU leaders spent a decade on ‘Fortress Europe’ policies and inhumane practices. Today, as more war mongering and militarisation is high on the agenda, they have failed to acknowledge that invasions and wars in the Middle East and Africa, support to dictatorial regimes, selling billions of arms to some of the most brutal states were some of the causes of the crisis. With the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia came a new wave of refugees. The powerful war mongers, their imperialist agendas along with brutal regimes across the world have caused the ongoing refugee crisis.
We must understand the direct link between the use of Shannon Airport by the U.S. military and the refugee crisis. What came to Afghanistan and Iraq, or Yemen or Sudan were not democracy or women’s rights or freedom to LGBTQ people, but total destruction and chaos.
We must understand the link between the biggest arms fair in London, hosted by the British Government and the fact that arms sold in these fairs are causing refugees somewhere.
Climate change is already affecting the lives of millions of people around the world. There is no legal or international definition for people displaced due to climate change, but climate refugees do exist.
According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, an annual average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced each year by weather-related events – such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures – between 2008 and 2016. This climate migration is expected to surge in coming decades with forecasts from international think tank the IEP predicting that 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters.
The collective failure of governments will increase the possibility of this displacement. Those who are responsible for climate change will also talk about rich nations having to strengthen their borders against the influx of refugees. This horrible circle of war-violence-climate change and ‘fortress Europe’ border policies will certainly add to the increasing deaths of civilian lives.
Greece Shipwreck Disaster Expose European Border Barbarism
As we are getting ready to mark the World Refugee Day on 20 June, the latest shipwreck costing the lives of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean shocked us to the core.
The troubles of refugees fleeing horrors such as war, torture and human rights abuses do not end by leaving home. They are subjected to risky journeys, deadly borders and unwelcoming policies that condemn so many to death.
It is important to refresh our memories and understand the reasons behind this ongoing human suffering.
In October 2014, the Operation Mare Nostrum was cancelled due to the lack of political and financial support by the EU states. Mare Nostrum was focused on search and rescue, and it has saved an estimated 150,000 lives at sea. The EU Governments did not provide support for this mission.
The operation ended on 31 October 2014 and was superseded by Frontex’s Operation Triton, which operated a smaller search and rescue capability. Unlike Mare Nostrum, Operation Triton focused on border protection rather than search and rescue. After this came Operation Sophia, which had similar priorities. Sophia’s successor is Operation Irini, which is set up to patrol areas that would rarely, if ever, end up close enough to boats in distress and have to undergo a rescue. Instead, aerial surveillance is used to cooperate with Frontex and the Libyan Coast Guard in order to prevent departures of refugees and return them to horrific human rights abuses in Libya.
The termination of Mare Nostrum has been criticised as a cause of the increased death rate among refugees to Europe in the Mediterranean, which increased tenfold between 2014 and 2015. Two major shipwreck disasters which together killed more than 1000 people within the span of a week in April 2015 led to calls to restart the Operation Mare Nostrum, but it was not renewed.
Fine Gael MEPs Vote Against Saving Lives
In 2019, The EU parliament rejected a vote asking member states to step up efforts to save refugees in the Mediterranean. All of Fine Gael’s MEPs – Mairead McGuinness, Maria Walsh, Frances Fitzgerald and Sean Kelly – voted against the resolution, which lost by two.
Multiple Scandals in Frontex
In 2022, a 120-page report from the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog says Frontex, the EU’s border agency, was involved in covering up the illegal pushback of migrants from Greece to Turkey, violating their human rights.
Frontex was involved in many refugee pushbacks at sea.
Just to give one example, as reported in the Guardian: In at least 22 incidents, refugees were taken off dinghies, put into Greek life rafts and left adrift at sea.
Criminalising Search and Rescue Efforts
In 2019, Carola Rackete, the captain of rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 was put on trial, facing the threat of a lengthy jail sentence after saving the lives of refugees.
Another Captain put on trial in 2019, Pia Klemp said, “Italy is criminalising solidarity”.
In 2021, Dariush Beigui, the captain of the Luventa, a ship that has rescued thousands of people in the Mediterranean Sea, faced trial and if convicted up to 20 years in prison for his humanitarian work.
Seán Binder and 23 other human rights defenders helping refugees at sea faced espionage charges and a lengthy trial in Lesbos. On 13 January 2023, after a painful trial, Mytilene Appeals Court in Greece officially dropped charges against 24 human rights defenders.
These are some of the examples of how activists helping to save lives have been criminalised and search and rescue efforts were forced to stop.
Looking back at the events and policies of the EU states of the past 10 years, the latest disaster in the Mediterranean should not be a surprise to anybody.
Refugees with no legal safe passage to safety are forced to take deadly crossings.
Unless the tragedy last week triggers real action from the European states, no official statements of sadness, no mourning will be real.
Human beings are dying in horrific conditions.
Let’s call it for what it is: The deaths at sea are a form of immigration and border control. And the European governments know this. They just don’t say it.
Some say, if the migrants didn’t take illegal journeys with the smugglers, they would be safe.
Regardless of where you might be, in what circumstances, facing death in whichever war or conflict, there is no process to apply to any of the European states and ask for safe-legal passage. This sort of process simply doesn’t exist.
If you were in a camp in Lebanon, Libya, Iraq etc you don’t have any channels to seek asylum in any of the European states. You must be physically in the country to seek asylum.
The illegality of crossing borders to seek refuge is a racist construct. As a refugee, crossing borders with or without papers is not an illegal act.
Applying to the UN to become a UN Programme refugee is not a practical – or even possible – option. To be resettled by the UN you need to be in a UN camp/programme. A few years ago, even if you were lucky enough to apply, it was reported that it would take up to 15+ years to be resettled.
Human traffickers are of course horrible opportunists but many refugees using them don’t have the luxury to moralise the situation and the smugglers. The opportunity is not created by the smugglers but by lack of safe crossings for refugees. EU border policies create this opportunity.
In other cases, refugees themselves have been criminalised as “traffickers” and given life sentences – simply for steering the boat.
For many the calculation is traumatic but ‘simple’. What would you do if you were in Syria, East Aleppo or elsewhere? Or in Libya, or U.S ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Not just warzones, what would you do if you were facing certain torture or death because of your personal, political activities but there was nothing available to you to escape safely?
There is Racism in Death
The latest shipwreck in the Mediterranean and the loss of so many lives triggered a new wave of ‘EU immigration’ debate. This wave will die out over the coming days. It always does. Headlines of illegal pushbacks, Frontex scandals, the EU’s dodgy deals with Libya’s gangs, the ongoing dirty bargain among EU states, the total disregard to human rights etc will disappear soon.
There is racism in death. The loss of lives of no-name Africans, Arabs, Middle Eastern war victims will only be a shock for a short time. It will soon be “back to border business as usual”. The estimated number of lives lost in the latest shipwreck will be added to the estimated total number of lives lost at sea and the grand total will be updated before the officialdom moves on.
Things will move on. They always have moved on. The life of a refugee, an ‘illegal’ crosser of the proudly protected EU borders, is only worth talking about if it helps to put a humanitarian mask on the monster, the EU borders.
The EU is and has been an utterly hypocritical, deeply racist institution, constantly playing the victim card.
What happened in the Mediterranean happened many times before, not as a misguided policy or bad practice but by design and by the border strategy of the EU.
Within the ongoing debates there is a trend that pretends to be critical of the EU’s policies but in fact is designed to cleanse the EU of any wrongdoing. This trend presents what’s happening in the Mediterranean as a mistake. They remind the audiences of the EU values and urge the EU leaders to uphold these and avoid making mistakes. This trend totally and repeatedly hides the fact that what’s happening in the Mediterranean is not an accident but by design. It is a direct outcome of the EU policies.
How do the parties in the Irish Government see what’s happening to refugees within the EU and Ireland?
Are they serious when they say they will end direct provision and provide “homes for all”?
If homes for all is a serious policy, how do they explain the evictions of families into homelessness?
How do they explain the voting against increasing search and rescue missions in the EU Parliament? Do they even regret that decision?
Are they comfortable with the fact that EU border and refugee policies are causing the deaths of innocent people?
Can they teach the rest of the world about human rights and humanitarianism?
Are they comfortable with up to 27,000 deaths in the Mediterranean?
When climate activists say, “system change, not climate change” they mean radical changes to stop disasters.
We say, don’t stop refugees, we say stop the causes. We say, don’t blame the refugees for lack of housing, blame the government that has the power to solve the crisis.
We celebrate World Refugee Day, standing shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters. That celebration will be an act of solidarity but also a commitment to fighting back the socio-economic policies of the government, from housing to health, from workers’ rights to climate change.