The massing of more than 30,000 Syrians, many from the middle-class environs of Aleppo, on the Kilis border point with Turkey, has given rise to a daunting humanitarian challenge – the prospect of delivering aid and protection inside Syria.
As more refugees are on the march eastwards, desperate to enter the European Union, Germany and Turkey have reached an agreement that aims to reduce these flows. Their plan revolves around cooperation to curb illegal migration and diplomatic pressure to put an end to the Russian and Syrian government bombardment against civilians that has given rise to the latest flows. In advance of the realisation of the above plan, however, the arrival of new flows of refugees is placing even greater strains on the European Union, where the Schengen architecture is unravelling quickly.
Over the course of our ESRC-DFID research project, EVI-MED, our research team has been travelling to Sicily and Greece to gather data with local partners on the nature of these flows and to understand how migrants are processing through the cracks of the Schengen system where European Union member states have reintroduced border controls, often closing off border crossings altogether.
In Greece, the country which has received more than 800,000 migrants in the past year and which nonetheless has been threatened with the prospect of being thrown out of Schengen, refugees have been locked in. With increasing regularity, the border crossing with Macedonia, a non-Schengen state, is closed off leaving refugees at risk of being pushed back down from the small border town of Idomeni. And yet, not only are refugees arriving in Greece in even greater numbers – more than 75,000 since 1 January this year – but they are continuing to move northwards as quickly as they can.
We met some of the refugees who had arrived just a few days before and were about to continue their journey from Athens to Idomeni in the hope they could then transit further from Macedonia through the western Balkan corridor to central Europe and eventually Germany. Our observations focused on Victoria Square in Athens, the central gathering point for refugees and migrants seeking to enter the European Union. In the course of an hour we met individuals and families from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria, among others, who were desperate to move on. Most had been transferred from a handful of Greek islands – Lesbos, Kos and others – to the port of Piraeus and were waiting in Athens for the buses that the government has provided (two a day) to carry migrants to Idomni.
Several NGOs were also in the square, assisting migrants with clothes and other basic material needs. We met staff from Human Bridge, an NGO from Sweden which provides support and medical assistance, and had the opportunity to speak to the local Greek counterpart who expressed interest in our research. We also observed the Salvation Army questioning migrants with community interpreters.
Families and groups of individuals gathered on the benches and on the pavement in the centre of the square in anticipation of the afternoon bus. Two men from Afghanistan offered to speak to us. The older introduced himself and said he only spoke Pashto but signalled to a younger man, with a bleached fringe and studded earrings, to come over. The young man promptly introduced himself as Italian, based in Rome. He told us he had Italian documents and was in Athens as a tourist – his Afghan accent notwithstanding. We noted that Afghans were at an increased disadvantage since several European states refused to consider their claims for asylum, unlike Syrians.
We then met a mixed group that appeared to be travelling together, if only by coincidence. A Kurdish father, mother and two children waited with an older Iraqi woman and two well-dressed Syrian women, wearing fashionable costume watches and other jewellery, who agreed to tell us about their journey. They had left Damascus just one month before and transited successfully via Turkey. They were travelling together and had been in Greece just four days en route to Germany where they had family connections.
Many national groups now face collective profiling.
These refugees were indicative of some of the flows that UNHCR has described reaching Greece and illustrated that, while border controls have been reintroduced across the European Union, new arrivals are seeking protection undeterred by intra-European struggles over the management of the internal borders. The future of Schengen is, we are told, now dependent on the reassertion of the external border, which is to be policed by additional sea patrols and with greater cooperation from Turkey.
Over the next two years we will be working on a number of projects with partners across the European Union to learn more about how refugees are making decisions and how their travel is being assisted, and we will also be evaluating the relationship between reception (the treatment of migrants upon arrival) and asylum. Reception is a particularly original area for investigation, since it is at the point of arrival that identification checks are put in place and statuses determined. Many national groups now face collective profiling and the prospect not only of having their rights to enter rejected but also of being returned to third countries – another plank in the EU crisis management plan.
How the reception and return systems will operate in practice and in accordance with both international and European law remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that upon our departure from Athens, a draft plan was put in place to create new super reception-identification centres in Athens, Thessaloniki and across five islands, just as Germany and Turkey were devising their plan.
Brad Blitz teaches on the MA Migration, Society and Policy at Middlesex.
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