In 2021, the EU hardened its borders as new refugee crises flared

European powers continued to try and curb refugee and migrant arrivals this year, with sometimes deadly consequences.

Police check refugees at Refugee camp Samos, Greece
Police check refugees' belongings for alcohol and weapons as they are inducted into the new Samos refugee camp [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – In 2021, a series of crises highlighted the European Union’s vulnerability to irregular migration.

Member states responded with fenced camps and pushbacks at the bloc’s external borders, absent a common migration and asylum policy. Building that policy, observers predict, will be the focus of 2022.

Hard borders

A string of shining steel camps and fences went up this year, chiefly on the EU’s eastern borders.

During a March visit on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos, European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said 198 million euros ($224m) would be allocated to Greece to rebuild or improve camps on five east Aegean islands and one near the country’s land border with Turkey.

“These are facilities that will not be closed. They will be humane, and allow for areas for families and vulnerable people,” Johansson said, after surveying the tent city at Mavrovounio in Lesbos, and the collection of wood-and-tarpaulin shacks that spill around the official camp in Samos.

In September, Samos’s Closed Controlled Access Centre – a grid of hard containers surrounded by a double chainlink fence topped by barbed wire – began receiving refugees. Aid groups pointed out that it looked like a concentration camp.

Residents must come and go through turnstiles with magnetic keycards, meaning those whose asylum claims have been rejected can be locked in – as happened this month. The camp does provide basic amenities – shelter, heating and cooling, electricity, and hot and cold running water.

Similar camps on the islands of Leros and Kos were inaugurated in late November. The two largest – on Lesbos and Chios – are to come next year.

All five island camps are designed to hold up to 13,000 people – more than twice the capacity of the ones they replaced.

Refugee camp Samos, Greece
The new Closed Controlled Access Centre on Samos [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]


This system of refugee containment was accompanied by pushbacks at borders.

Aegean Boat Report, a charity monitoring refugee boats, has tallied more than 14,000 people sent back to Turkey by the Hellenic Coast Guard – a practice many legal experts believe contravenes the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, which states that asylum seekers may not be sent back to a place where they may be in danger.

Greece’s argument is that its supreme court ruled Turkey a safe third country for most refugees in 2017. This was cemented in a decision by Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis in June, which declared Turkey safe for Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. The Greek Asylum Service and the European Asylum Support Office have thenceforth interviewed those nationals only on why Turkey may not be a safe country for them. Only if they pass that test of admissibility are their cases examined as to their eligibility for asylum.

Aid groups have been critical of the decision. Several organisations, including Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), said in July it “has already resulted in asylum seekers being denied protection within barely a few days of their arrival, following asylum interviews of just a few minutes, without any assessment of their vulnerabilities and with no access to information and legal representation”.

Abandoned refugee shantytown in Samos, Greece
The abandoned refugee shantytown in Samos [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

In an interview on July 4, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis refused to recognise pushbacks as a concept. “I reject the notion of a pushback, I reject it as a term,” he told Kathimerini, a Greek daily. “This word, this meaning, does not exist in my vocabulary. But when a boat comes and we see it, we see where it set out from, and we have an obligation to inform the Turkish Coast Guard, yes, we will inform it. And we will do everything we can to see that that boat returns to its point of embarkation.”

During an interview with To Vima newspaper in February, Mitarakis said allegations of pushbacks were “part of a broader strategy of fake news promoted by Turkey through certain NGOs and trafficking networks”.

Since 2018, Greece has indicted dozens of members of five search-and-rescue organisations, including Aegean Boat Report, on charges of trafficking and espionage. The cases are likely to drag on for years. In the meantime, the organisations’ boats have been confiscated and their activities largely shut down.

In October, Greece’s migration ministry also rejected the registration of the outspoken RSA, which offers asylum seekers legal support and documents human rights abuses. The rejection effectively suspends RSA’s operating licence. In December, the Greek ombudsman urged the ministry to reverse its decision, which it said “infringes the … acquis of international, EU and national law”.

The practice of pushbacks, which have also taken place at other EU borders, has tainted the bloc’s reputation as the world’s largest recipient of asylum applications. In July, the European Parliament issued a report saying Frontex, the EU’s collective border and coastguard agency, had been witness to pushbacks it did not prevent. Members of the European Parliament had called on Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri to resign in December 2020, but Greece in May offered Leggeri political support during a visit to Athens.

“Over the past two years, with the active support of Frontex, we have managed to reduce the flows [of refugees] by almost 80 percent in 2020 and another 72 percent since the beginning of the year,” Mitsotakis said.

Apostolos Veizis, head of the Greek chapter of INTERSOS, which works to integrate refugees, described the EU’s stance as being “pro-fences and pro-detention facilities”.

He said, “They are moving towards a decision of punishment to show their electorates that countries are not uncontrolled and that [refugees] will be put in those places for the protection of local communities. Fences, detention, push people back. You don’t hear about integration.”

The logic of exclusion has led to tragedies.

As migratory routes from Turkey to the nearby Greek islands are staunchly defended by the Turkish and Hellenic coastguards, smugglers in Turkey have developed a long-range route to Italy. On December 23-25, three separate sailing boats overfilled with refugees capsized in relatively mild weather in three different parts of the Aegean, leading to at least 31 deaths and dozens of people missing. It was the worst Aegean death toll since October 2015.

Further south, shipwrecks off Libya in April, July and November produced hundreds of deaths. The so-called Central Mediterranean route was made essentially impassable since 2018, when Italy’s government gave the Libyan coastguard money and patrol vessels to monitor waters while far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini declared his country’s ports off-limits to rescue vessels. Libyan authorities agreed to take back refugee-filled ships that made it through their dragnet to waters patrolled by the Italian coastguard.

The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 1,645 people have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year.

Tragedies also extended to Northern European waters, with 27 refugees drowning in the English Channel in November.

A refugee rests on a bench next to abandoned life vests after arriving at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos
The UNHCR estimates that 1,645 people have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year [File: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]

Fresh crises in Cuba, Belarus

Two political crises in very different parts of the world created new refugee flows towards Europe.

The first was in Cuba. On July 11, authorities in Havana violently suppressed the biggest protest they had seen in years, sparked by food shortages. In the weeks that followed, police went door-to-door, arresting participants who had been filmed. The crackdown led to a covert exodus of possibly thousands of Cuban refugees to Moscow and Belgrade, where Cubans may travel visa-free, from where they made their way into EU member states to seek asylum. Hundreds ended up in Greece.

The second and much bigger crisis came with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, months earlier than US intelligence services had predicted. A massive US airlift evacuated some 124,000 potential Taliban targets, but thousands more were left stranded, including female members of parliament, judges, academics, teachers and civil servants. An international effort by aid organisations evacuated thousands. By the end of November, Greece had received 819 people.

A senior migration official with knowledge of government policy said this was an “exceptional initiative”.

“Greece had never before embarked on a resettlement [of refugees from third countries],” said the official on condition of anonymity, referring to countries that are not a member of the EU as well as those whose citizens do not enjoy the bloc’s right to free movement.

But the humanitarian evacuations and visas were also accompanied by a defensive reaction from Europe.

An August 31 EU statement on Afghanistan said the bloc was “determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past”, a reference to 2015, when an estimated 1.2 million refugees entered Europe. The EU strategy was to support Afghanistan’s neighbours “to ensure that those in need receive adequate protection primarily in the region”. Afghans made up 10.6 percent of EU asylum applications in 2020 – the second-largest group after Syrians.

And then there was the East-West row that played out on bloc’s border with Belarus. On May 26, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to allow “migrants and drugs” to pour into Western Europe. By September, mostly Iraqi refugees crossing into Lithuania from Belarus were reported to number 4,100 – 55 times the previous year’s flows.

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s government said it had begun building a 500km-long (311 miles) fence along its border with Belarus. Poland has also begun constructing a fence on its border to stop refugees from crossing in its territory from Belarus.

The EU accused Lukashenko of deliberately attempting to put pressure on the bloc to lift sanctions imposed since his re-election in August 2020, which it considers fraudulent. Belarus denied the charge, and said sanctions were depriving it of the ability to control its borders.

“The instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on November 8. She told the European Parliament that traffickers were acting as “specialised travel agents offering all‑inclusive deals: visas, flights, hotels and, somewhat cynically, taxis and buses up to the border”, with the blessings of the Belarusian authorities.

The Commission began to methodically disarm Lukashenko. Commissioner Margaritis Schinas was dispatched to refugees’ countries of origin to arrange for their safe repatriation from Belarus. Iraq began repatriating its nationals in November, and was given 3.5 million euros ($4m) in aid to do so. Airlines carrying refugees to Belarus were threatened with the deprivation of overflight and landing rights within the EU. Within days of the threat, several airlines had said they would only transport Belarusian nationals and those with residence permits to Minsk. The Commission strengthened its budgetary support for Lukashenko’s opponents, setting aside 30 million euros ($34m) for independent media, youth and small businesses in exile, and extended existing sanctions against him.

The Commission acted in other ways as well. It tripled border management funds to Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to 200 million euros ($226m) for 2021-22. On December 1, it put forward a set of temporary asylum procedures on the three countries’ borders with Belarus, which allow them to extend asylum registration from 10 days to four weeks, and to extend asylum processing periods to four months. The temporary regime also allows member states to apply “simplified and quicker national procedures” to deport those whose asylum applications are rejected. The idea was to provide for the implementation of asylum law without burdening receiving countries with long-term infrastructure and procedures.

As a result of the Belarus crisis, the eastern border has become the fastest-growing migration route into the EU this year, with a 15-fold jump in undocumented crossings compared with 2020, according to Frontex. Europe as a whole has seen a 70 percent rise in undocumented migration since last year.

In November, Lithuania’s interior ministry said some 10,000 undocumented migrants remained in Belarus, and could attempt to cross again.

“What happened with Belarus is a game-changer in terms of reordering priorities,” said the senior migration official, who has knowledge of European discussions. “The Lukashenko business created a bloc within Europe of countries that come from different political and geographic groups, which put forward to the Commission the question of borders,” added the official.

Migrants and refugees gather near a fence on the Belarusian-Polish border
As a result of the Belarus crisis, the eastern border has become the fastest-growing migration route into the EU this year [File: Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via Reuters]

‘2022 will be a year with action’

While many EU members agree on the need for hard borders, not all agree on how hard they should be.

A few states, like Poland, object even to the fast-track asylum procedure at the border, and want to turn potential asylum seekers around as mere intruders. The European Commission insists that cannot happen, but leaves unanswered the issue of burden-sharing asylum cases within the EU.

That was meant to be part of the Pact on Migration and Asylum, a series of documents the Commission introduced in September 2020, upon which there is still no agreement. External border countries, especially those in the Mediterranean, want automatic solidarity mechanisms, not ad hoc discussions.

“The Commission says the whole process of asylum assessment has to remain at the external borders in order to forestall possible secondary movements [within the EU],” said the senior migration official.

“It says that if there is pressure [on external borders] the Commission will create a solidarity mechanism. But the obligations of external border states are very specific, whereas the discussion about the solidarity obligations of other member states offers no guarantees. It’s not as though we have a switch that opens the door for relocations.”

The renewed emphasis on border protection now brings the solidarity mechanism forward as a matter of urgency as well. It is also producing policy movement on documented migration, because in order to repatriate unregulated migrants, the EU has to have agreements with third countries.

“I think 2022 will be a year with a lot of thought and action on legal migration. There has to be a flow, and it has to be regulated,” said the migration official. “You can make readmission agreements with incentives and disincentives. If you tell a country you’re going to take everyone back, they won’t do that. Everyone knows that remittances migrants send home are valuable.”

Greece signed a bilateral readmissions agreement with Bangladesh in December, which allows for work visas. It is Greece’s first policy decision in documented migration since the Golden Visa programme was introduced in 2013.

Some are not optimistic that EU members will consider bloc-wide, documented flows of economic migrants and refugees, or that internal solidarity mechanisms will be agreed upon.

“[Year] 2022 has more dark notes,” said Veizis, of INTERSOS. “It is going into more containment, more fences, more criminalisation of actors providing solidarity, so the reality is even more dark for refugees … I am not at all optimistic.”

Source: Al Jazeera