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The forgotten pandemic: How a Coronavirus-ridden Europe could soon be overwhelmed by another migrant crisis

Roar writer Andrea Tonon on how a Europe pre-occupied with Covid-19 could soon create another humanitarian crisis with refugees fleeing the Taliban rule in Afghanistan

While the global north is overrun with the Covid-19 pandemic, developing countries elsewhere have had to deal with multiple problems at the same time. Europe and the western world have long forgotten the real pandemic, which is killing thousands every year: the migration and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea and on the Balkan route.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 1,113 people have lost their life in the Mediterranean Sea between January and July this year; this data is the highest number registered since 2016, when the number stood at 3,047. It is important to note that these numbers do not tell the full story because the IOM, governments and other organisations cannot be sure about the true number of lives lost.

By the end of 2016, around 5.2 million refugees and migrants reached the coast of Europe through Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain. In 2015, Europe saw the highest number of arrivals, around 1 million people; all of those people were trafficked by sea from north Africa, in particular from Libya and Turkey to Italy and Greece, respectively. In 2017, Italy absorbed 67% of the arrivals of migrants and refugees in the EU.

It is extremely alienating and wrong to speak of these individuals as numbers and percentages. The search for truth is of paramount importance. We have a moral responsibility to challenge and question ourselves, our leaders and our history as a global north.

Apathy kills

Even after crossing the Mediterranean into the European continent, the burdensome journey only continues for these desperate migrants. Usually, the majority of people that arrive in Malta, Greece, Italy and Spain are young men; including many teenagers under 18. However, due the their lack of documentation or identification, it is difficult to know their real age. Unaccompanied minors can theoretically obtain permits more easily in the countries where they arrive. For this reason, many of them declare a false age to the authorities in order to get an “easy permit”. According to the Dublin Regulation, the first country of entry in the European Union has the responsibility of processing an arriving migrant’s application and accommodation.

Unfortunately, many of these migrants end up in the hands of criminal organisations and some of them find themselves working in the fields illegally for little money and without any protection. These people, the vast majority of which are men, risk their lives every day and suffer abuse of all kinds. In fact, Almería, in southern Spain, has the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world but migrant workers have no workers’ rights whatsoever; they are essentially treated like slaves. They have to pick the fruits and vegetables that are sold in European supermarkets, including in Britain, such as at Asda and Lidl. These corporate giants deny that their products come from those greenhouses but the BBC obtained evidence that suggests otherwise.

Spanish authorities are aware of the problem and the conditions of the migrants. but they do nothing, as Almería’s greenhouses are an essential economic resource for the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Slavery exists in “liberal democratic” Europe but the authorities and political leadership are shamefully silent about it.

The old continent divided

The are many structural issues regarding how to deal with migrant crisis all over Europe. Firstly, the burden of the problem lies on the shoulders of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, primarily Italy, Greece and Malta; they are handling this humanitarian crisis almost alone.

At the beginning of the crisis, almost no EU countries intervened to help their fellow Mediterranean members in dealing with this crisis. Indeed, over the years many key EU members, including France, Germany and (until Brexit) the UK, have left southern European countries alone in this chaos. The Dublin Regulation is one of the examples of the abandonment of northern European countries towards the rest. Over the years, the number of deaths has increased and the crisis has become increasingly serious. In 2015, during the peak of the emergency, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, welcomed more than 1 million refugees after talks with other leaders. Little by little, other European countries have become more cooperative with Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta.

But still, many EU member states remain passive in the face of the despair of thousands of refugees and migrants. Many Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are skeptical of giving real structural help to manage this humanitarian catastrophe. According to several European treaties and agreements, all EU member states should accept a certain number of refugees and migrants. But Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary and many others, have not accepted migrants or even refugees and the few who have been selected live in a hostile environment created by a toxic media and politics.

The Balkan disaster

Last winter, some 3,000 migrants wandered outdoors exposed to the winter cold in north-western Bosnia-Herzegovina, sleeping in the woods and in temperatures well below freezing. Peter van der Auverart, head of the IOM’s Balkan mission, denounced it, speaking of the danger of a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

The IOM stated that several migrants, about a thousand, are displaced from the Lipa camp, near Bihac, devastated by a vast fire set in recent days by the migrants themselves after the news of the closure of the tent city. They have tried to cross the nearby border with Croatia and continue their journey to the countries of Western Europe.

Detention camps in Libya

A big problem is the situation in Libya. State and non-state actors subject refugees and migrants to a range of human rights violations and abuses, including unlawful killings, torture, rape and other sexual violence, arbitrary indefinite detention in cruel and inhumane conditions and forced labour. Every day there is new evidence of abuses inside migrant detention centres across Libya, and European governments are all aware of what is happening there.

Despite the continuous and well-documented gruesome abuses perpetrated with impunity for over a decade, European states and international institutions continue to provide material support and pursue migration policies that allow the Libyan coastguard to intercept men, women and children trying to escape in search of safety to Europe. This often leads to the migrants being forced to return to Libya, where they are transferred to be subjected to illegitimate detention and face further rounds of human rights violations.

According to Amnesty International, the EU must suspend financial and military cooperation with Libya on border control until the authorities take concrete measures in protecting the rights of refugees and migrants, including by closing detention centres and releasing all persons detained on the basis of their migrant status.

A sense of Deja vu: the new Afghan migrant crisis

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that about half a million people will leave Afghanistan, and many of them will embark on that horrible Balkan route to Europe following the Taliban takeover of the country. The EU, for now, is already divided between the no-front and those who ask to act immediately without waiting for large migratory flows at the EU borders.

If the departure of the last US plane from Kabul represented the end of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, it means the beginning of a new migrant crisis. According to the UNHCR, this crisis will be Afghan refugees feeling the oppressive, violent Taliban regime and knocking on the democratic west’s doors for asylum.

There are several countries of the Old Continent that oppose accepting refugees from Afghanistan, namely Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. This division within the EU creates confusion and chaos. In the face of reluctance from other countries, however, Germany, France and Italy have stepped up and volunteered to take in Afghans. They advocate to act now to avoid a long-lasting crisis which could have economic and public health implications.

However, now-outgoing Chancellor Merkel, who welcomed Syrian refugees to Germany in 2015 with her famous motto “We can do it”, has changed her tone. The Chancellor addressed the issue of Afghan refugees at a press conference last month, saying that “we cannot solve the problem by welcoming everyone”.

Last month, Turkish authorities said they were closely monitoring any influx of Afghan migrants and had already blocked more than 27,000 from trying to enter the country via the Iranian border since the beginning of the year. The Iranian-Turkish border has long been a popular smuggling route for Afghan migrants seeking to enter Turkey before continuing their journey to Europe.

But Turkey has decided to build a new wall along its border with Iran to prevent a new influx of refugees, mainly from Afghanistan. Also, Greece has started to install a wall and surveillance system on its border with Turkey aiming to control the new surge of migrants.

It seems that the Libyan and Syrian migrant crises only hardened Europe’s opposition to accepting people fleeing persecution. If all the EU has learned is to close ports and build walls, it is the most vulnerable people, the refugees, who will lose.


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