That thousands of refugees in Greek camps among rats and fleas languish in rain and cold is not a humanitarian drama. It is well thought-out policy. Europe [the EU] wants refugees to feel as unwelcome as possible regardless of their stories. It has never been different.
Eleven Dutch NGOs, including Amnesty, PAX and the Refugee Foundation jointly started the Kijknietweg.nl action, in which they call on Dutch politicians to bring a thousand refugees from the Greek islands to the Netherlands by petition. ‘A humanitarian disaster is taking place’, they write on the site. They are wrong. Tsunamis and harvests that are suddenly eaten by swarms of locusts are humanitarian disasters. What we see in the camps on the Greek islands is the implementation of tried and tested European ‘migration management’ that has its roots in the earliest history of the European Union and even before, in the Cold War.
‘Containment policy’ is what it is called in Brussels jargon: the encapsulation of the refugee problem. It stems from the idea that isolation will lead to stagnation of the flow of asylum seekers. Humanitarian action for one group, in Greece, does not have much effect. The refugees on the Greek islands are encapsulated in exactly the same conditions that apply in ‘containers’ over there, eg, in the sad UNHCR camps in Africa.
European countries like to pretend they live in innocence in a vulnerable fortress and have to defend themselves against hordes of greedy fake refugees who try to cut holes in the walls. But that is too easy. They conceal the role they themselves play in the wars and the poverty people flee from, to disregard the pollution of the environment by ‘our’ companies and climate change: when the Cold War ended in 1989, just before the birth of the European Union, there were 36 armed conflicts going on. In almost all of them, European countries were important players, often in an alliance with the US. They fought, supported the wars politically or financed them, sold weapons to warring parties, helped dictators stay in the saddle and were complicit in policies that kept people poor and violated their rights.
The largest refugee producers of our time are Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, in that order. In all three wars, European countries fight alongside the US. But European political leaders present the refugees who emerge from the rubble as an isolated problem, never as a consequence of their own foreign policy.
In the mid-1980s, the UN refugee organization UNHCR registered ‘only’ ten million refugees. As the end of the Cold War approached and new wars broke out to redistribute power and resources, that became more and more. In 1992, the number of registered refugees rose to nearly 18 million.
Of the millions, ‘only’ a few hundred thousands came to Europe, but European countries were equally alarmed: never before had they seen so many asylum seekers together. In the 1970s at most a few thousand refugees per year went to Europe, in the late 1980s it had risen to 450,000 in a year and in 1992, a year before the birth of the EU, to 672,000. The feeling spread among European citizens that things were getting out of hand with all those asylum seekers. But European governments did not put their energy into finding political solutions for the growth of human flows: they only took stricter measures to stop the influx.
In preparation for the establishment of the European Union and the development of a common European foreign policy, in 1987 the European Economic Community (EEC) evaluated the existing refugee policy in the twelve member states. Conclusion: the collapse of the common enemy, the Soviet Union, caused the little bit of European solidarity to go up in smoke. In the endeavour to keep refugees out it was everyone for oneself. Governments feared the open borders that would come after the birth of the European Union: besides beloved trading partners, only more foreign rabble would be able to come in. Refugee-friendly care had to be prevented, so as not to attract more asylum seekers than other European countries.
The reasoning in Europe was that if you are too nice for refugees they will all want to come. In the run-up to the Second World War, the admission policy of European countries for Jewish ‘migrants’ from Germany was at least as restrictive as European migration policy now. Apart from the fact that governments did not want to anger Nazi Germany, an important trading partner, they were committed to preventing a ‘pull-factor’. The aggression against Jews also increased in Austria and Eastern Europe. If you were too hospitable for German Jews, then 200,000 Austrian Jews, three million Polish Jews, eight hundred thousand Hungarian and three hundred thousand Romanian Jews could get the idea that they were welcome too.
The fear of the suction effect remained. Also in the newly established EU refugees had to feel as unwelcome as possible. Countries, each on their own and in competition with each other for the most unfavourable policy, looked for the maximum of what they could deny to asylum seekers without violating the agreements in the UN Refugee Convention. Asylum procedures were ‘revised’ and there were ‘B statuses’, ‘C statuses’ and other short-term, stripped-down residence permits. Terms such as ‘golddiggers’ and ‘spongers’ became frequent. But no matter how many national decrees, interventions, legislative changes and cutbacks were introduced, it did not or did not keep the flow down, and new flows always started elsewhere.
Outside Europe, in the rest of the world, however, the contours of a common European immigration policy were visible. Just before the birth of the EU, for example, there was a list of countries whose citizens would not be allowed to enter the union without a visa. In the end there were more than a hundred countries, about three-quarters of the world outside Europe. But above all, the establishment of the EU began with European containment policy: the encapsulation of refugee flows in camps far from Europe. Nowadays it is called ‘reception in the region’.
The UNHCR is a willing instrument. The organization has no choice: kneeling to the wishes and ambitions of its donor governments is the only way to survive financially. The EU, European countries and the US are by far the largest donors to the refugee organization. Always been. If the donors want to encapsulate refugee flows in camps, then the UBHCR wants it too. At the time, in the early nineties, the UNHCR called it its ‘transformation to a broader humanitarian organization’, which amounted to the shift of his activities from ‘treaty refugees’ to ‘camp refugees’.
Convention refugees meet the required profile in the UN Refugee Convention: they are individuals who are prosecuted in their own country. They know how to reach a safe country on their own. Once there, they are entitled to housing and, if they pass the test, to the possibility of applying for asylum.
‘Camp refugees’ often also meet the profile in the treaty, but their flight ends in a relief camp in their own region. There they get from the UNHCR a tent or a piece of sail to live under, and from the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations food rations, but the right to apply for asylum they do not have, because they got a ‘prima facie status’: at first sight. They were admitted into the host country as a group, without individual assessment of their ‘authenticity’ as a refugee. The UN Refugee Convention does not mention the prima facie status, but at least 80% of all refugees in the world have to make do with it. The prima facie status protects against ‘refoulement‘ (expulsion to a country where their lives are at risk), but gives no normal access to asylum procedures and a minuscule percentage is eligible for the resettlement programs intended for relief of the ‘reception in the region’.
The prima facie status and the refugee relief camps were originally intended for a short time, until a permanent solution for such a refugee group was found. The two hundred thousand Hungarians who fled to Austria in 1956-1957 for the Russian invasion were the first prima facie refugees ever. The need was high and required a quick approach. Nowadays, prima facie is the standard procedure. If a refugee camp for prima facie refugees is there and is chock-full, governments will do nothing: the flow has stagnated and the need for finding solutions has been eliminated. To the question of what is ‘temporary’ the host countries and the rich countries that could give the camp refugees a dignified status do not reply. An average stay in a relief camp lasts seventeen years now, but there are countless outliers. Camps for Eritreans in Sudan, for example, have existed since 1968, the Sahrawi camps in Algeria since 1975.
The UNHCR calls this kind of persistent misery ‘protracted displacement’, long-term displacement. The situation of the prima facie refugees is not tested against international refugee law, but by the judgment of local authorities. They also determine when it is safe enough for them to be sent home, sometimes in consultation with the UNHCR and the donor governments who pay for the camps and would rather not do so.
A few thousand Sudanese who knocked on the gates of Kenya not long ago as a group, got the prima facie status and ended up in a camp. Twice as many Sudanese came to Egypt at the same time. They were assessed individually and a large part of the group received the refugee status with the associated rights. This shows that the prima facie construction, although invented for large groups, does not always have to do with numbers, but more often with how well-off and organized a country is where refugees arrive. Whoever flees to a country – often it is about neighboring countries – that does not have a functioning system to look at individual cases, has geographical bad luck.
The prima facie status that can last endlessly, sometimes generations, solves a problem that is important for Europe. Among the total of around twenty million refugees who fell under the UNHCR’s mandate in 2017, only three million had the right status to be able to apply for asylum – one and a half million of whom had applied for it, ‘in the region’, far from Europe. The seventeen million others, who also survive in slums as ‘urban refugees’, can not live without refugee rights, but they are counted by European political leaders who warn that ‘millions’ of asylum seekers will flood Europe if we do not lock the borders even more firmly.
Although refugee camps are the responsibility of host countries, they often dissociate themselves from them and outsource access to shelter, water, food and health care to the UNHCR. The donor governments keep the UNHCR tightly on financial austerity, because the theory of the suction effect also applies in the camps: an all too comfortable shelter only attracts more refugees. Refugees can not leave the camps in more and more countries. Social rights for refugees, such as the right to work to maintain themselves and their children, and the right to “move and reside freely” as described in the 1951 Refugee Convention have been suspended. People are de facto prisoners.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt made a study of the phenomenon of camps. She was a child of her time: in 1906 she was born from Jewish parents in Linden-Limmer near Hanover. In 1933 she fled Hitler‘s Germany. From 1935 to 1938 she worked in France for an organization that helped children of Jewish refugees to flee to Palestine. In May 1940, immediately after the German invasion of France, she was arrested and held for several weeks. In 1941 she managed to reach New York.
In 1943, she received the first reports about the existence of a new kind of camps in Central Europe: Nazi concentration camps. She realized immediately that something unprecedented was happening. Concentration camps in which certain groups of people are gathered, mostly under military coercion, had existed for some time. The British army, eg, had concentration camps during the Boer War in the Orange Free State and Transvaal (1899-1902), but at least they had a strategic aim and fit into a kind of war logic. But from what Arendt heard about the German camps in Europe, she understood that having this new genre did not even serve the actual German war effort: in the Nazi concentration camps, evil was practiced for the sake of evil. With that insight a gaping abyss opened up in front of her feet, researcher Roger Berkowitz wrote in his essay Why Arendt Matters (2017). The discovery of evil became the central theme in Arendt’s oeuvre.
In 1951 she published her three-volume work The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she distinguished three kinds of camps: extermination camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka II, perfected by the Nazis, in which human life was deliberately subjected to the greatest possible torture and physical destruction was the ultimate goal; the labor camps as they existed during the Cold War in the Soviet Union, in which physical destruction as such was not the goal, but the consequence of neglect and forced labor until death followed; and relief camps such as those for the ‘Displaced Persons’ (DPs) in Europe, after the Second World War arranged by the Allies for more than half a million ‘undesirable elements’ for whom there was no room in the Marshall Plan: stateless persons, rioters, war orphans, the elderly, sick people, people without the right skills to contribute to the reconstruction, unadapted and displaced Jewish survivors of the Holocaust: the ‘dregs of the ghettos‘ were mentioned. The last DP camp in Europe would not close until 1960, it was so difficult to find a place for the DPs.
According to Arendt, the Nazi destruction camps, the Soviet labor camps and the allied DP camps had one common feature: masses of people were put into it and disappeared as if they no longer existed, as if their fate was not interesting for other people, as if they were already dead. She concluded that the pointe of all camp types was to enforce obscurity for population groups.
Long after her death, the UNHCR put Hannah Arendt in their ‘UNHCR gallery of refugees who changed the world’, among other greats such as Milan Kundera, Béla Bartók, Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. We do not know what she would have liked about the contemporary version of the DP camps, the UNHCR refugee camps; Hannah Arendt died in 1975, well before the end of the Cold War, when UNHCR camps still had to be developed into an important tool in European refugee management.
In 2014, Arnon Grunberg visited two UNHCR camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As Arendt considered camps from her war background, Grunberg looked at them from his own background. Grunberg’s mother, Hannelore Grünberg-Klein, sailed in 1939 as one of 937 German-Jewish refugees from Hamburg on the ship St. Louis, which was looking for a safe haven. Her parents were also on board. After a journey of sixteen hundred kilometers past countries where they were not welcome, the Klein family was eventually admitted to the Netherlands. They immediately disappeared behind barbed wire, first in Rotterdam, then in the ‘transit camp’ Westerbork. From there the family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hannelore survived, her parents were gassed.
Son Arnon visited in 2014 a hospital of Doctors Without Borders in the UNHCR camp Mweso in the highland of the DRC. He wrote in NRC Handelsblad (24 April 2014): ‘The barracks, the stench, the heat (…) When I see the malnourished children, I can not help it, I think: I ended up in the infirmary of a concentration camp. Of course I do not like this idea, also because Doctors Without Borders workers seem happy with what has been achieved here.” In the camp Mpati further along his route food shortages were acute, Grunberg wrote: the World Food Program stayed away for safety reasons, but there was too little money from donor governments in these camps.
Aid workers encouraged Grunberg to speak with the refugees. He noted: “I feel like writing for the Wehrmacht bulletin when I ask “How is the treatment in the camp? Is everything to your liking?”” And: “Faced with this suffering, I understand the SS in the concentration camp better than ever. You can not identify with the subhuman. He stinks, he is lethargic (…), he hardly looks like a human being anymore.”
Lethargy was the only way to survive the camps, wrote Clemantine Wamariya in her book The Girl Who Smiled Beads, about her seven years as prima facie refugee in UNHCR camps in the same region where Grunberg traveled. She had escaped the genocide in Rwanda with her older sister (1994). She wrote: “You are not going anywhere. It does not get better, there is no perspective, no solution. You can not do anything and someone else can not do anything for you.”
Every day Clemantine Wamariya spent hours with hundreds, thousands of other refugees in line for food. The World Food Program brought corn and for children there was half a vitamin pill per month. “Not even a whole one” she wrote. She did not dare go to the bathroom, especially after sunset, afraid to fall into the stinking hole in the ground, as happened with other children. She was crazy about the itching of lice and every day she had to get bugs out of her soles. She did not know what they were, but they did try to eat their way in.
‘We lived in a plastic bag that others called’ ‘tent”. The UNHCR had apparently decided that human dignity was not a primary necessity of life”, wrote Wamariya. But Filippo Grandi, the current high commissioner of the UNHCR, understands very well that life in his camps is not worth living. In a speech in January, he said that the refugees who were trying to escape to Europe were right. “I would also risk death to escape a dirty migrant camp,” he said.
‘We lived in a plastic bag that others called’ ‘tent”. The UNHCR had apparently decided that human dignity was not a primary necessity of life, “wrote Wamariya. But Filippo Grandi, the current high commissioner of the UNHCR, understands very well that it is not life in his camps. In a speech in January, he gave the refugees who were trying to escape to Europe the same. “I would also risk death to escape a dirty migrant camp,” he said.
Few Europeans know that the holes of oblivion that Arendt wrote about still exist. A quarter to a third of all refugees and displaced persons in the world survive in such holes: spread across thirty or forty countries in dozens of camps, in jungles, deserts and marshes, in ‘plastic bags’ or in huts made of chipboard or twigs and mud, encased in want for ever. Now, for the first time since 1960, when the last allied DP camp closed its gates, we have also created the obliterations in Europe itself: on Lesvos and Samos, holiday islands in beautiful Greece, we imprison the ‘dregs’ of wars that are also ours, in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan.
According to European and international law, refugees on European soil are allowed to apply for asylum, but the EU ensures that as many people as possible first disappear in a bureaucratic hole. The asylum procedure must take place in the Greek camps: there it is decided whether people can go to Europe or back to Turkey. They do not get a lawyer, or even information, and it is only after an average of one year in the camps that people have their turn for a first interview. Files often disappear without trace and then the whole procedure has to be repeated from the beginning.
For the rest, the living conditions in the Greek camps are the same as in all other holes of oblivion. People are day in and day out for hours in queues for food. It is filthy and it is very difficult to keep yourself clean. Those who become ill will hardly or not at all be able to get medication. There are rats, snakes, fleas, lice and scabies. Mental illnesses and trauma remain untreated. It storms, hails and rains straight through the tent cloths. There are fights, sexual violence and fires, because people light fires to stay warm and dry.
No one in Europe has the responsibility. George Matthaiou, a spokesman for the Greek government, recently confirmed to the BBC that the conditions in the Moria camp on Lesvos are ‘terrible’. “But we have no money“, he complained. “You know in what economic situation Greece is.” …
Refugee reception in Greece has always been terrible, long before the crisis of 2015. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the reception by the Greek government of asylum seekers from, for example, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories was so bad, in dirty holes of oblivion camps and prisons, that there should be talk of ‘inhuman and degrading’ policies. The court forbade other EU member states from sending asylum seekers back to Greece any longer, which until then had been done regularly with an appeal to the Dublin Convention. Greece has done little or nothing since then to improve its reception. It has not set out a strategy, nor has it set up anything like a coordinating authority. It made it possible to leave the situation as ‘inhumane and degrading’ as possible, so at least they would not be stuck with ‘Dublin refugees’ from the rest of Europe and was not bothered by the dreadful suction effect of decent refugee shelters.
The other EU member states hardly urge Greece to improve anything seriously. ODI-HPN, an international think tank of and for the development aid sector, concluded in 2018 that a major lack of published evaluations is characteristic of European humanitarian aid in the ‘refugee crisis’. In addition to the EUR 250 million for the Greek government, Brussels transferred EUR 373 million to humanitarian organizations, including the UNHCR. Little can be found about the responsible spending of these funds. No wonder, wrote ODI-HPN, because the results are far below par.
In Moria, every (cold) shower / garden hose still has to be shared by 84 people and every day 72 people share one toilet, several times a day. When it rains human excrement floats past and if it rains hard it sometimes floats through the tents. Human Rights Watch condemned this ‘European version of a refugee camp’ as ‘unsuitable even for animals’ and also the mayor of Lesvos, Spyros Galinos, says that Moria ‘is like the concentration camps; all human dignity has perished there.”
It is not a humanitarian drama that takes place in the Greek camps, just as in the run-up to the Second World War the refusal of European countries to allow Jewish ‘migrants’ was not a humanitarian drama. It was and is policy, thoughtful and purposeful. In October 2017, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, visited the camps on the Greek islands. He said that despite ‘the problems’ they had to stay where they are, because their transfer to a better place on the Greek mainland, for example, would send the wrong message and cause a new migrant wave. They have to be walking anti-refugee scarecrows, no more and no less.
Take a thousand people out of the holes of oblivion, as the Dutch NGOs ask the government to do, or ten thousand, they will still stay filled with millions of souls. In January, State Secretary Mark Harbers of Justice and Security proclaimed (because in that department the Dutch government admits refugees) that the Netherlands would take in six asylum seekers from the 32 that had been picked up from the sea by the rescue ship Sea-Watch. The people had been stuck at sea for almost three weeks, because nobody wanted them. Brussels insisted, the Netherlands gave in, sighing and moaning. Harbers thought it was a ‘bad decision’ that he had to take and added that ‘they will probably float for a lot longer next time, because then the Netherlands will not participate’. Floating holes of oblivion as innovation in European refugee management.