7 July 2015
7 July 2015
“The Middle East and North Africa region continues to face multiple and complex emergency situations on an unprecedented scale, that are likely to pose further overwhelming challenges in 2015. This region is also one of origin, destination and transit of refugees and migrants. Many of those caught up in mixed migratory movements are victims of smuggling and trafficking as they face perilous journeys, notably by sea.”
The United Nations Haut Commissariat for Refugees (UNHCR) has rarely been so alarmed: according to their latest report, 2014 is the year with the highest increase of forcibly displaced individuals. More than 270,000 migrants were smuggled to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2014. At least 29,000 have died trying to reach Europe since 2000.
This trend has significantly worsened in the past few years as a result of dire conditions in many MENA countries. Although they know they are at risk, thousands of people of all ages cross the Mediterranean smuggled in overloaded boats in an attempt to reach Europe. The journey is perilous: more than 3,000 are reported as missing or dead for 2014.
Back in 2013, a boat sank nearby the Italian island of Lampedusa; 366 people perished. Shortly after, the Italian Navy debuted a search-and-rescue operation named after Mare Nostrum (the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea) which saw ships patrolling along the Libyan coasts to prevent more shipwrecks and death. After a year, Mare Nostrum was terminated, after having saved the lives of more than 150,000 people. Italy denounced a too high cost to pay mainly alone: estimated to cost 9 million euros per month, Mare Nostrum had seen limited financial support by the European Commission (1.8 million euros from the External Borders Fund). Despite Italy’s repeated demands for help, none of the EU states provided financial contribution.
Operation Triton superseded to Mare Nostrum. Operated by Frontex, the EU border agency, Triton had a smaller search-and-rescue capability and focused much more on border protection, patrolling closer to the Italian coast. The director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, made it very clear when he told the Guardian:
“Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union.”
This scandalous declaration came up just days after a huge shipwreck in Italian waters and amid public outcry as it became clear that death rate among migrants to Europe in the Mediterranean has increased tenfold between 2014 and 2015. The number of deaths at sea dropped significantly in May and June 2015 as improved European-led search-and-rescue operations beginning in May have had an immediate and positive impact. Yet, warns the UNHCR, “the peak months still lie ahead”.
What does the UNHCR tell us about refugees and asylum seekers in 2014?
I have crunched some numbers, with a focus on MENA countries, and attempting to go a bit beyond the regular and limited reports in media.
“[…] The instability still affecting some parts of the subregion, in particular Libya, continues to generate irregular movements to Europe. Since the start of 2014, UNHCR offices throughout North Africa have witnessed an increase in the number of asylum-seekers. The ongoing unrest in some countries has created greater protection needs, with increased numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers being arrested and detained, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa. Terrorist activity in the Sahel and Sinai regions, as well as fighting between rival militia in Libya, have also affected UNHCR’s operations, reducing access to asylum.”
None of the North-African countries has a national asylum law and functioning body to adjudicate asylum requests. Thus, it is up to the UNHCR to carry out refugee status determination.
The 100,000 refugees and asylum-seekers residing in Algeria have no access to work and are vulnerable to arrest or detention. Instability and insecurity in the wider region, combined with tighter interception measures and more restrictive asylum policies adopted by EU countries, have increased the number of asylum requests in Algeria, mainly for Syrians. There are comparatively few refugees and asylum seekers of Algerian origin though.
Like in Algeria, Syrians make up the highest number of refugees in Egypt. Oum el-Dounia is hardly a home though: arbitrary arrest, deportation and harassment of refugees are common practice. Just like other countries from the region, Egypt has its own refugees abroad whose number increased in 2014 to reach more than 25,000 individuals.
The continued instability in Libya, translated by political divisions, failing institutions, clashes and attacks against civilians, and rising criminality, has resulted in nearly half a million internally displaced people (IPDs). The security situation deteriorated in early 2015: this ongoing conflict has continued to uproot and displace a significant part of the Libyan population.
Iraq, Syria and Yemen
Iraq faces a dire situation as Iraqis return from Syria, Syrians seek refuge in Iraq and Iraqis flee fighting and atrocities. The most worrying issue in the country remains the current IDP crisis: for 2014, the UNHCR has estimated that around 90 percent of the Iraqi population of concern are internally displaced people. Iraqi IDPs now represent nearly 17 percent of the country’s population; the IDP crisis has a deep impact on various services amongst which is access to health care for all population groups including refugees. The UNHCR reports that shortages of essential medicines occur frequently in public health facilities, while hospitals face a high burden of patients. IDPs hosting locations and camps are growingly lacking capacity, and the UNHCR needs 500 million USD to ensure a more grave humanitarian crisis does not occur in Iraq.
According to UNHCR, the Syrian population of concern totals more than 11.5 million people. The number of registered Syrian refugees in MENA is currently estimated to near the 4 million, and for the end of 2014, the UNHCR estimates IDPs to be close to 8 million. Help for Syrian refugees and IDPs is likely to worsen as the UNHCR is facing a “severe funding crisis”. A new report by UNICEF and Save the Children warrant that child labour has risen sharply inside Syria and among Syrian refugees. Thus, a significant number of Syrian children, some as young as 6, work to supplement family incomes. Amongst the worst forms of labour features prostitution, ‘dishonourable’ marriages and recruitment in armed groups operating in neighbouring countries.
Yemen is the last in the list of countries facing emergency. Strikingly, at mid-2014 planning of activities in Yemen, the UNHCR had projected 675,400 people of concern for end 2015. This figure is already largely outdated, due to ongoing fighting. The latter occurs in various locations throughout the country, thus severely limiting humanitarian access and forcing people to flee their homes; IDPs in Yemen are estimated to total more than half a million. The scarce figures available for those who have managed to leave the country show that only one in three people has chosen a neighbouring MENA country as a refuge.
On 1 July, the UN envoy for Yemen declared that MENA’s most impoverished country is now “one step” away from famine.
Iraq, Syria and Yemen are three of the world’s four countries where the UN has declared a ‘Level 3′, or highest level, humanitarian emergency.
The welcome (and lack thereof)
As aforementioned, the number of refugees and asylum seekers coming to Europe’s southern border has sharply increased in the past few years. A shift of routes has also occurred: the main source of maritime arrivals is now the eastern Mediterranean route (i.e., from Turkey into Greece) which has surpassed the central Mediterranean route (i.e., from North Africa to Italy). The UNHCR has also found that, in 2014, asylum seekers coming from North Africa see much higher rejection rates when applying for a refugee status. UNHCR has observed rejection rates of 43 percent for Iraqi and 14.4 percent for Syrian asylum seekers, respectively.
These shifts and evolutions have resulted in three main overall imbalances. The first concerns the arrivals: Italy and Greece welcome the large majority of all sea-borne entrances (also see data presented in the video below). The second imbalance is the destination. According to the UNHCR, in 2014, Germany and Sweden received 43 percent of all asylum applications in the EU. Sweden is also the EU country with the highest concentration of refugees (15 per 1,000 inhabitants).
The third imbalance is in host country development. Indeed, Western countries retain a relatively small proportion of the rising numbers of refugees despite their wealth whereas less developed countries welcome a majority of these. The UNHCR highlights the structural problem in the refugee crisis that this third imbalance constitutes: poorer countries, i.e., these in development, carry the burden of the crisis. As a measure for this discrepancy, the UNHCR report uses the gross domestic product at purchasing power parity (GDP PPP) per capita:
“In 2014, the 30 countries with the largest number of refugees per 1 USD GDP (ppp) per capita were all members of developing regions, and included 18 Least Developed Countries. More than 5.9 million refugees, representing 42% of the world’s refugees, resided in countries whose GDP (ppp) per capita was below USD 5,000.”
This is not a straightforward measure to understand, so let’s take an example with Italy and Egypt. At the end of 2014, Italy hosted 93,000 refugees; when related to the country’s GDP, this number of refugees related indicates that Italy houses one refugee per 2.69 USD of GDP PPP per capita. Contrastingly, Egypt hosted nearly 240,000 refugees in 2014. More than Italy, for sure, but other MENA countries welcome much more. Yet, for Egypt this means one refugee per 20.87 USD of the GDP PPP per capita.
The ‘Refugees to GDP PPP’ map is a snapshot of the 2014 dynamics in Europe. Thus, the financial burden comes out as very low. Additionally, the number of refugees as part of the local population is also low: the ratio of refugees to 1,000 inhabitants ranges between 0.29 (Hungary) to 15 (Sweden). Compared to it, Jordan and Lebanon show very different numbers: the refugees-to-GDP PPP per capita ratio is at least tenfold Europe’s highest while the number of refugees as part of the population is way above tenfold. More specifically, Jordan has a refugees-to-GDP PPP per capita ratio of 61.67 USD and hosts 87 refugees for 1,000 inhabitants; Lebanon has a refugees-to-GDP PPP per capita ratio of 70.76 USD all by giving shelter to 232 refugees to 1,000 inhabitants.
The aforementioned three imbalances create an ever-increasing pressure on both the host countries and the vulnerable populations trying to find safe haven there. Such a situation is not sustainable. Most importantly because behind all these numbers, figures and charts are actual humans. And nobody, never ever, should be in a situation where the choice to make is between [being detained/killed/raped/all of the above] and finding death while trying to escape.
How then do we tackle the “Mediterranean migrant crisis”, as mainstream media and policy-maker parlance call the ongoing human catastrophy? I am using the word “migrant” for the first time in this piece just because I believe it is misleading. While there is no unified definition of it according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a migrant is “usually understood to cover all cases where the decision to migrate was taken freely by the individual concerned for reasons of “personal convenience” and without intervention of an external compelling factor”. But none of the people who fled Syria or Iraq or Yemen or Libya chose to do so for reasons of “personal convenience”. These are not migrants but asylum seekers. Moreover, as the most affected MENA countries are all at war and/or with repressive dictatorships, most of their citizens should be given refugee status in the EU, as per EU rules.
‘Migrant’ vs. ‘asylum seeker’ is an important distinction, not a point of nitty-gritty semantics: using the word ‘migrant’ changes the perception of asylum seekers, denies these people the right to seek safety, and degrades the very heart and aim of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The latter, ironically, was designed after World War II to address the mass displacement that resulted.
There is more to the whole framing of the disaster though: “Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution“, says António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Within two years, the EU take on asylum seekers has shifted from search-and-rescue (Operation Mare Nostrum) to border patrolling (Operation Triton) to cracking down on human traffickers and smugglers (new operation named EU NAVFOR Med). While dismantling human traffic schemes is important, it must not be done as a substitute of providing asylum seekers with safety. As António Guterres asserts it:
“Smuggling and trafficking are horrible things. People are exploited, their rights are violated, people die in unseaworthy boats. So whatever can be done to crack down on traffickers and smugglers is positive, with one essential condition — that the protection of the victims is guaranteed and the access to European territory is guaranteed.”
The numbers and charts presented above are staggering. We cannot say we ignore the extent of this human catastrophe. We can, however, say that dithering and inefficient policy-making will see similar if not worse charts in summer 2016. If I chose to show numbers and charts instead of personal stories, it is for a reason: we need a level-headed and rational approach aimed to solve a disaster causing the death of thousands, not an emotional moment where we shed a tear and then move on. I remember this op-ed from April 2015, when we woke up to the shipwreck that took 800 lives:
“Migration is a complex humanitarian and political issue. The debate about it is characterised by very strongly held political positions, based on weak evidence and poor analysis. The tendency for politicians to think with their guts, not with their heads, has produced polarised ideological positions that are unhealthy and have led to poor policy development.”
And now what?
Since the overall (hidden) aim of this data story was to showcase how we can use data and facts to inform policy-making, here are some of the recommendations, stemming from the above data, for improving EU response to the refugee crisis:
Collective action is required
It is not just a question of patrolling EU borders; we need to ensure that solidarity within Europe develops and shifts from spontaneous citizens actions to continent-wide policy. As it comes out, the structural imbalances of arrival and destination countries need to be addressed urgently. At the policy-making level again, the Common European Asylum System needs reform to enable smoother relocation programmes to which all EU Member States must participate.
Improvement of reception conditions
Again a question of imbalance as reception conditions greatly vary from one country to another. When reception is in poor, even squalid conditions, and communication is not properly done, it creates tensions with local communities and fuels far-right rhetorics.
Financial support and collaboration are key
The structural discrepancy of arrival and destination (again) needs to be tackled with respect to non-EU countries as well. Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey carry a huge refugee burden but the financial support provided for the bulk of major humanitarian operations is by far insufficient. What would happen if 1 euro from each taxpayer’s contribution to the EU were dedicated to a special fund supporting UNHCR’s action with refugees? It would cost close to nothing at the personal level as but taken together, these minor contributions would be of tremendous help to those in need.
Credits, data and recommended resources