Written by Zoheb Mashiur
Let us discuss numbers. The problem with these figures is that they refer to sums of people so vast, they cannot be easily imagined. They feel abstract. For now, this isn’t a major problem. Let us simply consider the numbers by themselves without trying – and failing – to put emotional weight on them.
According to the UNHCR, as of 2017 there are more forcibly displaced people across the world than there have ever been. 68.5 million people. 25 million of them are refugees, and 3 million are asylum-seekers (applicants for refugee status). It is undeniable that many of these persons are in Europe, and if one includes non-refugee migrants the figure grows higher. For context, the European Parliament puts the figure of asylum applications across the EU at over one million in 2015, down to 700,000 last year. The infamous scenes of the Mediterranean crossing in 2017 accounted for 43,000 entrants.
These are large quantities of people. To briefly attempt to contextualize them, Brussels has a (registered) population of roughly a million. Imagine the entire population of Brussels displaced and having to seek asylum in Greece, Germany or Italy. No wonder the European Parliament has described member states as being “under an enormous amount of pressure” on their borders.
Truly, taken by itself, this does lend credence to the label of the European Refugee Crisis. Indeed, if you are inclined to be less kind, you could call it the European Migrant Crisis, as the European Parliament does. A simple label change that calls into question the legitimacy of the presence of these persons on European soil. Refugees, after all, have to be protected and accommodated, under the dictates of the Refugee Convention (a post-WWII instrument originally conceived for the relief of European victims of war). Migrants? Migrants are just here for a good life and to take what they don’t deserve. (Europeans have certainly never gone to a foreign country for material gain, after all. Spotless histories.) If they were really refugees, they wouldn’t come all the way to Sweden and would seek shelter next door – in Lebanon or Pakistan, no? Why aren’t those countries doing their part?
The European Crisis narrative dominates. It is the first thing people think about when they hear the words ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’, due to media exposure and extreme politicization. National regimes have flipped in response to this crisis. Schengen is under attack. The EU strikes devil deals with Erdogan to help alleviate the ‘pressure’ on their member states, and to please take the refugees on their behalf (this is legal to do under the Convention provided Turkey is classified as a ‘safe third country’, which is a dubious prospect – but this subjective label is being milked by the EU for all it is worth.) European coast guards patrol Libya, locking migrants on shore, facilitating the growth of the slave trade that European leaders clutched their pearls at over last year. EU legislation locks the refugees/migrants/undesired in squalid camps in Greek islands (which is where you should really go if you want to see Europe under actual pressure), and throws money at the Greek government in the hopes that this will stop MEPs having to hear Pashto spoken on their way to work. It is a European crisis, after all, and these are small prices to pay in the face of this unprecedented challenge to the world’s beacon of humanitarianism and peaceful cooperation.
Let us circle back to the first, colossal figure I brought up, 68.5 million. If the population of Brussels is displaced across Europe, imagine 67 times that, elsewhere. 40 million are internally displaced and never cross an international border (there remains no international convention on their treatment.) 84% of the world’s refugees are in the ‘developing world’ (a condescending term, but we’ll use it here.) They are in Turkey, which hosts the largest refugee population in the world at 2.8 million. They are in Lebanon, Pakistan, Jordan and Iran. Where are the headlines for the Pakistani Refugee Crisis? Are we to imagine that Pakistan has more material capability of supporting refugees than the entirety of the European union?
The lesson is quite clear – the European experience with refugees, a mere sliver of a global tragedy, has been cynically hijacked. The attention is focused so tightly on places such as Sweden and France that one can even for an instance forget (as even I sometimes do), that they should be right be mere afterthoughts. If there is a crisis, it isn’t happening in Western or Northern Europe. The countries with the least material capacity do the most. This is true globally, and is true within Europe itself.
The very first step to solving a crisis, because 68.5 million is definitely a crisis, is to acknowledge what the crisis actually is. The crisis is emphatically not that Europe is being overwhelmed with refugees or migrants. It is that the global displacement crisis has finally reached Europe’s shores in numbers that are, honestly, paltry. Instead of reacting with humility and the desire to aid, Europe’s politicians have cried foul and created an overarching and faulty policy that simply makes it harder for these persons to receive the aid they need. Moreover, the European framing obscures that the policies intentionally disproportionately burden states such as Greece and Italy and even Hungary and Poland. These will not be reversed until politicians, and people, in Brussels and Paris and Copenhagen stop fooling themselves with their own myth.
About the author: Zoheb Mashiur is a writer and artist currently pursuing an MA in Migration Studies at the University of Kent.