Europe’s Crisis of Solidarity

If the EU fails to restore confidence in a unified Europe, democracy will erode and migrants will pay the price.

Border Crossings


Jom Forest
Oct. 11, 2015 - Refugees and migrants aboard fishing boat driven by smugglers reach the coast of the Greek Island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey. Photo courtesy of Jim Forest.


Over the past 20 years, migration from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe has skyrocketed, as people displaced by war, state collapse, climate change and political instability move in search of safety, security or a “better life.” This is not a new phenomenon; displacement and migration have always been a consequence of geopolitical tensions, local conflicts, or economic crises. As the effects of climate change become increasingly visible and impossible to ignore, however, entire ecosystems, communities, and ways of life are threatened or destroyed, precipitating further migration movements. 


If the world seems to be getting smaller, that’s because, in a sense, it is. The land inhabited by humans is being increasingly diminished before our eyes. As key species become extinct, the ecosystems depending on them, such as forests, coral reefs and deserts, are beginning to collapse, igniting a domino effect that will drastically impact how and where we are able to live. 


We must understand the large migration flux to Europe that we are witnessing today as one manifestation of this monumental change. Frequent climate events such as drought in the Global South create tensions over resources that can easily escalate into violence and therefore mass displacement. The majority of migrants do not leave their home out of choice, but out of necessity. Often, it is a matter of survival.


Although international humanitarian law grants every human being the fundamental right to seek asylum, political institutions governing access to this right are becoming increasingly restrictive, especially as nationalism and populism in potential host countries grow. 



The Migration Crisis


The European Union is a good example: while emphasizing Europe’s respect for human rights and dignity, it is in fact making it increasingly dangerous and difficult for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to reach its shores. Every day, they take dangerous routes from Libya to Lampedusa, from Turkey to Lesbos, from Morocco to Spain in order to reach Europe. Increasingly, both individual European states and the EU as a whole have reacted to this influx of migrants by heavily securitizing their borders, restricting access to asylum and creating agreements with origin and transit countries to intercept and return migrants before they can cross into international waters. The degree of securitization has earned the EU the nickname “Fortress Europe.” This has resulted in thousands of migrants dying at sea, sometimes mere miles from Italian or Greek shores.


As a response to the sharp uptick in irregular sea crossings in 2015-16, a period of time often referred to as the “migration crisis”, the EU centralized its border management operations and deliberately scaled down its search and rescue capacity. While border management of the Member States had previously been a largely the responsibility of each country, the creation of Frontex, also known as the European Coast Guard and Border Agency, initiated a process of policy centralization designed to secure the bloc. The EU’s focus shifted from ensuring that migrants endangered in its waters were rescued regardless of their legal status to emphasizing deterrence by intercepting and returning migrants en route to Europe, sometimes going as far as to ignore emergency signals from migrant vessels in distress.


As Europe has stepped away from its obligation to render aid to those stranded at sea, as mandated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, non-governmental organizations and private sector actors have stepped in to conduct search and rescue efforts. In response, European governments have criminalized non-state rescue intervention and even prosecuted rescue crews with immigration offenses including, shockingly, migrant smuggling.


In order to justify this pivot from humanitarianism to securitization, EU migration policy was rebranded by the European Commission’s new office of Migration and Human Affairs as an internal security issue calling for protection of the “European way of life.” Immigration is increasingly perceived as an existential threat. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a perfect excuse for European governments to justify indefinitely closing ports and preventing search and rescue ships from disembarking. Claims that migrants and asylum seekers are carrying the virus have become common in anti-immigrant discourse around the world, including in Europe. 



The Case of Greece


While centralization has been effective in tightening Europe’s borders, it has also created internal conflict between Member States. Greece and Italy, which lie along Europe’s external borders, have become increasingly responsible for managing the processing, detention, return and integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. However, both countries are also the least financially, politically and socially equipped to shoulder this burden, as Southern Europe is still recovering from devastating economic adjustments imposed by Brussels following the 2008 global financial crisis. 


Greece has suffered particularly acutely. The neoliberal policy response that the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund coordinated in the wake of the crisis exacerbated domestic social, economic, and political tensions. Austerity policies imposed by Brussels and ultimately accepted by the Greek government were met with widespread popular resistance and contributed to a rise in the popularity of the neofascist political party Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn and similar groups have long made migrants the scapegoats for Greece’s problems, but the situation reached a boiling point during the height of the 2015-16 migration crisis, when almost a million migrants crossed into Greece alone. This event was a striking flashpoint in the breakdown of European solidarity: in the face of massive migratory flows into Europe, the EU has stepped back to allow the burden to fall to countries of first arrival along its borders. The socio-political consequences of this lack of burden-sharing within the EU have been devastating, for Greek citizens and migrants alike.


In Greece, the implementation of structural adjustment programs following the crisis led directly to the collapse of civil society and a series of recessions that called into question the real meaning of the “European way of life.” By 2015, nearly 20 percent of Greek citizens did not have enough money for daily food expenses; by 2016, 1 in every 3 were living below the poverty line. In the eight years that followed the financial crisis, Greece recorded a 7.6 percent increase in the at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion rate, one of the highest in Europe, with 22.2 percent of the population considered severely materially deprived. Other consequences included a 50 percent increase in unemployment and massive migration of young professionals. Despite the visible social cost of these austerity programs, European solidarity was nowhere to be found.


As Greece has been forced to absorb the majority of the social, political and economic costs of mass migration, xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourse have skyrocketed. Research indicates that negative attitudes toward immigration substantially increased in the countries most severely affected by the financial crisis. Migrants quickly became a popular scapegoat for Greeks frustrated with the government’s handling of the crisis.


The Golden Dawn seized on popular discontent to fan the flames of xenophobia, won seats in the Greek parliament for the first time in 2012 and subsequently initiated a wave of violence against migrants, anti-fascist demonstrators and ethnic minorities. The Athens-based Racist Violence Reporting Network documented a 14% increase in racialized violence between 2017 and 2018, as well as a doubling of reported hate crimes against migrants in the same year. Incidents including the stabbing of Pakistani laborer Shahzad Luqman in 2013, the shooting of Bangladeshi migrant strawberry pickers demanding their unpaid salaries by their Greek employer in 2017, and the arson of an Afghan community center in Athens are but a few examples of this trend.


Neofascist ideology has also infiltrated the ranks of the Greek security forces. A Human Rights Watch report found that Greek police officers, as well as unidentified men in unmarked uniforms thought to be Greek border patrol officers and Frontex guards, routinely stop, detain, abuse and illegally return migrants crossing the border from Greece to Turkey. A migrant who made the crossing testifies:


“They [Greek security forces] tried to search my wife and touched her breasts. Then they tried to take off her headscarf and her trousers. When I tried to stop them, they beat me really badly with their fists, feet, a heavy plastic rod and a metal stick. They hit my 2-year-old daughter with a heavy plastic stick on the head so that she still has a bruise. Then they gave my wife an electric shock on her wrist and shoulder and one of the men pointed a gun at my head. They beat many of the other men [in the group] and forced all of them to take off almost all their clothes. They took our phones, money and passports. After two hours they took us in one truck back to the river where a man in a boat in black with a balaclava went back and forth [across the river] until all of us were back in Turkey.”


Meanwhile, a group of senior EU officials met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the land border between Greece and Turkey and praised the government for its thorough protection of the EU’s external border, referring to it as Europe’s “shield.”


In September 2020, Greece’s largest refugee camp, Moria, which housed over 13,000 migrants, burned down. The fire is believed to have been started by residents protesting hellish living conditions in the camp. 13,000 people were rendered homeless overnight, left to find makeshift shelter on the streets or hills surrounding the burnt camp while Greek riot police used tear gas and water cannons to prevent them from moving on to the nearby port city of Mytilene. Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas blamed the migrants for the fire, saying those detained “strive to prove they are not looking for a passport to a better life.”  


The European Commission consistently invokes the concept of solidarity in its discourse on the importance of unified European border enforcement, yet has made little effort to actually redistribute the burden and costs of migration management from states of first entry like Greece. The International Organization for Migration has repeatedly criticized the EU’s migration policy as unsustainable, insufficient and inhumane, yet EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has redirected responsibility for the inadequate and inhumane conditions faced by refugees in camps like Moria as “primarily the responsibility of the Greek government.”  


While in the same statement Johansson acknowledged the failure of the previous commission to relieve the burden on Greece, little changed in practice following the fire; the commission agreed to fund the transportation of a mere 400 unaccompanied children to mainland Greece, while Germany and Netherlands each agreed to take a fraction of the remaining unhoused migrants, leaving thousands more left to fend for themselves.


In a draft working document published following the Moria fire, the European Commission explicitly acknowledged the challenges to European unity posed by the unequal allocation of internal responsibility for migration management. While it recognized the strain on countries of first entry and the inhumane conditions for migrants and asylum seekers, its September 2020 “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” has been criticized as catering to the more conservative elements within the union. The pact emphasizes a focus on externalization agreements with countries of origin and transit, border enforcement and an approach of “effective solidarity” that allows Member States to sponsor returns in lieu of actually relocating migrants and asylum seekers from border states. In effect, the pact perpetuates this “solidarity à la carte” approach that merely redirects the burden of responsibility from European leadership to both origin and transit countries such as Libya, whose development assistance is tied to increased border enforcement, and European countries of first entry. 


While the European Commission has been vocal in criticizing Greece for its practice of illegally returning migrants to Turkey, recent revelations that Frontex has not only witnessed these illegal returns but has been complicit in covering them up have been largely ignored. While Frontex has an annual operating budget of over €460 million, only €1 million of that budget is allocated to rights monitoring. Although the agency was supposed to have hired dozens of fundamental rights officers to oversee Member States’ enforcement of its common migration policy and ensure these abuses do not occur, these positions have not yet been advertised, let alone filled. It is striking that little has been done to address these issues, considering the EU’s stated commitment to human rights.


The Golden Dawn promotes a narrative that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are a burden and a threat to Greek society. Statements made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen highlighting the need to distinguish between those who “have the right to stay, and those who do not” reinforce existing suspicion of migrants and suggest that distinctions in the treatment of migrants according to their legal status are relevant and legitimate.


In reality, this xenophobic discourse is the real threat to the survival of Europe’s oldest liberal democracy, and a test of the European Union. Steady increases in the number of hate crimes and increasingly xenophobic immigration policies throughout Europe are threats to both European solidarity and democracy as a whole. If the EU fails to act to restore confidence in the promise of a unified Europe in which all Member States are treated as equals, the responsibility of migration management is shared, and human rights are respected, liberal democracy will continue to erode and migrants will pay the price. The question is: will Europe act before it becomes too late?


Migration, Europe, European Union, Middle East, Syria, Greece, Governance, Political Asylum, Politics and Society