The EU asylum policy of deterrence is inhumane – and does not work

Credit: UNHCR/Hereward Holland
A boatload of migrants reaching the shores of a Greek island on January 2, 2016.

‘If people are able to move on to northern Europe’s welfare states from camps in Greece, this will only encourage more migrants to come.’

This is how the “pull factor” logic of migration policy can be summarised. This logic has underpinned a number of European asylum policies, especially since 2016, while migration has become a major divisive issue across the continent.   

Rather than taking asylum seekers from Greek camps to have their applications processed in their countries, the European Union and national governments prefer to channel money to the country on Europe’s south-eastern external border, so that Greek authorities can deal with the migrants that are already there. The sub-human conditions in the reception camps on five Greek islands have been allowed to develop within this framework, not by any formal decision, but by silent inaction.

Deterrence effect is “debatable”

The 2015 influx of more than one million refugees to Europe was a watershed in the continent’s asylum policies. Fences went up between Greece and its neighbours to the north. The EU paid Turkey to retain migrants on Turkish territory. The flow to Greece initially shrank to a trickle. But then it started to climb again.

In 2016 and 2017, 66,400 asylum seekers were to be relocated from Greece.  Eventually, however, European countries only took a third of them.

But in 2018 and 2019, no asylum seekers were relocated to other countries from Greek camps, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR.

If relocation results in more people coming, the opposite should logically also be the case, according to Stella Nanou, UNHCR spokesperson in Athens: When no one is relocated, the number of arrivals should go down.

But this did not happen.

“On the contrary, in 2018, new arrivals to Greece increased by 39 per cent compared to 2017. In 2019, new arrivals increased by 48 per cent in comparison to the year before,” she tells Investigate Europe. 2020 has seen a sharp drop, something the UNHCR partly explains with Covid-19 restrictions and “enhanced border control measures at both land and sea” by Greece. The Greek coast guard has increasingly forced boats full of migrants back into Turkish waters in the Aegean, even while, on several occassions, Frontex, the European border agency, has observed and not intervened. This practice, called “push-backs”, is illegal under international law.

The pull factor is nevertheless debatable, concludes Nanou.

Push is real

The opposite force — the push factor —is, however, very real, according to the UN refugee agency.

Push factors are “the conditions of insecurity, the conflicts and persecution that make people undertake very dangerous and desperate journeys. A majority of the people arriving to Greece come from the largest refugee-producing countries in the world: Afghanistan and Syria,” Nanou states.

“Moria and other camps on the Greek islands have had very bad conditions,” she adds. “Nevertheless, people have kept coming. The conditions did not deter them, because their reasons to flee what they came from were more overwhelming.” 

Money for containment

The EU has mobilised €6 billion to Turkey to keep refugees and other migrants within Turkish borders. €5.1 billion has been contracted, and €3.9 billion of this has been disbursed, according to the European Commission. 

A lot of money has also been channelled to Greece to enable it to handle asylum seekers. The Greek ministries of migration and defence have not responded to Investigate Europe’s requests for an overview of the specific funding for Moria and/or the camps in the Aegean. Neither has the EU Commission identified the funding for this purpose. Since 2015, however, the EU Commission has allocated €2.81 billion to the Greek asylum system, which includes money for the running of the camps, as well as for the police and to the coast guard. As of November 30, 2020, approximately €2 billion of that money has been paid, according to the Commission.

Ingeborg Eliassen
The Moria camp on Lesbos island was overcrowded in November 2019

Some countries also fund the Greek system directly. One is non-EU member Norway, which pays Greece through its EEA Grants. Between 2014 and 2021, the government will have spent €33 million to “strengthen the ability of Greek authorities to handle refugees and migrant in the best possible way”. Norway additionally contributes to some EU budgets with the same purpose in mind.

Very few asylum seekers have made it to Norway since 2015. That was the year when 31,000 people — over half of them from Syria and Afghanistan — sought asylum in the country. But a grassroots demand to evacuate people from the Moria camp to Norway has grown strong and led to a heated national debate. In the wake of the devastating fire in the notorious camp in September, the government announced that 50 persons from Syrian families in Greece would be relocated to Norway. A spokesperson for the Progress party, which has been in a position to largely define Norwegian asylum policies since 2013, responded  with a prediction:

“This will only lead to more people trying to enter Europe, and to us having more examples like the Moria camp.”

UK and US: Not likely to work

But this conclusion is at odds with migration research that has been conducted elsewhere. In the UK, Lucy Mayblin, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Sheffield, has studied the push-pull theory in asylum policies. Hearsay about camps and advertisements that warn against having expectations do not change the major perception, she says.

“Yes, there is a random camp in Greece, but everything else people have heard of — rule of law, calm, orderly societies — is seen as true,” says Mayblin.

The push-pull theory comes from the economics of labour migration; people will go where wages are higher. It was then extended to underpin asylum policies, Mayblin explains.

She has looked at what evidence there is to support some UK policies towards asylum seekers which rest on the push-pull theory: the absence of permission to work once in the UK, combined with benefits that are below the poverty line.

“The idea is, if we can make life really horrible here, people won’t come. But officials I interviewed could not point me to any evidence that this policy works as intended. They referred to ‘common sense’,” says Mayblin.

Setting an example

The main justification of keeping people in poverty and miserable conditions is not actually to target those who are here. The policies are aimed at an imaginary group of people who are not here, says the sociologist.

In the US, deterrence has discouraged economy-driven, unauthorised migration from Mexico to the US since 2011, writes Stacey Pollard, Director of the Center for Strategic Intelligence Research at the National Intelligence University, a school under the US Department of Defense and the Defense Intelligence Agency. But deterrence does not bite on people who are fleeing unlivable conditions in conflict zones, according to Pollard: “If the potential perpetrator believes the alternative is worse than the deterrent, deterrence is unlikely to work at all.”

Credit: UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo
Deterrence does not scare away people who are fleeing unlivable conditions in conflict zones, according to research in the US intelligence system. The picture was taken in a shelter for victims of gang violence in Mexico in 2018.

Little “rational choice”

As far as push factors go, low GDP and poverty in a country do not, by themselves, lead lots of people to seek asylum in other countries. The top 10 home countries of asylum seekers also have civil wars, human rights violations, or wars in neighbouring countries.

“If asylum seekers in Poland are placed in lovely houses, this does not mean that more people will come. The factors that affect influx are much more complex, too complex to be called pull factors. Forced migration is fluid and dynamic and hard to understand,” Mayblin tells Investigate Europe.

Need for a new understanding

Migration should be thought of differently, says Mayblin. “The main framing today is that we are facing an unprecedented problem in need of a solution. In this thinking, we need exceptional rules, and those may lead to people drowning, but since the situation is so extreme, this is a logical response,” she adds.

But it is historically unfounded to claim that there are more refugees in Europe than ever, she notes. Just in the UK, 250,000 Belgian refugees crossed the English Channel during World War I, ‘crowding every floating thing that could possibly be put out to sea’. “In 2015, 25 per cent of Lebanon’s population were Syrian refugees. The parallel refugee influx in Europe was 0.4 per cent of the population. But we are talking about it as if it was completely outside the realm of the possible.”

Stopping migration is an illusion, and there will always be refugees crossing borders, says Lucy Mayblin. “Our migration policies involve spending so much money on making people poor and ruining their lives, and on trying to make them disappear. We should turn our attention to how we instead can sustainably manage this.”

Such a way would be  “realistic, but human-centred”, according to Stella Nanou at the UNHCR. The refugee organisation calls for a system with structures that can deal with people in ways that are safe and dignified: receive them, have an efficient and fair asylum process, integrate those who are in need of international protection and return those who are not. “Moria was to be the entry to that system, but ended up an abhorrent place hosting eight times more people than it was designed for. We don’t want more Morias,” says Nanou.

The EU Commission’s proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum, released in September 2019, calls for a fresh start, but has been criticised by humanitarian NGOs for just the opposite: It “risks exacerbating the focus on externalisation, deterrence, containment and return,” claim 73 organisations from across Europe who released a statement through Human Rights Watch.


Factors that influence asylum seekers

Qualitative research shows that it makes little sense to talk about “rational choice” for asylum seekers. These are some of the factors that influence the individuals’ migration routes and destinations:

  • Lack of access to a broad range of information
  • Lacking ability to select among alternatives
  • Lack of language skills to check various national policies
  • Dependence on smugglers
  • Friends who die
  • Losing one’s money
  • Getting detained
  • Meeting humanitarian actors

These are factors that affect people’s preferences.

  • Social ties in a country
  • Some knowledge of a country
  • Colonial ties to a country
  • A vague and general idea that one country respects human rights

Source: Lucy Mayblin, University of Sheffield

Read about the logbook, found in the ashes of Moria, that documents the unsafe conditions in the ‘safe zone’ housing unaccompanied minors. And listen to our podcast episode about the article.