When I posted yesterday’s tweet on UNHCR’s involvement in managing the border crossings at the Greek-Macedonian border town of Idomeni, I expected an outcry. What I saw, and what I tried to document, was UNHCR lending support to the Macedonian military police, managing the refugee crowd away from the border back to the transit camp on the Greek side.
This was done in the context of a new policy started in Serbia on 17 November and followed by Macedonia a day later, according to which Macedonian authorities only allow Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi passport holders to cross the border into their country. A country, which presently almost all refugees pass through on their way to Europe but in which virtually no one wants to remain.
This then was UNHCR, the leading UN refugee protection agency, supporting the enforcement of border restrictions designed to implement a selective right to claim asylum based on nationality. The right to claim asylum, as outlined in the Refugee Convention of 1951, is both a universal and an individual right. As such, it is available to anyone irrespective of nationality. UNHCR had become co-opted by border politics.
And the international response I received? Silence.
I believe this reaction, or rather the lack thereof, is emblematic of two recent developments, which are part of a wider, worrying trend.
First, we are increasingly becoming accustomed to seeing prime humanitarian actors, such as UNHCR and MSF active on European soil. Whilst many NGOs currently present in Idomeni have been providing services to the local population in the past, as is the case for Medecins du Monde Greece, the humanitarian response to a situation unfolding in the EU is far from ordinary.
Organizations such as MSF as well as UNHCR usually operate in environments of acute conflict in politically unstable contexts, where government is weak to non-existent and the economy very poor. Despite all the difficulties Greece is facing right now – politically, economically and socially – it can still provide for its population and, with the necessary support, for transiting migrants. This is unlike the contexts which call for humanitarian action in other parts of the world.
This is even more so the case as Greece, as part of the European Union, does not only have obligations towards the Union. Indeed, Greece is and should equally be able to count on the EU’s support. If anything, the so-called European refugee crisis has only underlined the need for a common response and Angela Merkel has yet to grow tired of invoking European solidarity and European solutions, especially in the current refugee context. The present situation in Idomeni, where humanitarian actors have stepped in providing state-like services, such as basic health care, electricity and garbage collection, is very far from the ordinariness that everyday pictures of humanitarian aid workers distributing food in Greece have come to suggest.
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The normalization of extraordinariness has come hand in hand with a second, separate but linked phenomenon. Indeed, UNHCR does not stand alone as humanitarian actors becoming co-opted in a political power game, played out by states along national borders with ever-stricter entry policies.
The European refugee crisis is at its heart a political crisis, not a humanitarian one. Of course, many would argue that the current presence of humanitarian actors along borders and fences, the provision of food, shelter and child-friendly spaces, merely offers families on the move much-needed space to rest on their long journey to Europe.
At the same time however, these so-called transit camps become buffer zones, through which people’s movement can be regulated (albeit to a limited degree) and allow political actors to continue their political games. The many Iranians, Bangladeshi, Eritreans and Sudanese who are currently trapped in Idomeni camp are comforted in their despair by humanitarian actors who refer them to the facilities available, to the warmth in the tents, the food, the showers.
Thereby however, through the camps, the tents, the heaters and the blankets humanitarian actors have become active participants in the politics of containment of the European Union. The EU’s strategy of keeping people in their place, which has if anything only led individuals towards ever-more dangerous routes with 3,485 deaths recorded at sea this year and 71 deaths in one motor truck alone on the Balkan route, is likely to claim more deaths in the near future.
As the situation stands now, the winter is at Greece’s footsteps and a constant number of several thousands of people arrive every day in Idomeni. If the border restrictions remain in place, we have to be prepared for more deaths, this time not at sea, but here, along the way to the allegedly safe haven of Europe. If this happens, humanitarian actors will be blamed, more aid will flow, more tents will be erected, more sleeping bags distributed. This however, will not solve the crisis Europe is facing; it will only make it less visible.
Humanitarian actors often pride themselves and their actions as guided by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and independence. They act according to need and remain distinctively outside politics. But here, in Idomeni, emblematic for the European context, humanitarian actors, by their actions, but also by their mere presence, have become an intrinsic part of the system of migration management and border control. UNHCR’s latest performance in Idomeni is only the starkest example of a development, which all humanitarian organisations in the transit camp are part of.
The latest migration policies instituted by states along the Balkan route will almost inevitably lead to increasingly dangerous situations. Dangerous situations, which humanitarian organizations will sustain, because they will stay and try to mitigate the circumstances. But in such a situation, change can only happen at political level. And to influence that, humanitarian organizations claim, their work is far too apolitical.