The biggest problem was with the so-called border hunters, who were employed by the Hungarian authorities to protect the borders due to staff shortages in their border services. In the testimonies we collected there are reports of them unleashing dogs on people, beating, ordering to sit naked in cold water in the middle of winter, and spraying peoples’ eyes with tear gas. The refugee’s face was often left untouched so that there was no clear evidence of physical violence, but broken ribs were a grim standard. Cycling for Uber Eats should not be the pinnacle of dreams for a refugee, because it is a simple road to frustration, which will bring further consequences. If we want refugees to become an integral part of our communities, we must allow them to acquire the skills necessary to live a good life.
Paweł Musiałek talks with Sonia Nadzik about the new migration routes, everyday life in the camps, the difference between a refugee and an economic immigrant, and life after relocation.
Europe began being seriously interested in refugees only in 2015 when the migration crisis had already arrived. Does your commitment to volunteering in refugee camps coincide with this period?
I started my adventure with refugees two years ago on the Serbian-Hungarian border. It was the time when refugees travelled en masse towards Germany and Austria. During my stay in Serbia, I decided to take a look at how the situation in places where refugees started their European journey. That is why I moved to Greece. Initially, I worked in Athens, and later I moved to the Greek island of Lesbos. On-site, I worked with the Humanitarian Support Agency, which organised work in the camp called Kara Tepe. There, I set up my „1976 km”, a project which helps refugees. As part of this initiative, we moved to deal with the crisis initially in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, and then in Bangladesh. Now, we’re back to Europe with an educational project for refugees on Lesbos.
So the beginning of your commitment falls on the climax of the “migration period”.
Precisely – on the moment this migration began to be blocked, which was caused by the Viktor Orbán’s decision to close the Hungarian borders, primarily the border with Serbia. The travelling refugees did not believe that this border would be permanently closed, so they began to settle in the area, waiting for a change in the situation.
I assume that there was no proper infrastructure there?
Refugees settled in the wild. They spread their makeshift tents, made of sticks and blankets. They lived in extremely difficult conditions. The food the Red Cross provided was insufficient. Every day refugees received the same portion: a slice of bread and canned sardines or tuna for breakfast, a poor soup for dinner, and only sometimes a supper – the same as breakfast. The biggest problem was with children. It was difficult to force them to eat fish from a can every day. It is one of the reasons why there are no thicker children in refugee camps. Most are malnourished.
Couldn’t they count on support from Serbia or NGOs?
At that time, organisations helping refugees were only beginning to organise themselves. An additional problem was the negative attitude of the Serbian authorities to NGOs as such. The conviction was that aid organisations are the reason why refugees reach Serbia in the first place. According to local authorities, the awareness of the possibility of getting help motivated refugees to choose a path through their country.
What was your role at the beginning?
I started with a food program called Fresh Response. We were providing refugees with fresh products so that they could prepare nutritious meals. Later, I took care of the issues of hygiene and the distribution of clothes and ended up monitoring human rights at the border.
What issues did you focus on?
Our group monitored the so-called push backs, i.e. pushing out those refugees who tried to cross the Hungarian border, back to the territory of Serbia.
Is guarding of own borders by state authorities already a violation of human rights?
The problem was the abuse of Hungarian services, above all the so-called border hunters, which the Hungarian authorities have rented to protect the borders because of staff shortages in their border services. They very often showed great brutality in fulfilling their duties. In the testimonies we collected at the border, there are reports of them sending dogs on people, beating, ordering to sit naked in cold water in the middle of winter, and spraying peoples’ eyes with tear gas. The face was often left untouched so that there was no clear evidence of physical violence, but broken ribs were a grim standard.
I understand that after the closing of the Hungarian-Serbian border, the main migratory route to Western Europe had to change its course.
The most popular land route leading through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia still exists, although now refugees are much more likely to try to travel from Serbia through Croatia or even through the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is currently becoming the new refugee centre today. Numbers we have are only estimates and change very quickly, because Bosnia is a transit country, so refugees often do not register. Currently, about 11,000 refugees are staying in this country.
We use the term “route” as if real infrastructure operated along its course.
But primarily, it’s just a mental one. It arises as a result of information exchange between refugees who are continually looking for the most convenient migration route.
Can refugees count on the help of the local population or are they just on their own?
Sometimes refugees have some savings with them, thanks to which they can satisfy their basic needs themselves. Mostly, however, they are dependent on the help of local residents. Bosnians, for example, having their own recent wartime experiences, are showing true humanitarian solidarity in this respect. They allow refugees to spread tents in their gardens and let them use their bathrooms. Volunteer groups organise the distribution of food and clothing. It’s different in Croatia, where the attitude towards refugees is becoming more and more negative over time.
Another new popular migration route leads through Spain.
People from Congo or Guinea dominate it, but we also met people from Bangladesh and Rohingya. Motivations for undertaking such a dangerous journey are different. Some people run away from the conflict, like the Congolese or Rohindj people, but some still admit that extreme poverty has pushed them into the road. It is worth noting that just from the beginning of this year over 30,000 people have migrated to Spain – which is a new record for this country.
The local route leads to Algeria and Morocco through the Sahara, which became a cemetery for refugees, unprepared for such extreme travel conditions. On the one hand, there is not enough water and food. On the other hand, there are frequent cases of smugglers’ cars breaking down in the middle of the Sahara. After calling for help on the radio, indeed the support comes, but it only saves the smugglers – leaving migrants to practically certain death. Those who will manage to reach Algeria and Morocco despite all adversities, then try to get to the Spanish enclaves: Ceuta or Melilla.
Where often disappointment awaits them.
Refugees do not realise that the enclaves are excluded from the Schengen zone. Which means that getting to Ceuta and Melilla does not automatically give them the freedom to move around the territory of the European Union.
To reach continental Spain, refugees usually sail on boats from the territory of Morocco. Some are attempting to be smuggled in a car, hiding in seats or suitcases. You can even find a recording on the internet, where border guards are scanning one of the vehicles with a thermal camera and the equipment shows the warmth of a person hidden… in a tire. Refugees also try to climb the nine-meter fence separating Ceuta from Morocco. The fence is topped with barbed wire, thermal imaging cameras and patrolled by flying drones. As soon as Spanish or Moroccan border guards get a signal about traffic near the border, they react immediately. Despite this, sometimes refugees and migrants manage to get past this obstacle. At the end of July in one day, more than 600 people crossed the Spanish border this way.
What is the nationality of migrants on different routes?
People who try to get through Turkey to Greece are mostly Middle Eastern citizens who travel mainly from Syria. On western routes, including the one leading through Libya to Italy, and especially the one through Morocco and Algeria to Spain, there will be many people from the Black Africa. Two years ago Greece, Italy and Spain were the most popular destinations. This year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Spain has become a new leader. The main reason for the decrease of migration to Greece is, of course, the European Union agreement with Turkey.
Let us now move to the island of Lesbos, often treated as a symbol of the refugee crisis. What does everyday life look like in refugee camps located on this Greek island?
It primarily involves queuing for food or satisfying other most basic needs.
Where international organisations are present, days can be more interesting. First of all, it is about language courses for adults and organising activities for children. Cultural centres are also being built more and more often near the camps. Many refugees speak English but polishing up the language and learning the local language are among the activities that enjoy the most interest.
What is the humanitarian situation in these camps?
The picture is not unambiguous. It’s best at Kara Tepe. It is a camp designed for people in the most challenging situation: families with children, disabled people, single women. The city runs it, and its manager is a former military man who has good contact with both refugees and non-governmental organisations, which for example provide breakfasts, organise activities for children, or deal purely hygienic matters, including cleaning. In Kara Tepe, the city pays only people who deal with administration and security, and the rest belongs to non-governmental organisations.
I understand that not everywhere is so rosy.
Moria is the second camp on Lesbos. Often, and not unsubstantiated, it is called hell on Earth. It is a kind of “verification camp” in which the registration of all refugees arriving at the island takes place. Within its framework, there are several sections, including a closed part, where people suspected of criminal activity or those whose personal history is contested are kept. Unfortunately, also people towards whom there are no grounds for isolation are being kept there, which is why several protests against abuses have already been organized in Lesbos.
I guess that the closed section is not the only problem.
Moria is above all terribly overcrowded. Initially, the camp was built to house 2000 people, and at the moment are more than 6000 people are living there. On top of the terrifying density and lack of space, there is not enough quantity of literally any essential item, even free blankets. Children with their families often sleep on concrete and cover themselves with what they find on the streets. The general deficit raises competition for access to goods, which often leads to conflicts and even fights. Two months ago, the Kurdish families fled the camp and announced that they would not return.
Who most often fights with each other?
Primarily the Arab population with the Afghans.
Do these conflicts have a religious or ethnic background?
Often, a big dispute starts with a trivial matter, for example from a quarrel between two men about a blanket being handed out. Due to the strong group solidarity embedded in the culture of the Middle East, such a dispute quickly escalates and turns into a much more serious conflict. The Syrians also resent the Afghans for having many of them fighting Asad as mercenaries.
Do these extreme living conditions result from the insufficient financing of existing camps?
Yes, first and foremost it is about too low financial support from the EU, which is not keeping up with the ever-growing number of refugees arriving in Lesbos. The second reason is the restrictive regulations that stop people who are in the refugee procedure to enter continental Europe. People are living on the island who have already received a positive decision about the possibility of moving around the territory of the Union, but as long as their documents bear a red stamp, they are not allowed to leave Lesbos. The Greek authorities are not able to deal with the continually growing number of applications. The whole procedure can take up to two or three years.
In such circumstances, apart from financial assistance, shouldn’t the administrative support play the leading role?
Such help would undoubtedly reduce the administrative congestion, but it would not solve all the problems. For the Greeks, the priority is to accelerate the process of relocation of refugees. Greek authorities say they no longer have the capability to accept more people in the continental part of their country.
What happens with people who have already been allowed to leave the island?
First of all, they can go to continental Greece. Most often, they get a ready assignment to a particular camp or private home, organised and paid by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The latter case concerns people with special status: single mothers, sick people, victims of violence. Relocation to other EU countries is the last stage, of course, if they are entitled to them.
In 2015, the EU decided to resettle 160,000 people who have been granted refugee status from Italian and Greek camps to other countries of the Union. How is this decision from three years ago implemented in practice?
Sluggishly. So far only slightly over 34,000 people have been moved, due to a simple fact. Everyone wants to prepare for the arrival of refugees, the organisation of centres in the target countries continues, so the transfer of refugees is carried out in small portions. This is compounded by growing dislike towards migrants and refugees. For example, the new Austrian government said that it was withdrawing from any further relocation and so far from the amount of 1953 refugees, it accepted only 43.
We must also remember that not everyone is eligible for relocation. Only those who came to Greece or Italy between March 24, 2015, and September 26, 2017, have been registered and whose fingerprints have been collected. Not every nationality is subject to relocation. After the last verification of the list, apart from the Syrians, there are citizens of Eritrea, Bhutan, Bahrain, the Bahamas, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Yemen.
Can refugees choose their own destination country?
During the relocation procedure, they are allowed to select preferred countries. Besides, refugees enter information that could facilitate their access to a given country, that is knowledge of the language and the family situation. If someone has a family in a given EU Member State, then the assimilation process is considered to be more efficient. Ultimately, however, the location decision depends not on the refugee but on the officials.
Which countries are the most popular choices among refugees?
Definitely Germany. Refugees believe that it is a safe country that provides stability and has a well-organised system of support for immigrants. Austria and Sweden are also highly valued. Preferences also depend on the state of origin. For example, people from Congo want to go to France because of their knowledge of the language.
And which places refugees would prefer to avoid?
Bulgaria and Hungary enjoy a particularly bad reputation.
Where does it come from?
I spoke about the situation on the Hungarian border earlier. The general hostility and often cases of violence against refugees is also the Bulgarian reality.
Is Poland even present in the minds of refugees?
To a small extent. It was slightly larger In Serbia, because a large group of Poles worked on the site with refugees. Refugees began to perceive Poles through the prism of their experiences with volunteers, hence shown a little more interest in our country. Generally, however, the only thing refugees know about Poland is Robert Lewandowski.
Let’s reverse the logic. In that case, can the EU countries make any selections? If so, what criteria are they using during the relocation? Religion? Education? Can we talk about the phenomenon of brain drain in this case?
At the beginning, refugees could be selected by the future host country. Some countries have taken advantage of that, such as Portugal, which asked for Christian families and received them. Besides, more countries asked for Christians because of easier assimilation, but the quick “exhaustion” of the pool of this category of people meant that the later the country came forward, the smaller the chance of choosing the preferred people. You can select by profession, but it is difficult due to the problem of verification of qualifications.
Does gender matter?
The paradox is that single men are being chosen at the end, which is surprising – they are the first to enter the labour market, so they not only earn, that is, they do not burden the state budget, but on the contrary – they contribute to it.
What is the situation of women in the labour market?
Unfortunately, women have a huge problem with work. Often in non-Western cultures, especially in Arab culture, the division of roles is very traditional, and men earn for the whole family, while women work only at home, so they are not prepared to enter the labour market both culturally and concerning competences.
There is also another barrier. Women often choose career paths that are completely dominated by women because they do not want other men to be their direct superiors. It is considered a threat to the virtue of a woman. We’re trying to do some grassroots work that is improving their attitude, which I observed in the camps during our classes. At first, women were very reluctant to be taught by men, but it is slowly changing now. Especially in the cases, where we introduce a female teacher assistant.
Can we say with full conviction that those who receive refugee status are effectively verified, that is, they come to Europe from places where their lives were endangered?
The simplest case is the Syrians because in their case there is clear evidence that they are fleeing to Europe from the civil war in their homeland. That is why almost all Syrians get asylum – only because they are Syrians. For this reason, there are individual cases of people who claimed to be Syrians to increase the chance of refuge, but their country of origin is easy to verify.
I understand that a short language test should quickly verify the country of origin.
The services employ more and more native speakers who are recruited from the refugee community itself to verify if someone is really from a given country.
Who checks refugees? The state services of the country where they ultimately end up? Or maybe Frontex employees, an agency for the external borders of the Union?
The Greek services verify people who reach the Greek islands in cooperation with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). In the case of a person qualified for relocation, another verification is carried out by the services of the state in which they are to reside. At least two in-depth interviews are carried out with each person to see basis do they have for applying for asylum.
So, can we say that the method used to verify these people is sufficient?
It is meticulous. It starts with fingerprinting, which then goes to the appropriate database, so anyone who has a criminal record in the EU is already identified at this stage and immediately qualified for referral to the country of origin.
Refugees are asked to reconstruct their way of arrival to Europe, and information about where they lived. These questions are often precise. I know that someone was even asked about a particular store located on a given street because one of the translators knew a given region. Detail is necessary because most refugees have no documents. Often, it’s a matter of getting lost or stolen but also deliberately getting rid of it.
To impersonate another nationality and thus increase the chance for asylum?
Sometimes it indeed happens. Some believe that it will be easier for them to get into the EU, giving a different nationality. Apparently, this is a common practice among Pakistanis who know they can’t get a visa to get into the EU because Pakistan is considered a safe country, but I believe it is a mistake. In this case, the individual situation has to be taken into account, because in Pakistan, the Taliban are spreading terror in specific regions.
Are there other reasons for throwing away documents?
People who are over 18 years of age do not show their documents to pretend they are minors. It speeds up the process of obtaining asylum. Minors get into a different environment immediately, e.g. in Germany, there are special homes for juveniles.
If not Pakistanis, then who, apart from Syrians, can count on asylum?
Iraqis almost always receive it, in the case of Afghans it depends on the internal political situation in this country. When the number of terrorist attacks increases, the chance of receiving asylum increases. And vice versa – a more extended period of peace in Afghanistan makes the asylum procedures lengthened for them. Nationalities that are on the relocation list have the best chance of receiving a quick asylum. Of course, not from each of these countries’ refugees reach Europe in large numbers. There are hardly any people from the Bahamas or Bhutan, for example. Typically, the citizens of Eritrea, who are welcomed by Switzerland, receive fast asylum. Greek asylum statistics illustrate well what nationalities receive protection in Europe. Last year, the rate of rejection of the application of Syrians in Greece amounted to only 0.4%, people from Palestine 3.3%, Afghans 23.4%, Pakistanis in turn, as much as 97.8%!
So, what about people who want to get to Europe from Africa, or economic migrants?
The situation is very different because, on the one hand, we are dealing with economic migrants who escape extreme poverty, but we also have people from countries that are overcome by conflict, i.e. fulfilling the asylum criteria.
Of course, economic migrants also come to Europe, often crossing borders first and then starting to apply for jobs and necessary papers. A large part of them ends up on deportation lists when, with routine police control, it turns out that they have no documents.
It is worth emphasising that many Western societies are ageing and will need an additional, non-native workforce each year. Various ideas emerge in political discussions, such as to build recruitment centres in the countries of origin of migrants, so that they can reach Europe already trained and know what they can expect not only in professional but also cultural matters. It seems, however, that Europe may not yet be ready for such a solution. Still, there is a common belief that we will not be able to deal with the number of refugees arriving in Europe, so we can’t open ourselves to economic migrants.
What happens to people who don’t eventually receive refugee status?
The deportation procedure, which looks very different depending on the country of origin and the country from which the person is to be deported. The deportation must be agreed by the government of the given country from which the refugee comes from, and for the government to agree, it must send its representative, which is generally the ambassador or consul of the given country. For these reasons, the whole procedure goes on for months.
The problem is that you can only be deported where the readmission agreement is signed, so it does not apply to all countries “exporting” migrants.
Indeed, most countries do not want to take their citizens back. Recently, the EU paid the Afghan government money to agree to send their citizens who unsuccessfully tried to get to Europe back.
Let’s talk about people who have already been relocated. What does their life look like in the destination country?
It depends on the country they are moving to. They usually go to special transit camps at the beginning. In the case of states already having refugee experience, assimilation procedures begin immediately: training in the rules of social life for adults, education for children. It is very important because a lot of misunderstandings arise from the fact that the arriving people just don’t understand the rules that apply in a given country.
Who does it well?
Above all, Germany. They do not, in fact, have refugee camps, only refugee centres. Often, this is a decent house that looks like a hotel. Germany works with refugees by case studies. They ask you what you would do in this and this situation and explain what is happening in a given case in Germany. They start with the fundamental laws that answer the question of what is allowed and what is not. Then they move on to more complex training, during which they show and explain how the Germans behave in a given situation.
Someone other than our western neighbours?
The Swiss who have joined the relocation process even though they are not EU members. In their case, specialised centres for children and women after traumatic experiences, i.e. raped during a trip to Europe, work great.
A fascinating example of good practice is also the United States. The International Refugee Council, an institution founded by Albert Einstein, is active in their territory and organises CV writing classes, shows what the job market looks like, helps in finding employment. People in the US have the opportunity to refuse their first job offer, but they have to take the second one because they lose their benefits. The primary goal of the system is to bring refugees to their independence as soon as possible.
Centres for refugees are just the beginning, a transition period for initial acclimatisation. What happens when refugees have to become independent?
Unfortunately, problems often begin. Staying in the centres takes a few months, then you have to act on your own: organise a house, find a job, choose a school for children. Obviously, social services are assisting in these efforts, but refugees are no longer entitled to previous benefits.
So how does the process of their socialisation look like?
The most straightforward situation is those who have come to a country where they have a family. Often, they are not the closest relatives, but some distant cousin’s cousins, but this allows them to interact with the local community more efficiently. Or take the first job in a small shop that is run by a distant cousin of your grandma. After acclimatisation, immigrants often started their own business. It was a very popular path for Turks in Germany.
Do we have any “hard” indicators that would show how many people found employment after leaving the centres?
The International Organization for Migration keeps statistics on employment, but takes into account, for example, migrants like Poles working in Brussels, so the adopted methodology has its essential limitations, it is not detailed enough. Besides, it seems that it is too early for numerical summaries because refugees usually stay in camps for a very long time, and then a little more in the transition centres of the countries to which they are transferred. The great wave of 2015 has only recently entered the labour market, so we have to wait for some time to make an assessment.
Is it true that non-governmental organisations become an essential element of the migration policy in the face of the existing financial, institutional and administrative deficiencies of individual states?
Non-governmental organisations fill the gaps left by state institutions. And even rich and well-organised countries, such as Switzerland, use the services of non-governmental organisations. In the field, non-governmental organisations sometimes take care of simple tasks, for example, feeding refugees, because the camp food is often inadequate or of poor quality. Very often specialised organisations deal with medical help or education for children. In their destination countries, they regularly organise legal aid, integration classes and language learning. From my two years of work in the field, it seems that the education of teenagers still a big issue, undeveloped in almost all of the European hot spots.
Do we know how many volunteers are involved in helping refugees?
Identifying specific numbers is difficult. There are people involved in the activities of professional non-governmental organisations cooperating with government institutions, and there are also those who engage less formally. You should also take into account such situations as in the already mentioned Bosnia, where whole families help refugees, taking them to the roof or providing gardens for their tents.
What is the focus of your project on the island of Lesbos?
It’s about educating teenagers. During these two years of fieldwork with refugees, I noticed that this is a crucial issue, because refugees, once they get their asylum and move to the EU, will have to enter the labour market very quickly. Lack of education and specific competencies often means low-paid jobs, sometimes taken illegally.
Why did you choose teenagers?
If you escape the war in Syria at the age of 14, asylum can be obtained at the age of 18-19. As a result, a 14-year-old boy becomes an uneducated 19-year-old man who immediately has to enter the labour market without any preparation. Therefore, it is worth using the camp stay for education to make it easier for you to live your life in the country where you end up in.
What exactly do you want to teach?
We decided that this project will not have a strict school character. It is supposed to be learning specific competencies that will later allow free professions, such as photography, computer graphics or IT skills in general because, for many people, especially women, this is a novelty. We want to create a kind media laboratory on Lesbos and see how much refugees are interested in gaining such qualifications and whether they are within their reach. At a later stage, we want to try to connect them with local business. For example, if someone was moved to Sweden and we know that entrepreneurs who may be interested in the competences of our pupils operate in their place of residence, we want to contact them.
Already in Greece, refugees can work immediately after they register, staying in the camp. So far, however, employment in gastronomy prevails. We want them not to be sentenced to one or two low-paid industries. Many refugees have been performing specific professions in their countries. There are many well-educated Syrians who were doctors, teachers or lawyers. We are aware, however, that their diplomas will not be recognized in the European Union and that they will have to retrain.
Is your project not too ambitious for the possibilities of refugees?
We are aware of the potential difficulties, which is why our project is of a pilot nature. However, we have a deep conviction that we must teach refugees the competencies necessary in the modern European labour market, and not limit their possibilities to just opening a kebab booth. Distributing food at Uber Eats should not be the pinnacle of dreams for a refugee, because it is a simple road to frustration, that brings further consequences. If we want refugees to become an integral part of our communities really, we must allow them to acquire the skills necessary to lead a good life.
Translation from Polish: Jędrzej Pyzik
This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.