refugee crisis

Why Our Refugee Strategy Doesn't Work for Anyone

Lily Cole travelled to the Greek island of Samos to make a documentary with VICE about the ongoing refugee crisis.

by Lily Cole
28 February 2017, 7:45am

Top photo: the author (left) with refugees on the Greek island of Samos.

The six richest nations on Earth – three of which are in Europe – are currently home to just 9 percent of the world's refugees. These six countries represent over 50 percent of the global GDP. In 2015, the number of people who arrived in Europe by boat – just over 1 million – represented 0.14 percent of the continent's total population. 

We in Europe have the resources to take in more displaced people, yet instead we've spent the past two years caught up in a political maelstrom. 

The reaction to the "refugee crisis" has in part inspired the UK's vote to leave the EU and a potential constitutional crisis in the US. In the last month alone, the Trump administration has tried to shut the doors entirely to refugees, and in the UK the government has cut back our commitment of taking 3,000 child refugees from Europe – as established under the "Dubs amendment" – to a mere 350. MPs and campaigners are currently calling on the government to take in the remaining 2,650 children – 0.004 percent of the UK population. 

Let us be very clear: this is a political crisis, not a crisis of refugees. 

Late last year, wanting to better understand the situation, I went to the island of Samos. Located a mile from the Turkish shore at the narrowest crossing, the Greek territory received much of the migrant flow from the Middle East. I was there to make a film about the grassroots response to the crisis on the island, but I couldn't help but discover a highly political narrative. 

Between the beginning of 2015 and the end of February, 2016, 113,446 people reached Samos by boat. Hundreds more died in the Aegean Sea while trying to make the crossing. Since the "one-in, one-out" EU-Turkey deal was struck in March of 2016, over 2,200 people have been detained in the island's refugee camp, which was designed to house fewer than 1,000. People are living in makeshift tents, and there was no heating and little security when I was there. It was hard not to be shocked by conditions in the camp. It's also difficult to believe that this is the best that Europe, with all our money, can offer.

"The consequences of this type of migration – and of how we're dealing with it – are of concern to those on both sides of the political spectrum."

However, there is possibly a sinister reason for the camp's inadequacy: "deterrence" was the explanation I was given over and over again by the multiple experts I interviewed.

"Tens of millions have been sent from the EU to the Greek government, but also to UNHCR and the NGOs, and the big question is: where has that money gone?" said Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian's first migration correspondent. "I am not sure there is the political will to enforce good management of all that money. I think there are certainly quite a few people in the European capitals and commission up in Brussels who would like to see the situation in the Greek islands deteriorate to the extent that it is a deterrent for people who might be thinking of moving to Europe in the near future."

Deterrence has been a central part of the strategy for managing the refugee crisis in Europe. It is the reason our home secretary, Amber Rudd, said we shouldn't take those 2,650 extra child refugees into the UK under the Dubs amendment: the dreaded "pull factor" which has informed much of our immigration policy for the last few years.

Instead, Europe has sought to outsource its migration control by making deals with frontier countries, such as the EU-Turkey deal. While agreements like this have reduced the number of people making the crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, it hasn't stopped them entirely: according to a report by think-tank the European Stability Initiative, over 20,000 people have arrived by boat since the deal was made. Furthermore, an estimated 24,000 people are thought to have journeyed along the Balkans migration trail, and the number of people arriving in Italy by boat hit a new annual record last year.

The consequences of this dangerous and illegal type of migration – and of how we're dealing with it – are of concern to those on both sides of the political spectrum. You're looking at yet more humanitarian casualties and there's the possibility of a greater security risk.

WATCH: 'Lights in Dark Places', Lily's film from Samos.

Patrick Kingsley advocates deterrence of a different kind: providing a meaningful number of legal routes to safety, so that refugees are deterred from making the illegal and incredibly dangerous trip to Europe. This would reduce deaths in the Aegean Sea and simultaneously address security concerns by allowing Europe to screen and vet people coming in. "I think there is a perception out there that you either have migration or you don't," Kingsley said, "whereas, in my opinion, the choice is between more migration by formal means, or more migration by informal means."

Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, UK representative for UNHCR, also argues for a positive version of deterrence, saying that "in most cases, refugees prefer to stay closer to their country of origin than to go further way", and so efforts need to be made in the regions of origin (like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan in the case of Syria), allowing refugees the possibility of finding work and their children the opportunity to go to school. 

The secondary effects of Western policies are chilling. According to Bill Frelick from Human Rights Watch, there has been a "reverse domino effect", whereby as western nations have built "if not physical walls, legal and fictional walls to keep people out", other frontline nations have followed suit. 

In 2016, after decades of tolerance, Pakistan sent 371,000 Afghan refugees and 250,000 undocumented Afghans back to Afghanistan, and the world's largest refugee camp – the Dadaab in Kenya – announced it would be closing. There are an estimated 85,000 Syrians stranded on the Jordanian border who can only access aid via crane drop offs, and on the Turkish border a concrete wall is being built, with razor wire and watch towers containing automatic machine guns that will shoot – based on sensors – when they see movement. As border walls and fences have been built in Calais, they are also being built in Austria, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia and Greece. All this achieves is stasis: including those I met in Samos, nearly 66,000 people – 40 percent of whom are children – remain trapped in a kind of purgatory in Greece.

As Frelick puts it, "The world seems to be moving in the direction of containment.


VICE and Help Refugees are coming together to support refugees across Europe in 2017. Our first joint venture will raise funds for Samos, in collaboration with weareone: collective and Lily Cole. To donate, visit the fundraising page.

Since the making of Lights in Dark Places, Amal Safed – who is interviewed in the film – has been granted asylum.