Euro Mediterranean migration crisis

Wendy Pettifer on the consequences of hostile environments

I’m a solicitor who worked in Calais throughout 2016/17 and Athens in 2017/18 to unite children and vulnerable adults with family members in the UK and in Northern Europe. I have been to Naples, Calais and Athens in May and June this year.

The current situation across Europe is dire as states close their borders.

Until we can tackle the root causes of the current migration explosion – climate change; the effects of Western imperialist interventions on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya – there is no durable solution. People will always flee poverty, exploitation and persecution.

Across Europe we are operating in a hostile environment, which downgrades the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Everywhere rich states externalise their borders – the EU to Libya and Turkey, the UK to Calais – resulting in horrific hardship. In 2016 the EU gave Erdogan 2 billion euros for vast migration camps along its coastline with the Greek islands.

The 2013 EU Convention known as Dublin III, designed to enable family members to be reunited, is not fit for purpose. Mechanisms between states vary and are complex, numbers are enormous, there is no legal aid to help with the complex task of collecting documents to be submitted to one state and transferred to another. Merkel’s attempts to reform Dublin III by creating Dublin IV, whereby all member states agreed to take a quota of migrants, failed miserably. Hungary and Poland refused to accept any.

Italy and Libya

Zintan Camp is funded by UNHCR in the Libyan desert, 170 miles from the coast where 620 refugees are starving to death. They have been recognised as refugees by UNHCR but have nowhere to go as resettlement quotas have fallen to an all-time low with Trump’s withdrawal from the scheme. They get one cup of water a day and one small tub of couscous. There have been 22 recorded deaths of Eritreans there since September 2018.

The EU has stopped funding Frontex, the international rescue scheme operating in the Mediterranean out of Italy. Instead the EU funds Libyan coastguards to transfer migrants to Libyan camps. Save and Rescue Missions run by NGOs have been criminalised. The captain of El Mediterraneo, which saved the lives of hundreds in the Mediterranean, awaits trial on smuggling charges. As a result, deaths in the Med per 1000 have increased nine-fold.


Since the 2016 EU/Turkey deal, thousands of migrants languish in dire conditions in camps in Turkey, or on the Greek islands closest to its border, where conditions are acknowledged to breach Article 3 ECHR (the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment). During the crisis many NGOs stepped in to fill gaps in state and EU funding, but these resources are now exhausted. Funding provided for UNHCR to pay the rent for 2,000 families in Athens has stopped.

A new law in 2018 has given many long-term migrants status to live in Greece, but this means they are no longer entitled to financial support and accommodation as asylum seekers.

Calais and the UK

The UK is not part of the Schengen Agreement which allows freedom of movement for European nationals and refugees with humanitarian leave to remain in a European state between member states. It has abandoned its international human rights obligations to migrants with impunity.

In Calais the hardship and homelessness of unaccompanied children, single adults and families trying to get to the UK did not disappear when the Jungle was destroyed in October 2016. On the contrary, it rendered migrants even more vulnerable as hundreds now sleep in about 10 informal camps in the pas de Calais area. Police harassment has got much worse: regular tear gassing, destruction of tents and theft of trainers means no-one wants to stay in France.

Since 2016, at least 293 children have been trafficked illegally into the UK and are now forced into bonded labour and/or child prostitution. Only 103 have been located. The children are too scared to say anything due to threats from the traffickers both to themselves and their families back home.

The UK’s hostile environment ensures that the numbers of children able to access the UK through DUBS and Dublin III is pitifully low. In 2016 the Government promised to fill 480 Dubs places with children from Calais, Italy and Greece, but until now only 220 have been transferred. This number includes a very small number of children from Greece and Italy and some children entitled to join family members under Dublin III.

Dubs campaign in support of court decision

A decision in the Court of Appeal in the case of Citizens UK v SSHD in September 2018 held that the Home Office had insufficient evidence to support their assertion that they were unable to accept children without close family ties in the UK due to lack of Social Services places.

To counter this argument, Lord Dubs and Safe Passage have run a successful campaign to persuade Social Services to formally commit to supporting specific numbers of children over a period of 10 years. They are currently crowdfunding for a legal challenge with regard to numerous children who have been nominally accepted under DUBS by the UK but are stuck in France, Greece and Italy.

Thanks to Alf Dubs’ recent highly publicised visit to Calais, 40 kids in this situation in a hostel in St. Omer have now been brought to the UK but the Home Office has declared the Dubs scheme closed to kids in France.

Hackney Council in October 2016 have agreed to take three per annum, and Islington Council 10. It is a small step in the right direction.

Brexit and Dublin III

Lord Dubs succeeded in obtaining an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. The Government initially excluded Dublin III from the Bill but the amendment now means that children will still be able to apply to join family members in the UK, although the definition of family has been tightened to include only parents and siblings.

It becomes ever more difficult to argue that the UK should provide a safe haven for migrants facing exploitation and hunger in Europe when we face austerity cuts to frontline services, particularly the Social Services of local authorities. These cuts threaten the wellbeing of all disadvantaged children and families here.

But to give up diminishes all our humanity. Every child should have a chance to thrive somewhere. The hostile environment fostered by the Government since 2010 against migrants is wrong and every small successful challenge is a beacon of hope for the thousands who face destitution in the UK, the EU and beyond. We have to find ways to dispel myths and fears about migrants and campaign against the far right populist movements in Europe.

Practical help
  1. Continue to support and visit Care4Calais
  2. Contribute to the Safe Passage Crowdfunding scheme
  3. Offer support to refugees who are already in the UK
  4. Lobby for your Social Services to accept a specific number of unaccompanied minors for the next 10 years
  5. Support the Labour Party and lobby for a general election
  6. Visit the RLS Athens website and support them.

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