For decades, Europe has managed to ignore the majority of refugees housed in countries along the borders of those in crisis – including Turkey, Lebanon and Africa’s Great Lakes region – and has had its collective head in the sand over the critical failures to offer them adequate protection and assistance. It has wrongly assumed that aid budgets are a suitable substitute for proper engagement with deeply-entrenched causes of conflict and forced migration. As it turns out, throwing money at a distant refugee crisis without an assessment not only of the broader context of the conflict, but also of the extent to which actions taken by European governments have contributed to instability, eventually catches up with you. So now, as images of thousands of asylum seekers in train stations in Hungary and those coming ashore in Greece show, the protection crisis is no longer out there. The challenge of protection has been laid squarely at Europe’s feet.
Inevitably, the response to the growing visibility of this global refugee crisis has been mixed, ranging from generosity and empathy (as displayed by the welcome received by Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Germany after their gruelling journey from Hungary), to hostility and anger (as evidenced by the image of a camerawoman tripping up fleeing migrants). One of the key factors that determines public opinion is the ability to engage with individual stories – stories that work as an antidote to the xenophobic language that turns individuals into marauding hordes and personal tragedies into a perceived threat. But in order to understand individuals, we must understand why they flee and why they choose Europe. We need to grasp the fact that their stories are inextricably linked to failures of protection and a lack of viable opportunities for livelihoods elsewhere. And to do that, we need to re-trace their steps and understand the many factors that led them to Europe.
One of these stories is told in a report recently published by the International Refugee Rights Initiative. The report, “I was left with nothing”: “Voluntary” departures of asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda is based on interviews with 25 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, 22 of whom were sent from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda between February 2014 and May 2015 under a so-called “voluntary departure” programme. Due to the circumstances under which they left Israel, and the way in which they were treated on arrival in Rwanda and Uganda, most have subsequently been forced to flee once more. Many are now trying to make their way into Europe. Some have succeeded, others have not.
Their stories show how the dangerous voyage to Europe is not so much a choice as simply the only option left after trying countless other ways to find safety for themselves and their families. All those interviewed had fled conflict and persecution in their home countries, and had gone to Israel in the hope of finding not only a safe place to stay, but also a job to support themselves and their families. To get to Israel, many had risked being kidnapped by Bedouins in the Sinai desert and taken to a hidden camp where families are then extorted for ransom, as shown in the documentary, Sound of Torture. Those who made it to Israel, however, found that their problems had only just begun. More than two thirds of those interviewed had either been put into indefinite detention in Israel’s Holot detention centre (described by one interviewee as “a place not fit for human beings”), or had been threatened with detention, in line with Israel’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers. Until 2013, they were not even allowed to apply for asylum, and afterwards they faced an unfair process. Not surprisingly, since the beginning of 2013 approximately 10,000 African asylum seekers who had fled to Israel seeking refuge have once more been forced to flee – either back to the places from which they had fled, or to other destinations including Europe.
Meanwhile, approximately 1,500 Sudanese and Eritreans were persuaded to join a “voluntary departure” scheme, also documented by Human Rights Watch, run by the Israeli government, under which asylum seekers are sent to Uganda and Rwanda with a promise that they will receive legal status and a cash payment of approximately USD 3,500 on leaving Israel. They chose to leave not because they wanted to go to the third countries offered, but because they could not go home. In the words of one Eritrean asylum seeker: “They said: ‘you can either go to your country or to Rwanda.’ I said: ‘if I could go to my country, why would I even be in Israel to begin with?'” (This determination not to return contrasts sharply with controversial UK Home Office Guidance on Eritrea, which suggests that individuals can return safely as they will not face prosecution for having left without permission on return).
Yet the research documented the fact that, on arrival in Uganda or Rwanda, they were not only not offered any kind of automatic status, they were left with no valid legal documents (often having the few documents that they did have taken off them). They were then approached by people smugglers and “encouraged” to leave the country – or, by way of an alternative, risk deportation due to the fact that they had no legal status. As a result, all of those we interviewed who had arrived in Rwanda, and most of those who had been sent to Uganda, had once more fled. Another Eritrean who was transferred from Israel to Rwanda and was then smuggled into Uganda, explained: “Out of 16 people [who came on the same flight] I am the only one still here. They are all in Libya. I don’t need to go to these places. You go to Juba, from Juba, Sudan – it is dangerous. I don’t want to go there. I want to leave [Uganda] by plane.”
With their options now even further reduced (as one man said, the only document he had left was his Israeli prison identity document), some have subsequently taken the difficult decision to undertake the treacherous journey to Europe. Those interviewed were well aware of the dangers: in April 2015, three Eritreans who had left Israel under this so-called “voluntary” programme were executed by Islamic State in Libya. As one interviewee who knew one of the victims personally said, “Many have left [Uganda] to South Sudan and then they go to Libya. But now there is ISIS there. I don’t know if you saw on Youtube, there was one, he was with us in Holot, I know him. They [ISIS] have slaughtered him. We were together in Holot. I also know of two who are in Benghazi in the jail… They are still waiting there to go to Europe, by sea.”
Their stories point to some of the circumstances that drive individuals and families to risk their lives and get into a leaking boat to cross over the Mediterranean to a fundamentally uncertain future. They are circumstances driven by the fact that the ability to seek a place of safety is becoming increasingly difficult for millions of people – circumstances in which we are all, to some extent, complicit whether through foreign policy decisions taken by our governments or our own inaction. Europe’s refugee crisis, therefore, is not just a European crisis but a global one needing a global response. We need not only to show solidarity and take in more forced migrants in Europe, but to support protection globally, and to engage with greater honesty in the resolution of deeply entrenched causes of forced migration. We also need to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of asylum seekers. While other countries in the region are hosting millions of refugees fleeing Syria, Israel is hosting none, and is forcing out the several thousands of African asylum seekers already in it. It is not only sending those refugees to countries that already host large numbers of refugees, but is also putting their lives in danger and is eventually contributing to refugee crises in other countries.