How Skewed Migration Priorities Divide “Good” and “Bad” Asylum Seekers

WESTT Blog | June 20, 2018
by Niki Papadogiannakis

In the past weeks, the rights of asylum seekers have been coming under fire by anti-immigrant policies and administrations. Last week, news broke of the Medicines Sans Frontiers’ Aquarius rescue boat, which was left in limbo for hours on the high seas outside of Italy and Malta. Since the beginning of the June, reports from the US-Mexico border have documented children being separated from their undocumented parents to be held in detention centerswhile the status of their parents is decided. Headlines illustrate increasingly dire situations in the camps on the islands and mainland in Greece, where camps are double and triple over capacity, and waiting times for some of the asylum seekers are unpredictable. However you look at it, it’s evident that protecting the rights of migrants was not merely a trend of European advocates and humanitarians in 2015.  The discussion continues, and it is particularly important that Western affluent nations do not cave to populist political pressures and anti-immigration rhetoric.

Whose rights are we really advocating for?

On World Refugee Day – a day to raise awareness about the struggle of refugees – let’s do a review on progress the “West” has made to protect migrants:

  • The EU proclaimed they would have a relocation scheme for migrants arriving to Greece—this has not been agreed upon, but Syrians have been prioritized in asylum recognition.
  • The Trump administration has said they would work on bipartisan immigration reform—no substantial progress on the legislation has been made, and asylum-seekers are being prosecuted for illegal entry.
  • The EU continues to reinforce policies of exclusion on the misleadingly humanitarian premise of avoiding deaths at sea. These agreements between the EU and these two non-EU countries create a wanted buffer between migrants arriving on European shores, and externalizes the responsibility for their rights.

The lack of progress is heartbreaking.

Greece is an entry point for many coming to Europe. Here, it is evident that not all migrants are equal. In the past 5 years, talk of the so-called “migrant crisis” has flooded Greek airwaves with contrarian claims. On the one hand, Greeks show sympathy for the Syrian and Iraqi families seeking asylum, the ginekopetha—women and children fleeing brutal dictatorship or the threats of terrorist groups. On the other, there is the continued demonization of young male Afghan and Pakistani asylum seekers, misleadingly grouped as unauthorized workers, or lathrometanases.

So we have the division of “good migrants” and “bad migrants” delineated not only along lines of nationality, but also gender and race. Syrian and Iraqi families, mothers or fathers with their children are given a sympathetic ear from Greeks with whom they share some common foods, common physical characteristics (lighter skin, darker hair) and even popular culture. These connections stand in contrast to the often darker-skinned Afghans, who are typically young males seen as having ‘brute’ masculinity and being a foreign threat to European society, particularly to young women.

Not only are these sentiments heard from the streets of Greece, but differences between the two groups are reflected in policy and practice.

The underlying dynamics between Greeks and Afghan migrants in Greece predate the “migration crisis” and even Greece’s economic crisis. Before the recession in 2008, many migrant laborers from South Asia, including Afghans, worked in factories and ports around the country—a convenient cheap form of labor for Greek businessmen, so their undocumented status went under the radar. Once the crisis hit, the narrative changed. These Afghans were seen as a burden to the Greek economy, and thus Operation Xenios Zeus was born. Aimed to root out the lathrometanastes from the capital city, police officers were given authority to check the status of, and even detain, any person they suspected of being undocumented. Riddled with racist undertones, the fear-mongering operation indicated that 94 percent of individuals detained had legal statusand less than 6 percent were, in fact, undocumented.

The prioritization of Syrian families—while a positive step in guaranteeing dignity and protection for a group that had been ravaged by civil war for over 7 years—allows countries to side step their obligations for other groups, especially those who are perceived as less vulnerable or sympathetic.

While the percentage of Syrians who receive refugee status in Europe is overwhelmingly positive (87% of Syrian applicants were recognized as refugees from November 2017 to April 2018), it’s still difficult for them to reach Greek shores.  The EU gives Turkey billions to house and support Syrians within Turkey, to deter Syrians from attempting the journey overseas. But once they make it to Greece, their fate is fairly secure. Syrians, however, are just one group of asylum seekers who hope for international protection in Europe. Only 36% of Afghans are given protective status in the EU, yet they are the third largest group of asylum seekers in Europe.

EU policies like the EU-Turkey statement allows Turkey, a country that does not give refugee status to non-Europeans, to bypass proper asylum proceedings for all asylum seekers, and process mass deportations. Turkish authorities have deported more than 17,000 Afghans back to Taliban-controlled and IS-sympathetic areas since January. The EU is effectively giving Turkey a pass to continue denying them the right to asylum, because they prioritize keeping people from crossing into Europe. While the rights and security of families, women and children are vital examination points when considering migration policy, this prioritization impacts the rights of others, and their ability to secure their right to protection.


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