A View from Brussels

Missed opportunities to call the European Union to account

By Tony Bunyan

For millions of people across Europe the refugee crisis became “real” when the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian child found on a Turkish beach, went viral world-wide at the beginning of September 2015. But the scale of the crisis was already was already widely-known if not widely-reported a year earlier.

On 5 January, 2015 Malta Today, from one of the European Union’s smallest members, but a frontline state in the Mediterranean, reported: “270,000 asylum seekers sought entry to EU in 2014: Frontex deputy executive director says numbers for 2014 nearly doubled the previous record of 141,000 registered in 2011.”¹

European Union institutions were well-aware that the continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya and growing refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, would bring an even greater exodus in 2015. And if media were unaware of the internal planning, a European Commission Factsheet published on 13 January, 2015 alerted them with: “Questions and Answers: Smuggling of Migrants in Europe and the EU response.²

Migrants and refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos. © IOM/Amanda Nero 2015

Migrants and refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos. © IOM/Amanda Nero 2015

“In 2014, more than 276,000 migrants irregularly entered the EU, which represents an increase of 155% compared to 2013. Syrians together with Eritreans were the largest group apprehended at EU external borders trying to enter the EU in an irregular manner.”

In 2014 the main refugee routes were largely from Libya to Italy (170,816) and, in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly from Turkey to Greece (50,561). These figures reversed in 2015 with most refugees arriving in Greece. But if the mainstream media were largely ignoring the gathering storm, social media and civil society reported and forecast what we were to witness in 2015. Médecins sans Frontières reported in December 2014 from Greece:

“Thousands of refugees … are being welcomed with a dysfunctional reception system and inhumane living conditions. Greece and the European Union (EU) must urgently improve living conditions … and offer them adequate medical assistance and protection.” ³

Despite numerous documents and reports on “migration flows” the EU institutions utterly failed to plan ahead. EU humanitarian aid on the Greek islands did not start until late September 2015. When it did it was tied to registration, fingerprinting and closed detention centres for those to be returned in so-called “hot spots” in Greece and Italy. The gap from April 2015 was filled by visiting civil society volunteers and local people.

The European story was there to be told, but media failed to alert their audience or to challenge the readiness of the European Union and its member states to deal with the crisis that was about to break upon their shores.

This lack of touch by the mainstream media community to raise the alarm highlighted the weakness of media and further underscored the problems facing many journalists and media as they grappled with the responsibility of covering this humanitarian crisis professionally.

The test for them was to report with accuracy and humanity, to treat government and political rhetoric with caution and ensure that refugees were treated fairly and as human beings who have travelled great distances to find safety. This is no easy task when politicians conjure up images of “swamping” or “mass invasion by illegals”.

Journalists know they must be cautious and report what politicians say but question intemperate language. The ethics of their trade mean journalists are responsible not just for accurately reporting political discourse but also for weighing the impact of what they publish.

Words matter

language of discussion of the crisis. A debate emerged on whether the EU faced a “refugee” crisis or a “migrant” crisis. In August 2015 Al Jazeera said: “There is no ‘migrant’ crisis in the Mediterranean. There is a very large number of refugees fleeing unimaginable misery and danger and a smaller number of people trying to escape the sort of poverty that drives some to desperation.”4

Despite the online debate that followed, a web search of the media in early October showed that the BBC widely used the term “migrant crisis” together with most other TV and online organisations, The Guardian and The Independent and the Brussels-based Euractiv and EUobserver.

The term “migrant” is perceived and used in the media as meaning an “economic migrant” a person who is simply seeking a better life, whereas all the aid agencies said that most were fleeing from war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea. The terms “refugees”, “asylum-seekers” and “migrants” have distinct meanings and cannot be used interchangeably.

Help for journalists is available. The Charter of Rome and the glossary of terms developed for Italian journalists and covered elsewhere in this report are useful as is the glossary provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM):

  • “A migrant refers to someone who moves, temporarily or permanently, from one place or country to another. A migrant is someone who moves freely.”5
  • A refugee is forced to move because of persecution,8 or they are displaced by war or a humanitarian disaster or some other external and compelling factors. States are obliged to provide them with protection under international law.9
  • Asylum seekers are refugees seeking protection from war or persecution who apply for refugee status under international and national laws.

And it is important to remember that in law there is no such thing as an “illegal” migrant. A more valid term is “undocumented” migrant.

Other loaded terms that have been used interchangeably in the media are “smuggling” and “trafficking”. What we are seeing is predominantly not trafficking but people smuggling on a major scale.

As an article in The Guardian explained: “Smugglers are paid by people to bring them across borders. After the border has been crossed, the transaction between smuggler and migrant ends. Trafficking is a very different crime. Trafficking means bringing people into an ongoing situation of exploitation and then profiting from their abuse in the form of forced labour or forced prostitution.

“Migrants usually consent to being smuggled. A trafficked person usually does not consent or their consent is meaningless because they have been coerced. Smuggling always happens across international borders. Trafficking does not. People can be trafficked from Coventry to Manchester.”10

This distinction squares with the United Nations Protocol against the smuggling of migrants which says that smuggling, contrary to trafficking, does not include exploitation, coercion, or violation of human rights.

If the European media have struggled to get the terminology right, they have also provided widely-contrasting national perspectives, often driven by governmental and political policy objectives.

For instance, one of Europe’s leading tabloids the German daily Bildt surprised many both in Germany and abroad when it launched a high-profile “We Help” campaign with its positive message of welcome to the hundreds of thousands of refugees clamouring to get into Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the government would open its doors to all Syrian refugees.
This contrasts with the hate-speech of many media in the Western Balkans, Hungary and other East European countries where tens of thousands of refugees were met with political hostility and physical barriers were erected to slow their route march to northern Europe.

In Britain the equivalent of Bildt, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, and another tabloid the Daily Mail were unrelenting in their opposition to joining the German call for major European countries to share the burden of taking in refugees. The media narrative changed dramatically in favour of a more humane approach with the Aylan Kurdi story, but second thoughts by political leaders in Germany and continued intransigence in the UK and elsewhere have seen a return to media coverage focused on refugee numbers rather than human interest.

Europe’s need for functioning fourth estate

Media face a constant balancing act, to give voice to the refugee community and to reflect legitimate concerns over migration in the community at large, and this can be achieved through fact-based reporting that provides context, background and thoughtful commentary.

But more than this it is arguable that today the media – print, TV, online and apps – have more chance than ever to hold those in power to account, and to be the Fourth Estate in the EU. Media stories only emerge from effective, questioning and probing journalism that flows from hard preparatory work; reading lots of mainly boring official documents and following a paper-trail. It can be frustrating but is rewarding in terms of high-quality journalism and provocative stories. The problem is that on so many occasions media have failed to hold the European Union and its members to account.

Here are examples of stories that could have been explored in depth the issues, put the institutions on the spot and better informed civil society at large.

Why, for instance, was the European Commission not pinned down back in January 2015 when all the evidence pointed to more refugees arriving this year?

Its fact sheet said they were going to tackle smuggling – which “generally takes place with the consent of the person willing to move” – and get support from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) to set up “reception centres, with adequate conditions for families, minors, and other vulnerable groups … in the Member State”, with Greece getting Ä259 million in 2014-2020. So why, media might ask, were there no reception centres providing humanitarian aid in Lesbos, Kos and Samos and other Greek islands from April 2015 onwards?

A second question concerns the myth fuelled by European Union leaders, national politicians and media that all the refugees arriving in Europe are from Syria. The Council of the European Union on 22 September set the priority as being to recognise people from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, thus seeking to exclude the second largest group of refugees – from Afghanistan, which is far from being a stable country.

Other arrivals include people from Somalia, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa and Kurds from Syria and Iraq passing through Turkey.

So are the institutions seeing people from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea as “good refugees” to be relocated in the EU, and the rest as “economic migrants”, to be returned to their country of origin, and would this in the context of international law be mass “refoulement” (returning them to potentially threatening situations)?

A third question concerns coercion in fingerprinting all refugees in “hot spots”, a process to which people fleeing persecution might be reluctant to submit. Guidelines drafted by the European Commission have suggested that “officials trained in the proportionate use of coercion may apply the minimum level of coercion required,” including, if necessary, to “vulnerable persons, such as minors or pregnant women”. What, media might ask, is the “proportionate use of coercion” on minors or pregnant women?

But what is the role of EU agencies in “hot spots”? Refugees will be pre-screened in what is called “nationality screening” by Frontex (the European Agency for management of external borders) teams supporting national officials who conduct the first stage. Refugees who pass the “nationality” test will be transferred to open camps awaiting relocation to another European Union country. Those who fail, because they come from the “wrong” country, will be held in closed camps awaiting return to their country of origin.

Is it legal to determine who is to be returned simply on the basis of the country they come from, especially as most of those arriving come from countries which are not on any national EU Member State list? 13

Another important question came up on 23 September when the Commission announced that only five member states were correctly applying EU asylum rules. Eighteen member states have not implemented the Asylum Procedures Directive which concerns “international protection” and 19 have not implemented the Receptions Directive which sets out minimum standards for applicants for international protection, including “housing, food, health care”.

“Not implemented” means they have not transposed the measures into national law, allocated funds and staff, let alone become operational (which is months away). Why did the Commission not accelerate the adoption of the new asylum law which would have put in place humanitarian aid?15

Lastly, there is the numbers game. By the beginning of October 2015, 533,591 refugees and migrants have arrived in the EU and most have moved on from the countries where they entered, especially Greece. As so-called “hot spots” had not started it can be said around 522,000 have relocated themselves in another EU country or are in transit: by the end of August 148,000 asylum applications had been made across the EU (EASO).

Relocation quotas – a “total of 160,000 people in clear need of international protection in the coming two years” – will only begin to come into operation as the “hot spots” in Greece and Italy come online over the next few months. Does this mean there will be an EU-wide sweep for refugees who have not been registered and fingerprinted?

All of these questions and the stories that flow from them highlight the failures and missed opportunities of European media in reporting the migration and refugee crisis. There has been a record of official decisions and some useful commentary from mainstream European Union news services such as the Brussels-based Euractiv and EUobserver and the weekly Politico (which took over the much-missed European Voice) provides commentaries but patchy news.

And there has been some compelling television coverage which picked up after the death of Aylan Kurdi and began telling the “human story”, documenting the journeys northwards and providing horrific images of hastily constructed “walls”, and pepper sprays, gas and water cannon used to push back the thousands trying to cross borders. A A particularly courageous report by a Sky journalist showed her joining a crossing from Assos in Turkey to Lesbos, which was intercepted by a Turkish coastguard vessel with shots fired to get the boat to turn back, but it crossed safely into Greek waters.16

But across the mainstream media a toxic mix of challenges remains. There has been a “debate” about definitions and “Words Matter” but media continue to use “refugee” crisis and “migrant” crisis interchangeably. And the sharp political debate requires more sensitive and careful reporting. As the Director of the IOM told the UN at the end of September: “With populist leaders and elements of the media increasingly portraying migrants in a negative light, IOM points out that fear of the unknown is deepening community divisions and endangering the very people seeking a better or safer life.”17

Nevertheless, media and civil society groups have shown themselves to be important players in the face of what is happening on the ground while EU institutions are adrift, seemingly powerless and incapable of providing humanitarian help on the landing beaches and at the start of a new journey north.

Civil society and social media for their part quickly rose to the occasion, beginning in April 2015, recording history as it happened and servicing a growing network of ways to help, sending money, clothes and volunteering nationally and especially to Lesbos.18

It is volunteers who welcome refugees, provide water and aid and advice as to where to go and give lifts to the elderly and the young where possible. And some airlines and delivery firms were persuaded to join in and offered reduced rates for packages going to Greece.

NGOs have equally been very active in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and then Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. At the borders, rail and bus stations, volunteers are there to provide water, food and clothing. NGOs provided interventionist critiques of their government’s actions, for example, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation, said “The right of asylum has practically vanished in Hungary”.19

The media need to focus on the EU’s response to the ongoing refugee-humanitarian crisis which will continue in 2016 and beyond, even if the signs are that we will see the construction of a new Fortress Europe.

Media need to focus on pressure that will be applied on Turkey to hold back the hundreds of thousands waiting to come to the EU with maritime patrols “pushing back” refugee boats and Eurosur (satellite tracking movements) coming on-stream. Reporters and newsrooms also need to monitor the creation of an EU Border Police force, and dozens of new detention centres holding tens of thousands for “return” (especially in Greece and Italy) or awaiting asylum decisions,20 as well as an expected police operation to track down many of the 500,000 who entered the EU before October 2015 who are not registered or fingerprinted.

This will all be taking place in a European Union divided between those who welcome refugees and others who are opposed. Opposition has been on the rise for years and recent elections in many countries have seen racists and extreme right-wing politicians with echoes of the fascist era elected to parliaments and present in some governments. The EU power elite have manifestly failed to combat these dangerous forces which are present in countries like Hungary which leads the so-called Visegrad group – Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – which is opposed to the relocation of refugees.

Even central EU figures are conceding to popular racist rhetoric. The Times reported that a senior Brussels official warned: “The European Union must close its ‘open door’ to prevent millions of migrants entering Europe unchecked or there will be a backlash leading to a surge in support for extremist and far-right parties.”23 And the EU Vice President Frans Timmermans said in an interview with BBC Radio 4 that: “Central European countries have no experience with diversity … making them susceptible to fears about Muslim refugees. If no sustainable solution is found you will see a surge of the extreme right across the European continent.”24

As if the refugee crisis and the climate of racism and xenophobia were not toxic enough, media faced the additional challenge of telling these stories in the context of extensive European Union counter-terrorism operations to locate and neutralise “foreign fighters” going to support ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Greek reception and relocation programme agreed with the European Commission includes: “Another action … is to identify and register all places of gatherings of potential radical or extremism groups such as worship areas, cultural and artistic heritage places in the Greek territory.”25 This echoes the ubiquitous UK Prevent programme which places Muslim communities under intense surveillance.

The need for careful, sensitive and informed journalism in Europe has never been greater and media that struggle to tell the story in context will need more support if they are to rise to the challenge.

Some practical work might involve helping media and journalist organisations to develop a set of European standards that will challenge the use of derogatory language and highlight the impact of words and images that incite racism and xenophobia. This should be backed by a media complaints mechanism, operating at national level, by which if standards have been abused the culprits can be publicly named.

At the same time there is an urgent need to strengthen investigative journalism committed to in-depth research. There are already some good examples of networks for investigative journalism in many countries and working across borders. These need to be provided with more resources to help mobilise the voices of authentic journalism, using both traditional and social media sources.

For too long the back story of the refugee crisis in Europe has not been told, with those in power not held to account and too much focus on the bias and prejudice of unscrupulous politicians. Only investment in ethical, public-spirited journalism will provide the stream of informed and reliable information that people need.




2 Factsheet with detailed information:: http://www.statewatch.org/news/2015/sep/eu-com-refugee-factsheet-15-1-15.pdf And on 2nd version a useful map: http://www.statewatch.org/news/2015/sep/eu-com-refugee-factsheet-15-1-15-2.pdf

3 http://www.msf.org/article/eu-and-greece-turn-their-backs-refugees-arriving-greek-islands

4 Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’: http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html and earlier in April the Guardian described the different terms: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/apr/22/migrant-crisis-smuggling-trafficking-politicians-dont-seem-to-know

5 https://www.iom.int/key-migration-terms

8 Someone fleeing “persecution” is based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion

9 The 1961 Geneva Convention:

10 http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/apr/22/migrant-crisis-smuggling-trafficking-politicians-dont-seem-to-know

13 http://heindehaas.blogspot.fr/2015/09/dont-blame-smugglers-real-migration.html

14 http://www.statewatch.org/news/2015/sep/eu-ms-safe-countries.pdf

15 Some 25 Member States have fully implemented the Returns Directive.

16 http://news.sky.com/story/1550627/packed-in-a-dinghy-with-syrias-refugees

17 http://www.iom.int/news/spreading-anti-migrant-sentiment-endangering-lives-ioms-swing-warns-world-leaders

18 Channel 4 News: The British family helping thousands of refugees on Lesbos:

19 http://budapestbeacon.com/featured-articles/the-right-of-asylum-has-practically-vanished-in-hungary-pardavi/28090

20 Global Detention Project – Europe (at September 2015): http://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe.html

22 http://www.statewatch.org/news/2010/sep/EC-Roma-France-report.pdf

23 http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/europe/article4566487.ece

24 http://www.politico.eu/article/migration-news-diversity-timmermans/

25 http://www.statewatch.org/news/2015/sep/eu-isf-nat-programme.pdf

Main image: “Hussein and his children from Afghanistan arrive in Presevo registration centre” by Meabh Smith/Trócaire licensed under CC BY 2.0

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