Policy and Media Responses to the Ukrainian and Mediterranean Refugee Crises: A Study in Double Standards.

Law & Theory Mar 16, 2024

Edward Said’s contextualization of Orientalism through The Bacchae underpins the ideologies and beliefs seen in the duality of reception between differing victims of international conflicts, where he notes how “[t]he two aspects of the Orient that set it off from the West in this pair of plays will remain essential motifs of European imaginative geography. A line is drawn between two continents. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant…It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative not so much of a puppet-master as of a genuine creator, whose life-giving power represents, animates, constitutes the otherwise silent and dangerous space beyond familiar boundaries…Secondly, there is the motif of the Orient as insinuating danger. Rationality is undermined by Eastern excesses, those mysteriously attractive opposites of what seem to be normal values”. It is this ephemerality of the Orient that bleeds into societal conception and propagates the continuous violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Refugees inbound to the island of Lesbos, Greece (via Ggia on Wikimedia Commons).

When the media depicts the crises in the Middle East, there is an implicit intangibility to their situation. CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata detailed how the problem occurring in Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”.  In other words, following Said’s argument of the separation between the West and the East, there is an implicit separation in people’s minds that tragedy and bloodshed do not befall the ‘civilized’ world since the rest of the world is a foil of what the West must not become, even as it is thrust in front of them. European Union nations, in particular, have struggled with allowing political refugees from the Mediterranean into their countries. In this essay, I have chosen to highlight the dichotomy of treatment between Ukrainians and other migrant groups in the Mediterranean and explain why these nations have a political will to protect these marginalized groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped exasperate the migrant crisis in Greece. By mid-October 2020, Greece had 25,802 confirmed cases and 520 deaths from the virus throughout the nation, striking fear into the hearts of its citizens and a total barring of migrants into the nation. The strict lockdown implemented in March was eased in May, yet still, the government maintained discriminatory restrictions on thousands of migrants and asylum seekers living in camps on the Aegean islands and mainland. It failed to alleviate overcrowding or improve sanitation in the camps. Cases soared in August, adding pressure on the already-strained public health sector after a decade of economic crisis and austerity measures that included drastic budget cuts for public hospitals. Healthcare workers protested throughout the year against working conditions and lack of staff, medicine, testing, and equipment in public hospitals. As of early October, children on the Greek mainland living in migrant camps under lockdown due to COVID-19 cases in these facilities were unable to attend schools, and only around 50 of more than 4,000 school-age migrant and refugee children on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Samos were enrolled in schools, according to humanitarian agencies. With limited exceptions, the government maintained its policy of blocking asylum seekers who arrive on the Aegean islands from moving to the mainland.

The containment policy trapped thousands in overcrowded and abysmal conditions with limited access to protection, health care, adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products to limit the spread of COVID-19. An estimated 19,000 asylum seekers were on the islands when this governmental inaction took place, including more than 16,000 in camps designed to host around 13,000. Fires destroyed Europe’s largest refugee camp at Moria in Lesbos, in September, leaving thousands, including more than 4,000 children, homeless and without food and water until the majority were rehoused in a temporary tent camp. According to aid groups, authorities failed to provide camp residents in the new camp with adequate and safe access to water, education, sanitation, supplies for menstrual hygiene management and health care, or sufficient protection from the elements and sexual and gender-based violence and harassment. Services remained insufficient, and access to pre and post-natal care and support for people with newborns remained limited. At the time of writing, there were 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the new camp, with a population of about 9,500. There were concerns about the risk of lead poisoning in the new camp due to its location on a former military shooting range and the spent cartridges used for practice tainting the landscape. A new asylum law that entered into force in January undermines access to protection and exposes asylum seekers to more significant risks of deportation and more extended periods of detention. In July, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said new provisions appear to introduce more restrictive procedures that may compromise the general legal principle that the detention of asylum seekers should be exceptional.

Following Turkey’s announcement in February that it would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkish territory to reach the European Union, thousands of people attempted to cross by sea and overland in March. In response, Greece barred the lodging of asylum claims for anyone crossing the border irregularly during that month, prosecuted people for irregular entry, arbitrarily detained nearly 2,000 people in unacceptable conditions in two newly established detention sites on the mainland under the pretext of COVID-19, and violently pushed back people attempting to enter Greece. Since then, law enforcement officers have summarily returned thousands of people to the Asiatic parts of Turkey, including people picked up by police hundreds of kilometers inside Greece. In June, Greece’s Supreme Court Prosecutor opened a criminal investigation into the March pushbacks in Evros, including the alleged shooting and deaths of two people by Greek security forces. The UN urged authorities to promptly and fully investigate all allegations of pushbacks, including any acts of violence or ill-treatment, and to ensure that such practices do not occur. In June, the Greek government began evicting more than 11,000 recognized refugees from government-provided apartments, hotels, and camps, leaving hundreds of people, including families, pregnant and single women, and people with disabilities, on the streets. The government announced in September a two-month pilot plan to house recognized refugees leaving the islands until they find a more permanent home.

In contrast, when the Russian offensive began its attack on Ukrainian soil, around 72,000 Ukrainians entered Greece at the end of February alone, and more than 18,000 have applied for protection under a never-before-used EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) that gives people escaping the fighting the right to live, work, and access to essential services in EU member states for up to two years. The reception of Ukrainians has been “astonishingly positive,” with Ukrainians referred to as “real refugees” in March by Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi and can enter Greece without a visa. The Greek government has created an easy-to-use online platform for them to make appointments to register for protection status. Once registered, they are given social security and tax numbers that allow them to access the labor market, healthcare, and housing and food support. To contextualize, in comparison, around 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants have entered Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea or the land border between Greece and Turkey so far this year. The number is a far cry from the one million people – primarily Syrian refugees – who crossed from Turkey to Greece between 2015 and 2016 and the tens of thousands who entered annually in subsequent years.  Since March 2020, those numbers have dropped significantly as Greek authorities have systematically pushed asylum seekers and migrants back from the country’s land and sea border – an illegal practice under international law. But the Greek government denies they are taking place. For those who do make it into the country, asylum procedures are challenging to access, with too few asylum centers accepting claims and a non-functioning online appointment platform.  As a result, many people end up undocumented despite applying for sanctuary in Greece. This excludes them from essential services such as healthcare, accommodation, and the labor market. Even people who register as asylum seekers and receive refugee status face a bleak situation: The Greek government has been cutting back housing and financial support for refugees since 2019, leaving thousands of people destitute and homeless.

Troubles continue down the Mediterranean Riviera as after impeding the ability of search and rescue organizations to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea, Italian authorities have now passed Cutro decree, named after a shipwreck that killed 80, institutionally denies rights of those seeking asylum coming from the Mediterranean crossing. Far from offering a humane response to the rise in people crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the new legislation doubles down on the government’s focus on deterrence and criminalization. The government pushed through the legislative changes by introducing them through an emergency decree measure and limiting parliamentary oversight when the decree was converted into law. Rights organizations in Italy raised concerns over the far-right government’s use of extraordinary processes and declaring a state of emergency earlier this month to respond to longstanding, structural issues like migration. The new law will devastate migrants’ rights, including their ability to seek protection, access fair asylum procedures, and enjoy freedom of movement. The Italian parliament’s legislative committee flagged a law limiting the right of appeal, highlighting that it may be unconstitutional to continue such strict opposition.

The law, by design, will make it more difficult for people to invoke “special protection,” a temporary but renewable right to remain in Italy on humanitarian and family grounds. Under the new law, migrants will no longer be able to convert the special protection into a work permit, a change likely to increase the number of undocumented workers in Italy. The law extends the amount of time people can be detained pending deportation from a maximum of 120 days to a maximum of 135 days and introduces a new process to detain asylum seekers at the border for up to four weeks while their claim is processed under a new accelerated border procedure. Also, the law removes access to vital services in first reception centers, such as psychosocial assistance for those traumatized by political violence, facilities providing legal information, and language courses. In all aspects, these people are kept as outcasts, distinctly separate from the general population.

Warsaw Central Station during the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis, circa March 2022 (via Kamil Czaiński on Wikimedia Commons).

The law comes against a backdrop of rising discriminatory discourse, criminalization of aid to migrants, and continuing cooperation with the Libyan government, where migrants face abuses the UN denotes as crimes against humanity. The report notes that more than 670,000 migrants from over 41 countries have been in Libya since July 2022, when the Mission’s mandate was extended until March, as overwhelming evidence of systematic torture and sexual slavery, among other violations, came to light. Detention centers where migrants were enslaved were “under the actual or nominal control” of the authorities, including the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration and the Libyan Coast Guard. The “widescale” exploitation of migrants is a lucrative business, the Mission said, noting that “trafficking, enslavement, forced labor, no imprisonment, extortion, and smuggling generated significant revenue for individuals, groups and State institutions”. Detention-related violations were also found to affect Libyans on a large scale, and the Mission points to the responsibility of State authorities and their leadership. The report notes that victims “came from every segment of Libyan society and included children, adult men and women, human rights defenders, political participants, civil society representatives, members of military or security forces, legal professionals and persons of perceived or actual diverse sexual orientations and gender identities”. Most of those interviewed by the UN Mission were held without charge in horrific conditions, “subjected regularly to torture, solitary confinement, held incommunicado” and denied access to water, food and other essentials.

Why should people be upset? Why should governments be held to this standard? Although these questions seem unanswerable in the practical sense at first glance, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, addressed delegates in Geneva regarding the circa 82.4 million displaced men, women, and children due to conflict, violence, and rights violations, double the number of a decade earlier, with 48 million within the borders of their own countries, and 26.4 million abroad as refugees. In his address, he stressed the importance of a political will for nations to become receptive, stating how “We [as a committee] have no shortage of laws and policy to protect the displaced [and] we have ample declarations of principle – the challenge is to implement them in practice”. Grandi refers to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention or the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951, a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who a refugee is and deserving of protection. According to the stipulations under Articles 1-D through 1-F of the treaty, The 1951 Convention defines a refugee as an individual who, due to events before 1st January 1951 and a well-founded fear of persecution, is outside their country of nationality. The 1951 dateline was initially established to confine responsibilities to known or transpired refugee situations.

Over time, as new refugee scenarios emerged, the need arose to extend the Convention's provisions to these new cases. To address this, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees was developed and enacted on 4 October 1967. By acceding to the 1967 Protocol, states commit to applying the substantive rules of the 1951 Convention to refugees as defined within it, without temporal limitation. The Protocol is a separate instrument linked to the Convention, available for accession by states regardless of their Convention status. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol encompass three provisions: Fundamental definitions of who qualifies as a refugee and who no longer holds refugee status. The interpretation of these provisions is the primary focus of this Handbook, designed for those responsible for determining refugee status. Regulations establish refugees' legal position, rights, and obligations within their host country. While these rules don't influence the status determination process, those overseeing it should be aware of these regulations, given their significant impact on individuals and families. Articles 35 of the 1951 Convention and Article 11 of the 1967 Protocol obligate Contracting States to collaborate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in performing its functions, particularly supervising the application of these provisions. Currently, 78 states are parties to either or both the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, though, despite the almost universal acceptance of refugee protection norms enshrined in the 1951 convention, Assistant Secretary General and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs noted that 195 countries fully or partially closed their borders on health grounds during the pandemic and that 64 made no exceptions for asylum-seekers. Meanwhile, 39 countries reportedly forcibly returned them to their own or adjacent countries where they face violence and persecution. This dichotomy of reception truly encapsulates the ever-growing refugee crisis, fraught with strife and underpinning sentiments of alienation that tear up the world and perpetuate violence, chaos, and suffering.

Refugees in Thrace, northeastern Greece, circa 2011 (via Ggia on Wikimedia Commons).


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