In 2020, tens of thousands of migrants crossed desert and sea, climbed mountains and walked through forests to reach what has become an increasingly inhospitable Europe. Many of them died, overwhelmed by the waves, or tortured in the detention centres of Libya. More were displaced after the flames of Moria refugee camp in Greece burned everything they had.
As a new year begins, so do the journeys of tens of thousands more people seeking a new life overseas. The Guardian has spoken to experts, charity workers and NGOs about the challenges and risks they face on the main migration routes into Europe.
Migrants walk in protest to the Serbian-Hungarian border near Kelebija, Serbia, in February 2020. They seek a passage to the EU. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
In July last year, seven north African men climbed into a shipping container in a railway yard in Serbia, hoping to emerge a few days later in Milan. Three months later, on 23 October, authorities in Paraguay found their badly decomposed bodies inside a shipment of fertiliser. Violence from security forces in the Balkan states has pushed people to take even greater risks to reach Europe.
After the Serbian border with EU countries became virtually impassable in 2018, refugees began trying to reach Croatia via Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) instead. The path usually begins in Turkey, from which migrants attempt to reach Bulgaria or Greece, then Macedonia or Serbia, then Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, from where they can finally reach Italy or Austria.
The final leg of the Balkan route, which crosses mountains and snow-covered forests and lacks facilities for migrants, is one of the most perilous and gruelling, made worse by the brutal pushbacks carried out by squadrons of Croatian police who patrol the EU’s longest external border. Between January and November 2020, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) recorded 15,672 pushbacks from Croatia to BiH. More than 60% of cases reportedly involved violence.
The humanitarian situation for those entering Bosnia and Herzegovina remains unacceptable and undignified
“The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has decreased migration flows along the western Balkan route,” says Nicola Bay, DRC country director for Bosnia. Last year, 15,053 people arrived in BiH, compared with 29,196 in 2019. “But in the absence of real solutions the humanitarian situation for those entering BiH remains unacceptable and undignified.”
In December, a fire destroyed a migrant camp in Bosnia, which had been built to contain the spread of Covid-19 among the migrant population. The same day the International Organization for Migration declared the effective closure of the facility. The destruction of the camp, which was strongly criticised by rights groups as inadequate due to its lack of basic resources, has left thousands of asylum seekers stranded in snow-covered forests and subzero temperatures.
When countries in the region begin to ease Covid-19 restrictions this year, Bay says it is highly likely there will be a surge of arrivals to BiH, which remains the main transit point for those wanting to reach Europe – a scenario for which the EU and the region remain unprepared.
Carrying children and their few possessions, migrants flee in Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images
On the night of 8 September, the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, the biggest of its kind in Europe, burst into flames. The government announced a four-month state of emergency on the island, as thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers were displaced.
“This was one of the most terrible years for asylum seekers arriving in Greece,” says Stephan Oberreit, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières in Greece. “The combination of violence, Covid pandemic and the continued harmful policies of containment on the islands have led to several breaking points and eventually to the fires that have destroyed Moria.”
2020 was one of the most terrible years for asylum seekers arriving in Greece
After the blaze, the EU said there would be no more Morias. But more than 15,000 men, women and children are still trapped in miserable conditions on the Greek islands and the policy of containment continues.
People using this route generally come by dinghy from the Turkish town of Ayvalik, aiming to reach Lesbos.
Oberreit says that while arrivals have decreased this year, reports of illegal pushbacks have increased “in a concerning way”. “But let’s be realistic, people will continue to try to cross and risk their lives in the absence of other safer and legal options.”
Oberreit says the pandemic “has been used by Greek authorities to accelerate their agenda to create closed centres on the Greek islands and to increase the border controls”.
It’s hard to predict what will happen this year, “but the signs we have today give us little hope that the situation for the people who manage to arrive on the Greek islands will improve. Or that the EU will abandon its approach based on deterrence and containment,” he says.
Migrants are rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms after leaving Libya on an overcrowded dinghy in November. Photograph: Sergi Camara/AP
In mid-November, four shipwrecks in the space of three days claimed the lives of more than 110 people in the Mediterranean, including at least 70 people whose bodies washed up on the beach of al-Khums, in western Libya. Taking advantage of good autumn weather, people smugglers sent hundreds of migrants to sea. Many of the journeys ended in tragedy.
Last year, at least 575 people died taking the central Mediterranean route. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the real number is considerably higher.
People using this route usually depart from Tripoli or Zuwara in Libya, or from Sfax in Tunisia, and make for the Sicilian island of Lampedusa or Malta in small boats.
At the start of the pandemic, Italy and Malta declared their ports closed. Rome established “quarantine boats” – ferries on which migrants are placed under quarantine for 14 days, which have been criticised by human rights groups.
There is not the adequate medical care on the ferries … human rights are practically revoked
“There is not the adequate medical care on the ferries that these people badly need and not even legal assistance,” says Oscar Camps, founder of Proactiva Open Arms. “In such a situation, human rights are practically revoked.”
Open Arms is now the only NGO rescue boat operating along the central Mediterranean route. Many other rescue boats are blocked in Italian ports because officials refuse to authorise their departure.
Camps says he would like to see a planned civil or military rescue operation along the route this year, similar to Operation Mare Nostrum, which Italy ran in 2013–2014. “It should be an operation aimed at dismantling Libyan armed groups, falsely called coastguards, financed by the EU, whose only mission is to intercept boats and bring them back to a country at war,” says Camps. “However, considering the way things are going, we would settle for them stopping the criminalisation of rescue operations carried out by humanitarian ships.”
A migrant climbs into the back of a lorry bound for Britain at the entrance to the Channel tunnel in Calais, November 2020. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images
Several thousand people attempted to cross the Channel to reach Britain last year. London has repeatedly pressed Paris to do more to prevent people leaving France. In November, the home secretary, Priti Patel, and her French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, said they wanted to make the route unviable and signed a new agreement aimed at curbing the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. More than 8,000 people made the crossing in small boats last year, up from almost 1,900 in 2019.
“The difficulties faced by women, men and children will in many ways remain the same as before,” says Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty’s refugee and migrant rights programme director. “Clearly, there is no will among the two governments – particularly not the UK – to directly address the needs and circumstances of these people to ensure they have access to asylum.”
Whether the UK will secure some agreement with the EU or with France on family reunification is uncertain
According to experts, the future of the Channel migration route is linked to the continuing pandemic lockdowns and whether the UK participates in EU migration policies, specifically the EU family reunification programme.
“Whether the UK will secure some agreement with the EU or with France in relation to this particular matter is uncertain,” says Valdez-Symonds. “All that can be said, as things stand, is that almost the sole formally sanctioned option for at least unaccompanied children with family in the UK to seek asylum here is about to close.”
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