This is the beginning of a new era | Maria Pisani

Europe’s old asylum policies have failed. Sociologist MARIA PISANI argues that our entire perspective on migration needs to shift to accommodate new realities

Integra Foundation founder Maria Pisani. Photo: Ray Attard
Integra Foundation founder Maria Pisani. Photo: Ray Attard

At this point, it would be rather facile to point out that ‘migration’ is a difficult issue to address. Against a backdrop of corpses washing up on Mediterranean beaches, and Europe’s entire external border policy spontaneously combusting before our eyes, the sheer complexity of the phenomenon can no longer be understated: if indeed it ever could.

But ‘migration’ is problematic on other levels too. It is difficult to even talk about, as the day-to-day terminology associated with the subject is in itself ambiguous and loaded with controversy.  

What is a ‘migrant’, anyway? Al Jazeera recently took an editorial policy to eschew the word altogether, as it had assumed almost entirely pejorative connotations. MaltaToday (among various other news media) has followed suit; but not everyone necessarily agrees with the stance. 

Dr Maria Pisani, a lecturer at the Unversity of Malta’s sociology department, and founder of the Integra Foundation - is among those who reason that the word itself is not that easy to dispose of - as it corresponds to a reality that cannot really be described using alternatives such as ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’.

It may be a strange contention with which to open an interview on the subject of migration: but an important one nonetheless, as the topic under discussion is specifically whether our attitudes towards migration– and words are ultimately reflections of attitudes – are sufficient to address the reality of the situation.

“I can fully understand why Al Jazeera and MaltaToday made that shift,” Dr Pisani begins in her office, tucked away in an improbable corner of the University’s labyrinthine campus. “‘Migrant’ has become almost a dirty word. But if you look at it in context: we have thousands of migrants in Malta. The majority of them did not come on boats. We have European citizens, third country nationals from North America, South America, Asia; those from North Africa who do not seek asylum… the migration picture in Malta is very, very broad. So we need to be careful when speaking about ’migrants’. We’re not just talking just about asylum seekers or refugees here… not just about black people, to be frank. The word applies to many other categories which face similar problems: access to housing, regular employment vis-a-vis exploitation on the black market; poverty, isolation. …” 

Elsewhere, replacement words such as ‘refugee’ may sound more acceptable; but the word is not always used accurately.

“Media outlets like yours and Al Jazeera use the word ‘refugee’ to acknowledge what these people are going through… and I fully understand. But the term ‘refugee’ is directly related to the 1951 Refugee Convention; it’s ingrained in international human rights law…”

At this point I feel compelled to offer a defence of our policy. The word ‘refugee’ actually predates the 1951 convention by some count. It has a dictionary definition beyond its current legal usage: technically, anyone who seeks refuge is automatically a ‘refugee’, in the most basic sense of the word…

“Very true,” she agrees. “But ultimately, it is whether or not you are granted protection that determines whether you can stay [in any given country], and more importantly your access to rights. So my concern is not so much with using the word ‘refugee’, but with reclaiming the word ‘migrant’. It should not be a bad word. All migrants have rights, and there are many very different kinds of migrants. Today, there are many displaced people who do not qualify for refugee protection, but it doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be protected in other ways…” 

This brings us to other, more crucial aspects of our broader attitudes towards the phenomenon. Leaving aside terminology, there is also the question of whether the legal and administrative structures that exist here in Malta  – and also across the EU – are likewise ‘up to date’.

Malta, for instance, now faces Commission infringement procedures for failing to transpose two European directives concerning detention and reception conditions. And with the apparent collapse of Europe’s eastern border, it remains highly debatable whether these directives (transposed or otherwise) are in themselves properly geared to address the issue in the first place.

Pisani herself mentioned the 1951 Refugee Convention. Times have changed since 1951, yet we still cling to treaties drawn-up to deal with significantly different situations…   

“Yes. 1951 was a very particular context. Today’s reality is different. So it’s also about looking at existing legislation and the degree to which it provides protection for forced migrants of many kinds. Take, for example, those who may have been displaced as a result of land-grabs, of famine, of natural catastrophes such as a tsunami... Many would find themselves in an insecure place after moving, so they’ll have to move again… and again. They would not necessarily qualify for refugee status, but it doesn’t mean that they are not deserving of protection…”

But even though the profile and methods of migration are constantly shifting, there has been no corresponding shift in European policy to reflect these changes. Among the first thing that needs to be updated, Pisani suggests, is the attitude that regards today’s mass-migration as a temporary glitch in a system that can somehow be ‘fixed’. 

“I was having a discussion with a friend the other day, who’s very concerned with the number of migrants coming at a very basic level. What I said was: ‘you might like it; you might not like it… but you’re not going to stop it.’ This, I think, is the first thing we need to understand and accept. I use the term (which I made up) ‘Homo migratis’: essentially, to try and capture this notion that human beings have always migrated. This is nothing new. What we are seeing is an intensification of migration that coincides with globalisation…”

What happened 15 years ago in Mogadishu did not have a direct impact on our lives, she adds. “But today, what happens in Mogadishu, Aleppo, or wherever, does. Even if you look at just the last 10 years since we started receiving asylum seekers: they would have used their contacts within smuggling networks, yes, and they may even have used mobile phones. But they certainly weren’t using social media. Today, you can organise every aspect of the migration process using social media. Just to give an idea how the context is changing…”

The existing structures to counter this phenomenon, however, have not changed one bit: primarily because, in Pisani’s words, “each of the 28 member states, despite legal international obligations, is doing everything it can to stall the process.”

“If you just look at the EU: there is a system in place - the external borders, the whole notion of Dublin II, etc.- that never really worked. And what we’ve seen is a slow but now increasingly rapid implosion. The common asylum policy was never really going to happen; because ultimately you have 28 member states each looking after its own interests and not working together...”

Added to the fact that arrivals are increasing, and that international smuggling networks are growing more complex and effective, the resulting picture is not so much of a system that has not worked… but rather, a system that could not and cannot possibly work.

“In 2013, when Malta was still receiving large numbers of asylum applications, some 80% of arrivals were given some form of protection. And it is estimated that 90% of those arriving in Greece and Italy today will qualify for protection. Under the present system, it’s just not workable…”

Because of the numbers?

“Not just because of that, but because of the system. Of course the numbers are a challenge; but if we talk about a crisis, it is ultimately a political crisis. The humanitarian crisis is there, but much of it is the result of this political failure to ever agree. Any long-term policy is impossible when 28 member states look after only their own interest. ‘Long-term’ for a politician is essentially five years. It’s all about whether or not they’ll be re-elected. And at a very basic level: refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants don’t have votes.”

Up to an extent it is a vicious circle: policies are formulated by governments that respond to electoral pressure; and the more contentious the issue becomes, the harder it gets to agree on workable policies.

“The whole issue of migration kicks up other issues such as border-control, national identity, sovereignty… these are very hot issues. And when it becomes problematic… we see this in France, the UK, in Malta, in Hungary… migration becomes THE political issue. What we’ve learnt from history is that walls don’t work. Fences don’t work. But we don’t seem to be learning from this reality….”

All the same: while we can all agree that present strategies are ineffective, the fact remains that no one really has any solution up his sleeve. The idea of limitless migration may sound all well and good on paper, but there are enormous logistical problems involved…

“I’m acknowledging the complexity of the issue, certainly. I’m not saying there are simple solutions, at all. But it goes back to my earlier point about not being able to stop it, whether we like it or nor. The reality is we are entering a new era. Now, either we are going to acknowledge this; and try and deal with this in a way that is manageable… or we’re going to continue to use the old ways, when we know that they don’t work. You will not stop people from moving. You might be able to close the Hungarian border; but you can’t close blue borders. People are still going to come to arrive in Greece, Italy… and Malta, too, when this ‘informal agreement’ is over. It’s a little like a water balloon. You can try and stop the water, but water will always find its own level. There will always be other gaps for it to pass...” 

Recent experience suggests her analogy is accurate: the ‘main’ migration routes have clearly shifted from the central to eastern Mediterranean in recent months… after the EU launched a border control operation off the Libyan coast.

“We can see how the routes have shifted every time a wall goes up. Yet over the past decade or more, the EU – and other countries, such as Australia – has focused only on containment.”

Here she draws a hurried map of ‘Africa’ on a piece of paper (actually it’s just a triangle, but it serves its purpose). “One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by the global south: including the poorest countries in the world. So even though the numbers coming to Europe are challenging – there’ve been around 500,000 this summer alone – it remains nothing compared to the immediate region. And the reason why more haven’t come to Europe is simply because they don’t have the strength or means to do so.”

Africa – or the ‘global south’, which in this context also includes parts of Asia and South America – currently forms what Pisani describes as the primary containment area. 

“Then there’s what I call the ‘secondary containment’ within Europe itself: the Dublin convention, which means that asylum seekers have to remain in the first country of asylum. So anyone coming from the global south – if they’ve been forced to take the irregular route – is always going to land in Italy, Greece, Malta… the external border countries.”

However, it seems this two-tier defence system was fatally flawed. People are clearly not staying within the primary confinement area… and now, not even in the secondary one.

“What we’ve seen this summer is that the Greek system has collapsed; the secondary containment policy has failed, and asylum seekers are making their way into Serbia, Hungary, and on into the rest of Europe. Now, the countries in the north are experiencing the same flows - intensified, of course – that they had been shielded from. Before, all those asylum seekers would have had to remain in Greece, Italy and Malta. It has become increasingly difficult for someone from Somalia, Kenya, or even Syria to get a visa to enter the EU. Bearing in mind that it is impossible to stop people from migrating - particularly in the case of war or conflict – the only option left is irregular migration. The possibility of regular travel to Europe is closed to them… and if they can’t find a way in through the front door, they’ll come in through the window.”

Faced with that situation, Pisani argues in favour of providing safe and legal ways to get to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there is no consensus on this either. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be consensus on any aspect of Europe’s policies…

“There never was any ‘common European approach’,” she continues. “There never was any solidarity. And it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a country. There is absolutely no denying that the external border counties faced disproportionate responsibility for asylum seekers.”

Even if the system hadn’t collapsed this summer, its consequences would still be serious in the long-term. Pisani argues that the current legislative framework governing migration in Europe has succeeded only in increasing the number of undocumented migrants throughout the EU.

“If you look at Malta’s statistics: there have been around 20,000 boat arrivals over the past 10 years or so. It is now estimated that around 6,000 of those people are still here. In reality, however, nobody really knows: that’s the reality of irregular migration. If you count foreigners illegally residing in Malta, the number is probably much higher than that… but they probably won’t be Africans.” 

Coming back to the 20,000 figure: “Of those, I think around 5,000 were resettled in the USA; around 300 availed of assisted voluntary return programmes. I don’t know how many forced deportations, but let’s say 1,000 – these are only rough estimates, to give you an idea of how it works in practice – and another 600 relocated to other parts of the EU. Add up that total – 7,000 – to the 6,000 we know are still here, and that makes 13,000 accounted for. In other words, 7,000 unaccounted for…”

Many of these, she adds, would have been given some of protection and left for Europe on legal travel documents… and then overstayed. Others would have remained undocumented, here or elsewhere. 

“The bottom line is that the present system produces undocumented people. So what we will see in the coming years is a growing population of undocumented migrants. According to the most recent statistics there are an estimated 6 million undocumented migrants in Europe; but those statistics are five years old. The figure will have grown since then, and it is will continue to grow. And this is problematic. It’s problematic for the migrants themselves, but ultimately it is problematic for the broader society. We know that where you have socially excluded groups, the whole of society suffers.”

Would she say, then, that the aim of a workable European immigration policy should be to regularise the position of those undocumented persons?

“Yes,” she replies without hesitation. “The problem is we are still very much functioning on a nation-state basis: on a citizenship basis, where citizenship trumps human rights. But the world is changing. There needs to be a massive shift in the way we look at the entire issue.”