Imagining ‘the Mediterranean Migration Crisis’ from above and below. Voice, truth and power at the border of Fortress Europe.

Imagining ‘the Mediterranean Migration Crisis’ from above and below. Voice, truth and power at the border of Fortress Europe.

Simon Parker

On Skala Beach
When I first arrived in Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesvos one dark night in October 2015, the scene was chaotic. Parents with often very small children stood wet and shivering on the shingle beach, discarded life jackets were strewn everywhere, panicked young volunteers were running backwards and forwards to the water’s edge with foil blankets and hot drinks, while others tried to find warm clothes and blankets for those who had made it to the improvised reception facilities which numerous international volunteers had established along the one dirt track that led to the beach.  A young female volunteer who could not have been more than 20 shouted at us when I switched on the video camera light “What the fuck do you think you are doing here?  Switch that thing off!” I was deliberately not filming any of the refugees or volunteers but she wasn’t to know that and her anger was understandable. Aid workers literally had to elbow TV camera crews out of the way to get to the rubber dinghies and help the passengers off the rafts before the frailer passengers and children got soaking wet or fell into the water.

During the many visits to the landing beaches and reception camps that I and my researchers made in late 2015 and early 2016, I continued to be shocked by the ruthless determination with which the media organisations pursued their human quarry. Amid the media feeding frenzy one could be forgiven for thinking that their editors’ interest in covering the events in Lesvos and the other Aegean islands was to convey an impression of mass ‘invasion’. Yet even newspapers like the Daily Mail reported the high proportion of children among those who had made the crossing and the ‘3,210 migrants (who) have either died or gone missing after making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean’. For everyone witnessing and trying to make sense of this extraordinary movement of people, and whatever their sympathies may or may not have been with the new arrivals, it was clear that Fortress Europe’s sense of its own impregnability had been shattered, with far reaching political, social, cultural and economic consequences, as Daniel Trilling and Ismail Einashe discuss in their Lost in Media interview.

Defending Fortress Europe
Against the backdrop of the hegemonic narrative crafted by the powerful voices of politicians at the top table of European government, it has not been easy for social scientists involved in collecting data from those who have actually made the journeys to demonstrate that many of the claims that governments and the mainstream media make about forced migration are demonstrably false. This official narrative presented the idea of taking to “the boats of death” (to use the former Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras’s provocative phrase) as either an insane choice on the part of those who embarked on them, or a tragic consequence of an organized criminal conspiracy that had nothing whatsoever to do with the sealing of regular, legal routes to Europe for those seeking human protection.

Typical of such a disjunction between what the public were being told and the reality on the ground was a scene that I managed to film for our ESRC Precarious Trajectories research project inside the normally prohibited Moria ‘hotspot’ reception camp in Lesvos during a visit by the then Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. The refugees were allowed to view the visiting dignitaries, but only from behind metal barriers. A man who had arrived in Moria with his family several weeks earlier was desperate to leave the island—as were the many hundreds of other residents of the overcrowded EU funded and staffed asylum registering and processing facility. He and his family were sick, he insisted and he implored the Greek Prime Minister to do something. Tsipras responded by intoning, ‘There is a strike of the ferries, there is nothing we can do until it is over, but then you will be able to go on to where you want’. There was a ferry strike, but this was not why the refugees were unable to escape the island—as the Greek Prime Minister and the President of the European Parliament knew only too well.

Tsipras and Schulz were both aware that the European Council was planning to offer 6 billion Euros to Ankara in order to reach an EU-Turkey Deal that would effectively mean the inhabitants of Moria and the other ‘hotspot’ camps on Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos would be trapped for months and eventually years with no prospect of reaching northern Europe. Neither was there any real prospect of a chaotic and ineffective EU asylum task force processing the several thousands of existing new asylum claims, let alone returning those who were deemed not to have any grounds for humanitarian protection back to Turkey. As a result, even according to the EU’s own data, the Moria reception camp which was intended to accommodate 3,000 inhabitants had an occupancy of almost treble that by December 2017, while in the last two years the increasing number of boat arrivals has pushed that figure to more than 13,500 men, women, children and babies forced to live in these dangerous, insanitary and inhumane conditions.

In the spring of 2016 I interviewed a health worker for a leading international NGO who even then was warning that the mental health crisis among children who had seen the devastation of war and conflict and were now witness to violence both within their own families and among camp residents (which frequently resulted in sometimes fatal fires that required mass evacuations) was at epidemic proportions. As a recent Guardian article confirmed, there are more than 1,000 unaccompanied children in Lesvos alone for whom therapeutic interventions are almost non-existent, meaning that suicide rates continue to increase. Local aid workers told news outlet Deutsche Welle that ‘they have never experienced conditions like the ones in the Greek refugee camps during their previous missions around the world’.

Welcome to the Security Union
How did this appalling situation emerge and persist on the wealthiest continent in the world? A part of the explanation is not just the rhetorical and symbolic value for political elites of couching humanitarian protection exclusively in terms of border security. The securitisation and illegalisation of forced migration  (Jaskulowski 2018) has generated an extremely lucrative illicit economy that does not only benefit the people traffickers and smugglers. Crime, or rather the social construction of illegality and criminality  (Engbersen and van der Leun 2001) also pays handsomely for those tasked to deter, contain, surveille, discipline and manage these irregular and unsanctioned human flows. The European Commission plans to triple spending on the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (aka Frontex) from €13 billion to €34.9 billion in the 2021-27 budget period. This would fund a permanent new standing corps of 10,000 EU border guards and ‘create a fund to integrate and improve member states’ border management’. It is perhaps no coincidence that even amidst the Brexit-induced withdrawal of most other UK civil servants from Brussels,  Sir Julian King continues to serve as Commissioner for the ominously titled ‘Security Union’, which is busy promoting ‘dialogues on security’

To include priorities such as cooperation in fight (sic) against transnational organised crime and terrorism, smuggling of migrants and trafficking in human beings. This should lead to specific joint action plans with key third countries and be reflected in the targeted use of EU financial instruments.

While the Charter of Fundamental Rights is always invoked in boilerplate fashion in such reports, it is never the case that the voice of the powerless who might have need of such fundamental freedoms will feature in the ‘targeted use of EU financial instruments’ with organised criminal networks in Libya who masquerade behind the uniform of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and the ‘joint action plans’ across Africa and the Near East that have been struck in return for millions of Euros in aid and development grants aimed at ‘fighting’ the ‘smuggling of migrants’—as if without the assistance of agents any undocumented border crossing in search of sanctuary would be remotely possible for all but the most fortunate and resourceful.

Conclusion: Insecure Dialogues
It was not a crisis of migration that we were witnessing on the lifejacket-strewn beaches of the Aegean and in the hellish conditions of Moria; it was and continues to be a crisis of governance. A significant feature of this governance crisis is a refusal on the part of the European Union, its Member States and its external border security ‘delivery agents’ to tell the truth about the inadequacy of Europe’s own response to the migration crisis and to properly atone for and remedy the disastrous history of colonial and neo-colonial violence and conflict that has led to the forced displacement of so many millions of people from their countries of origin—only a very small proportion of whom ever make it to the shores of Europe.

By contrast, the voices from below—those who have experienced the brutal reality of a world of sovereign states that is increasingly configured to deny rather than assure humanitarian protection—are the ones we need to listen to and to share their testimonies in our research, in our teaching and in our day to day conversations with our families, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and even more importantly those who we do not yet know. Overwhelmingly the new arrivals we filmed and listened to in Greece, Italy and Germany wanted to be recognised as fellow citizens with the same rights, hopes and fears as the rest of us and not as some arbitrary category of ‘migrant’ that forces them into a permanent state of suspension. It is only through forging a dialogue with and about the insecure that we can begin to repair the damage done by oppressive border regimes around the world. A vital and necessary start is to guarantee all those in need of human protection safe passage across our seas and frontiers.

Engbersen, G. & van der Leun, J. (2001) ‘The Social Construction of Illegality and Criminality’, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 9, 51-70.
Jaskulowski, K. (2018) ‘The securitisation of migration: Its limits and consequences’, International Political Science Review, 26 November,


Simon Parker is Co-Chair of the University of York Migration Network (MigNet), and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York. He was Principal Investigator of the ESRC-funded project ‘Precarious Trajectories: Understanding the Human Cost of the Migrant Crisis in the Central Mediterranean’ and is currently co-investigator on the ESRC Governance after Brexit project ‘EEA Public Services Research Clinic’ which will be investigating the impact of Brexit on EEA nationals’ access to public services in the UK. Simon’s research and teaching focuses on urban politics and urban political economy and on forcibly displaced persons, refugees and migrants.

Photo Credit: Abandoned lifejackets, Skala Sikamineas, Lesvos, Greece. November 2015.