By Amanda Russell Beattie, Patrycja Rozbicka, Gemma Bird & Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

The ‘Refugee Crisis’, or more appropriately, the European Humanitarian Crisis, made headlines within and beyond Europe in 2015 when photographs of individuals arriving on European Shores were seen in the media. Initially it was easy to identify the origin of many of these individuals. They were fleeing the Syrian civil war that has now been ongoing for nearly nine years.  European countries provided, in their imaginations at least, a safe haven from years of violence and autocratic governance. What our research (IR_Aesthetics) reveals however, is that the journey of the migrant, and in this case, within the various corridors of the so-called ‘Balkan Route’, is not a single story, a universal journey. We hope that our installation, Refugee Journeys provides its audience a glimpse into the diversity of the refugee experience, and the fear, uncertainty, and at times violence that characterises many migration stories.

Our collective research began in July 2017. At this time, in the United Kingdom (UK) a common narrative was emerging from the mainstream media. In short, the worst of the refugee crisis had passed. While individuals were still arriving, the numbers were receding. The European Union, and in particular Greece (in the context of our own research) could breathe a collective sigh of relief.  Our research revealed this was not the case. In the first episode of fieldwork, we concentrated our time speaking to activists and NGO workers running refugee day centres in Athens, Thessaloniki, Belgrade and the Northern border regions of Serbia. Our conversations revealed that day centres were overwhelmed, they could not meet the daily, and ongoing support needs of refugees. Access to showers and to laundry relied on a queuing system, food and clothing provision relied on donations. In short, despite many in the UK thinking the refugee crisis was coming to an end, the reality on the ground looked very different.

Among our core findings were the significance and catastrophic consequences of the EU-Turkey Deal (March 2016) on cooperation between EU and Turkish government that sought to control the crossing of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the Greek Islands. It was initially aimed at curbing the large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe through that route and focused on repatriation of irregularly arriving refugees to the Greek Islands back to Turkey. The implications of this agreement have honed our research project. Our collective and individual time spent in the field have revealed how the consequences of this agreement have brought about a series of ethical and moral failings for those countries that are charged with providing for refugees.  There are a variety of problems that our research has highlighted, ranging from supra-national policies that lack accountability on the part of both the host countries and the European Union.  This, in turn, has generated a series of inhumane living conditions with over-crowding in Reception and Identification Centres and Refugee Camps forcing refugees to innovate in order to survive. It has also placed strenuous demands on the activist and voluntary sector with many individuals we spoke to highlighting problems not only of resources, but burn-out as well.  Where the state ought to be providing, they often fail, leaving volunteers to pick up the pieces.

Fast forward to 2019 and our research project continues to return to the spaces and places that refugees arrive, remain, and fleetingly depart. Much can be said about the experiences within and beyond the ‘Balkan Route(s)’. We choose to highlight the following, as we believe it remains pertinent, ought to be reaching a greater audience, and must be tackled head on if Europe and its institutions wish to offer ethical and moral solutions to those seeking protection within its borders.

First, and foremost, the EU/Turkey deal must be acknowledged as being unable to provide for refugees and host countries. Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) are not only overcrowded, they are unable to offer individuals security and protection. For example, on the island of Samos the RIC now has a fluctuating population of over 6,500. The food, provided for by the army is often inedible, and at times of the most severe overcrowding can require joining a queue of five hours to receive each meal. Toilets and showers are broken, filthy, disease ridden and home to large and terrifying rats, and housing is so poor that when the island was hit by a large storm last month, the Greek military offered two ships to temporarily house the most vulnerable of the refugee population. When the weather abided, those sheltered on the boats were then returned to the makeshift tents on a hill side prone to flooding and landslides.

Beyond the RICs there remain problems of violence. For people managing to move off the islands and make their way through the rest of the route, violence perpetrated by border guards and police officers has become a routine part of the journey. Groups such as the Border Violence Monitoring Network have recorded more than 660 incidents of violence against refugees, most often perpetrated by border guards during border crossings. Data from the Pushback Map also illustrates very clearly that the majority of the reported attacks on displaced people happens in the EU countries. Although allegations of violence against- in particular – Croatian border authorities, have been made public since around 2017, there has been very little response from the EU.

What is more, as a recent court case, spearheaded by the NGO Still I Rise has highlighted, not even children and young people are being properly protected and safeguarded in these conditions. As of November 2019, over 300 unaccompanied minors or separated children found themselves on Samos, housed either in overcrowded containers or in tents within the extended area of the camp with very little protection from either the weather or from violence. Overcrowding of this magnitude has led to violence, to fires that have destroyed makeshift homes and the few belongings people have with them. These are not conditions suitable for any human being but even less so for young children who, if it were not for the amazing work of NGOs, would find themselves alone in these conditions.

Regardless of the rhetoric of governments and media outlets the humanitarian crisis is not over. Children living alone in tents, young men and women violently assaulted by border guards, illegally pushed back across national borders, queues of five hours to access food, a night’s respite on a boat when a violent storm hits an overcrowded island only to be returned to a cold, wet and often destroyed makeshift tent the next day. Human beings fleeing war, persecution, violence and poverty in the hope of a second chance, a new beginning, finding themselves neglected and often criminalised at the authority of states and institutions that pride themselves on respect for the values of freedom, of equality and of human rights. This is not a European crisis, but it is a European embarrassment, and it is the duty of all of us to keep talking about it, to keep drawing attention to it, and to keep demanding better.


Amanda Russell Beattie and Patrycja Rozbicka will speak at the University of Auckland’s Europe Institute, Thursday, 13 February at 4:30 PM in the Pat Hanan Room. 

Amanda Russell Beattie is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. She is an expert in political theory and international political thought. 

Patrycja Rozbicka is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. She is an expert in interest groups and lobbying. 

Gemma Bird is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool. She is an expert in political theory. 

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. She is an expert in the Western Balkans. 

See Also:

Hard borders: Where are the real frontiers for refugees?

Doing Our Bit? Refugees in a time of politicised migration 🔊