Don't call it the ‘refugee crisis’, it's a humanitarian issue – failing to recognise that creates even more suffering

Izzy Tomico Ellis
Migrants helped by rescuers arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey: AFP/Getty

In recent months across Europe, a dramatic spike in refugee arrivals to Greece and 39 dead bodies of Vietnamese citizens discovered in an abandoned lorry in Essex provoked a return of “the migration crisis” in news coverage. Some headlines and articles warned of an emergency reminiscent of 2015 – the early days of Europe’s refugee crisis – that the EU Commission declared over nine months ago.

Prolonged; spread over a large land mass; the need for a multi-agency response; intense suffering – all features of a “humanitarian crisis”, a term frequently bandied about by European politicians usually to describe events far away and in need of European support, funding or comment.

When the almost five-year-long “migration crisis” in Europe began, publications and politicians were tentative about referring to it as such. But soon it was almost exclusively labelled as the “refugee” or “migrant” crisis. In some cases, “European” was inserted for clarity, while heated debate about the correct use of the words "refugee" and "migrant" raged on.

The differences between the ways we describe these emergencies are incredibly important. Declaring a humanitarian crisis shifts responsibility and focus to states and their leaders, whereas placing “migrant” before the crisis, suggests that the fault of the crisis is, at least in part, theirs. Contrarily, a crisis that is “humanitarian” invokes images of Darfur, Syria, Congo or Afghanistan – all countries significant numbers of Europe’s refugees have fled.

Humanitarian crises “unfold” in these countries in response to major events and indicate that a large group of people are in dire need of assistance. In Europe, however, “the refugee crisis” arrived, it did not unfold or develop. It “threatened” Europe, too, and the humanitarian aspect was eliminated from the get-go.

Between 2014 and 2019, at least 17,428 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the IOM Missing Migrants project, and these figures are notoriously easy to underestimate. How the seemingly sudden, catastrophic flow of people reaching Greek and Italian shores in 2015 was framed has been frequently attached to the hostile response that greeted them. A number of European politicians continue to exploit the word crisis but will not declare it humanitarian, as it appears they are dedicated to ensuring the response is, instead, preventative and punishing.

A humanitarian crisis demands protective measures, yet, in Europe, an unrelenting attack on pillars of refugee law and well-established principles of the law of the sea have been the hallmarks of response.

Predictably, people have continued to reach Europe and these policies have radically exacerbated the risks to their lives and health. A controversial deal with Turkey means Greek islands have essentially become open-air holding prisons, as well as collectively being nearly five times over capacity.

Italy has pursued a series of policies of shutting down ports and arresting those who operate rescue missions. In 2018, less people crossed the Mediterranean than the year before but of those who did, six drowned every day.

Even prior to the recent Turkish incursion in Northern Syria, the numbers arriving to Greece had spiked where conditions are infamously inhumane. Fires regularly destroy areas of camps and remaining belongings; children are not provided specialised services or separate sleeping facilities and self-harm and suicide attempts, increasingly by children too, are engrained in every-day life.

When the Commission declared “the migration crisis” over, it was starkly clear that it is a “crisis” that continues to be treated as one Europe is subjected to, rather than one it caused. The number of people arriving may have reduced but their suffering has multiplied.

In Europe, the success of the response has been measured in alleviating the pressure on member states, rather than reducing humanitarian distress. That arrivals have suddenly increased and camps in Greece face a looming “catastrophe” not only proves this crisis is far from over but that this humanitarian response, widely believed to be the most expensive in history, has failed.

Indeed, as many critics posit, Europe may not be responsible for the conflicts that force people from their homes. However, there should absolutely be no doubt as to who is responsible for destroying key humanitarian protections; a Draconian border regime; criminalising rescue ships; refusing to create safe routes to asylum and in many cases deliberately making life unliveable for vulnerable people.

The declaration of a humanitarian crisis attracts criticism. It invites (willingly or unwillingly) international responses and stresses the need for sustainable planning. It encourages sympathetic supporters and emphasises the imperative of humanitarian aid, though victimising those affected by humanitarian crises remains incredibly problematic.

A “refugee” or “migration crisis”, however, indicates that refugees and migrants are different to those we associate with traditional humanitarian emergencies and less deserving of the assumed response. It adds to the othering that is already pervasive in media coverage, implicates people as architects of their own suffering and abdicates Europe.

Language matters. Just as Europe has flouted responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the suffering of hundreds of thousands, the term “refugee (or migrant) crisis” may have the same effect.