This work tells the stories of the refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who have reached Europe after imaginable journeys and explores the impact of the changes and contradictions in Europe’s approach to immigration and reception at the entry points to the EU, in particular in the border countries of Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia between 2009. and 2015.
Those who have arrived have found themselves at the mercy of the Continent’s laws and immigration policies, above all the Dublin Regulation, according to which asylum seekers must apply for and remain in the EU country where they were first identified while their application is being processed, and that country has responsibility for the decision on their asylum application. As a result, Europe’s border countries have effectively been transformed into buffer zones, where thousands of desperate people enter another stage of uncertainty as they wait for the outcome of their asylum applications, at the mercy of the political positions of governments that interpret the regulations to suit themselves and can change their approach from one moment to the next. So, many refugees, asylum seekers and migrants make desperate bids to reach other European countries in the hope of a more welcoming reception and a better future. Frontline EU countries have responded at times with harsh or ad hoc positions: Malta has held those who arrive illegally in mandatory detention for lengthy periods, even for up to 18 months; in 2013, an unprepared Bulgaria suddenly found itself with more than 11,000 migrants and refugee arrivals in just a few months, hosting them in old buildings often lacking in basic services; Italy on the one hand has supported search and rescue operations on the most dangerous part of the Mediterranean Sea crossing from north Africa, but on the other, has seen some of its reception centers criticized for their inadequate and precarious conditions, or caught up in recent corruption scandals.
Even in France, at the centre of Europe and the idea of a united Continent, migrants in Calais have been left to fend for themselves, taking shelter in the so-called “Jungle” camp where living conditions are almost unimaginable, and trying to reach the other side of the Channel. And on the African mainland, the Spanish enclave of Melilla has been transformed into a kind of fortress by the Spanish authorities to try to impede entry into European territory. Hit hard by an enduring economic crisis, Greece for years has been severely criticized for its approach, refusing almost all asylum applications in 2011, holding people in limbo for long periods, failing to uphold the human rights of asylum seekers, and seeing incidents of racially-motivated violence towards migrants. Then, 2015 saw the number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people worldwide reach the highest levels since World War II, as enormous numbers of people fled war and conflict, particularly from Syria. According to UNHCR, more than one million people arrived in Europe by sea, with around 850,000, including many children, landing on the coasts of Greece alone.
Unable to cope, the country effectively became an open passageway to the “Balkans route”, an obstacle course of entry and exit from the EU, where entering Macedonia from Greece meant exiting Europe, and re-entering meant passing through Serbia to reach Hungary – that is, until mid- September 2015, when the Hungarian Government completed its border fence with Serbia and introduced strict new laws against entering the country illegally, setting off a domino effect which saw thousands of people shift towards Croatia in search of an alternate passage. Looking at the various aspects of reception in Europe’s border countries through the eyes of those who are making these desperate journeys, this work seeks to shine a light on the situation refugees, asylum seekers and migrants face when they arrive in Europe in search for a better life.
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