During the 20th century, millions of people were obliged to leave their homes because of wars and armed conflicts, or because of the socioeconomic crises that followed them. The internal and external borders of Europe have changed several times, and have themselves been a cause of violent conflicts. By crossing borders the inhabitants of Europe have coped with a violent century: seeking protection, making new beginnings, giving refuge in secure environments, and ultimately prospering. Mobility has thus enabled the continent to heal its traumas.
However, borders are increasingly a mechanism of social exclusion and control.
As the autoethnography of Shahram Khosravi (2021) reveals, borders not only immobilise those who are refused entry, but they can also be used to keep people in a state of perpetual movement, sending them from one place to another (e.g. from refugee camps to deportation centres). Moreover, borders extend beyond the moment of being crossed. Rather, they continue into the settlement process by reminding people on the move that they will always be foreigners. Borders and walls are built to give the impression that they are eternal and will always exist, but history tells us that sooner or later they may change or disappear, like the Great Wall of China. Nonetheless, the impact of borders persists in the collective imagination and shapes new subjectivities around the Others.
PART I: A vocabulary of crisis
‘Flood’, ‘swarm’, ‘avalanche’, ‘marauding’, ‘besieging’ are among the terms often used to describe episodes of border crossings in host societies. This way of talking about arrivals as catastrophic or warlike has become normalised, particularly by the media, and in political and public discourse.
The characteristic use of such metaphors in the context of border crossings is de-humanising, depriving the subjects of their human qualities and reducing their existence to a generalised security threat or more simply just a number. We rarely get to know more about the stories behind these people in the news and so they rather remain anonymous, while the images that accompany them are often essentially violent. Misinformation circulating among the wider public is reinforced by the generalised representations made by political and media actors.
We should keep in mind that this generalised and de-humanising representation of migration is a very specific one that is typically employed to describe the undocumented border crossing of migrants and refugees, mainly from the Middle East and Africa. Moreover, it is accompanied by the rhetoric of ‘border crisis’ or ‘migration and refugee crisis’. The arrivals in Europe in 2015 that followed in the wake of the Syrian war, the 2020 events at the Greek-Turkish border along the Evros river, the ongoing diplomatic disputes around refugees at the Belarus–European Union border, which have continued since 2021, and the 2021 Morocco-Ceuta events, are just a few recent examples of border events that have been conceptualised as border crises.
However, viewed from a worldwide perspective, the data reveals that the largest forced migration flows (including asylum seekers, refugees and displaced persons) all happen within the Global South. Academics like Saskia Sassen (2014) have documented how the rise of global inequalities is expelling more and more people from their habitats and this trend seems set to continue and even grow in the near future.
PART II: Dimensions of the arrivals
Less than 10% of all the world’s refugees and only a fraction of internally displaced persons were living in the EU.
Of the ten countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees in 2021, the only European country is Germany, which hosts 1.3 million refugees. In the same year, the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide was Turkey, with more than 3.8 million (accounting for 15% of all people displaced across borders globally), followed by Colombia, Uganda and Pakistan (UNHCR, 2022). In total, in mid-2021 7,004,500 refugees were hosted in Europe, including Turkey, but if we take this share of refugees in relation to the total population of the region, this number is much lower than it first appears (just 0.6% of the total population).
According to UNHCR (2022), in 2021 nearly three-quarters of all people displaced across borders were hosted in neighbouring countries, and this is because people prefer to remain close to their countries of origin or may lack the means and resources to undertake a further migration process. Thus, a disproportionately large share of the total of all displaced people globally are hosted in low-income countries (22 %) and middle-income countries (61 %).
About 60 % of all displaced people migrate within their home country. The country with the largest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) due to conflict is Syria with 6.7 million in 2021.
Likewise, as a result of the climate crisis, the number of displaced people fleeing due to natural disasters is also increasing. Once again, the countries most affected are not in Europe: Afghanistan and China were the two top countries in 2021 with more IDPs due to natural disasters than any other countries worldwide, with 1.4 million and 947,000 IDPs respectively.
The majority of refugees from Africa and Asia do not come to Europe, but rather move to neighbouring countries.
Europe is indeed a common destination for international migrants. According to the United Nations (UN DESA, 1998), this is the case not only for those who are forced to flee, but also for “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence”, which includes both European residents and those coming from outside Europe. In mid-2020, Europe had 86.7 million international migrants, and was therefore one of the leading regions worldwide in terms of migration flows. Of course, the data also shows that other regions experience similar migration flow: Asia hosts a very similar number of international migrants (85.6 million) followed by North America (58.7 million).
PART III: A different approach is possible
The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused more than 7 million people to flee their home country in the first three months of the war. This is the quickest and one of the largest exoduses since WWII. Almost half of the displaced population sought protection in the European Union. New forms of management rapidly emerged as the EU made use of its region-wide legal structures to facilitate the circulation and protection to the Ukrainian refugees, and pre-existing national reception systems were made more flexible in order to host the many hundreds of thousands of newly arriving people.
The social response to this crisis has also been unprecedented, with many families receiving asylum seekers in their homes, and many community expressions of solidarity with the Ukrainians (e.g. fund-raising campaigns, exhibitions and conferences). The media coverage of this war also shows differences with other armed conflicts: the Ukrainian refugee is typically portrayed as being ‘one of us’ (i.e. as European), with greater media attention being given to individual life stories. This is very different from the images and vocabulary used to represent other groups of migrants and refugees who are repeatedly represented as the Other.
In this context, unlike previous refugee crises arriving from the Middle East, disinformation rarely occupied a central position in the public European discourse about Ukrainian refugees, but it was rather messages and acts of solidarity that spread quickly and forcefully.
It may be argued that if non-hostile messages are communicated quickly, resonating and mobilising support before any anti-migration narrative, then adverse disinformation is prevented from becoming mainstream. However, some analyses show the early emergence of online disinformation in the form of rumours and hoaxes about Ukrainian refugees alleging, for example, that they have received costly and disproportionate social and financial support, or that they are responsible for a rise in violent crime. Unfortunately, these stories appear likely to increase after the new Ukrainian communities have settled in the reception countries (including in the EU), as has happened with other flows of refugees in the past. In this respect, we cannot ignore that misinformation and disinformation are expected to remain part of the ongoing dynamics that invariably find a place in the context of the growing polarisation and weaponization of migration. Nonetheless, there are ongoing efforts to fight disinformation, with increasing numbers of initiatives and applications from States and civil organisations, including efforts to raise awareness among citizens about how to identify misinformation for themselves.
Even if disinformation and misinformation have affected representations of the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, the political, media and social response to the Ukrainian war has proved that a more humane and decent reception of migrants and refugees is generally possible and so emerges as an example to follow and build upon in the next future. Moreover, regardless of the origin or any other characteristics of the asylum seekers, it should always be remembered that, according to international human rights law, States have an obligation to protect refugees and to give proper consideration to all asylum applications. In this regard, the principle of non-refoulement should guarantee that no one is returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, punishment or other irreparable harm.
Elaboration of contents: Berta Güell, PhD in Sociology and researcher at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and Elena Ananiadou, museologist at La Tempesta
Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR). 2022. 15 datos clave sobre el refugio y el asilo en España, Europa y el mundo. https://www.cear.es/datos-informe-personas-refugiadas-2022/
Garcés Mascareñas, Blanca. 2022. “Por qué esta crisis de refugiados es distinta.” Opinion CIDOB. https://www.cidob.org/publicaciones/serie_de_publicacion/opinion_cidob/2022/por_que_esta_crisis_de_refugiados_es_distinta
El Refaie, Elisabeth. 2002. “Metaphors we discriminate by: Naturalized themes in Austrian newspaper articles about asylum seekers.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, 5: 352-371. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9481.00154
European Commission. 2021. Overall figures of immigrants in European society. Refugees in Europe. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#RefugeesinEurope
Khosravi, Shahram. 2021. Yo soy frontera. Translated by Escorihuela, Laura. Barcelona, Spain: Virus editorial. (Original work published 2010). https://www.viruseditorial.net/paginas/pdf.php?pdf=yo-soy-frontera.pdf
Migration Data Portal. 2021. International migrant stock as a percentage of the total population at mid-year 2020. https://www.migrationdataportal.org/international-data?t=2020&i=stock_perc_
Migration Data Portal. 2022. Total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to conflict, as of Dec 2021. https://www.migrationdataportal.org/international-data?t=2021&i=idp_stock_conflict
Migration Data Portal. 2022. Total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to disasters, as of Dec 2021. https://www.migrationdataportal.org/international-data?t=2021&i=idp_stock_disaster
Neidhardt, Alberto-Horst. 2022. “Disinformation about refugees from Ukraine: Start preparing today for the lies of tomorrow”. European Policy Centre https://www.epc.eu/en/Publications/Disinformation-about-refugees-from-Ukraine-Start-preparing-today-for~474424
Neidhardt, Alberto-Horst and Paul Butcher. 2022. “Disinformation on Migration: How Lies, Half-Truths, and Mischaracterizations Spread.” Migration Policy Institute https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/disinformation-migration-how-fake-news-spreads
Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs. 1998 (UN DESA). “Recommendations on Statistics of International Migration, Revision 1” Statistical Papers, Series M, No.58, Rev.1. New York: United Nations Publications https://unstats.un.org/unsd/publication/SeriesM/SeriesM_58rev1E.pdf
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2022. Global Trends Report 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends.html