How the migration crisis has challenged the free movement of people in Europe

12. June 2018

by Anna Saraste

At first, I see only barbed wire and then, walking through the front gates, people from all corners of the globe. A dirty, smelling stream of a liquid dimly resembling water runs down the street. Inside the camp, people huddle together in make-shift homes. One tent can hold up to ten people, daily food rations can only be obtained after queuing for hours. Up until few weeks ago, over 3,000 people had to share a single shower.

The Moria reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos has been nicknamed the ‘shame of Europe’ and it’s easy to understand why. The camp was originally designed to host about 1,000 soldiers of the Greek army, but is now inhabited by more than 7,000 migrants from over 50 countries. All of them arrived in Greece after long and perilous journeys, risking their lives in the hope of a better future.

“If you were a completely normal person and you would spend just two weeks in Moria, you would definitely go mental”, a refugee aid worker tells me. But a majority of the people here already went through traumatic events and  have backgrounds that could hardly be considered as ‘normal’. They fled from war, experienced discrimination, the violation of their rights, unemployment and poverty. Moreover, almost no one spends less than two weeks in Moria either. On the contrary: because of the EU-Turkey deal, the restrictions put upon asylum seekers forbidding them to leave the Greek island hotspots and the duration and complexity of the asylum process, people can be stuck there for months or even years. According to the statement, which was agreed in March 2016, Turkey accepts the return of all irregular migrants who reached the Greek Islands by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. In return the EU provides Turkey with billions of euros in aid and other benefits, and resettles an equal number of Syrians from Turkey. The Greek government also decided to keep asylum seekers confined to the country’s islands in hotspots to facilitate their speedy processing and return to Turkey. As a result, the Greek islands have become places of little hope and plenty of desperation, as the living conditions are deplorable and waiting times have become excruciatingly long.

I was born in 1989 and thus I can’t remember a Europe with borders. Just a generation earlier, whenever someone from my home country, Finland, wanted to go to Germany by car, the journey was not an easy one. They had to wait at all five border crossings and show their passports. The journey that now only takes two days used to take a week.  With the Schengen Agreement entering into force in 1985, Europe turned a page. The EU grew closer, more familiar, more united. In 1990, the agreement was supplemented by the Schengen Convention which brought about the complete abolition of systematic internal border controls and established a common visa policy. Today, 26 European countries are signatories of the agreement.

However, in the last three years, the notion of free movement of people in Europe has been challenged by two events. Firstly, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, also known as the Brexit vote of 2016, which is likely to create serious restrictions on movement inside Europe. Although the UK was never part of the Schengen area, Brexit will lead to the creation of an outer border of the EU between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This will not only affect the movement of workers and students, but also the rights of EU citizens already residing in the UK and of British nationals residing in other EU states. The second recent development was the considerable increase of the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe in the course of 2014 and 2015, which led many European countries turning inward and introduce more restricting policies.

On the island of Lesvos, rumours about a new European reality have reached the migrants residing there. It’s a reality of closed borders (Austria and Hungary), more stringent asylum policies (Finland, Sweden and Germany), a Europe that chooses to turn its back on people in need (Denmark, Poland). Listening to their descriptions of Europe, I feel that the continent I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. Or: it exists only for some ‘privileged people’ like me, those holding a European citizenship.

To me, free movement in the EU has always been so obvious that it never occurred to me what a Europe of borders and estrangement could look like. Outside of Europe too, this was perceived as a European trademark: a continent of many liberties, but strong cultural identities. During my lifetime I have enjoyed a borderless Europe in many ways. Like so many other Europeans, I studied one semester abroad thanks to the Erasmus programme. All my life I have had friendships and relationships with people from other countries. When I fell in love with the German guy I am now married to, I just got on a plane (for which I didn’t even have to show any identification) and flew to Berlin with one big suitcase. Voilá, that has been my migration experience.

These are things I am thinking about while boarding a plane in Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, directed to Berlin via Athens. I feel guilty thinking that for me it’s so easy to leave, while  for all the migrants I met here even being transferred to the Greek mainland seems like a utopian dream. For them, Europe is all about borders and permits now, while for me it used to be about possibilities. A continent that is – as far as I know – supposed to be about liberty, peace and equal respect for all human beings has now turned another page. And it’s not certain if there is a way back from that.