Sprawling camps with donated tents, limited food, minimal medical care, and rampant crime — not the picture of a place that anyone would want to be. Yet these are the conditions that greet asylum seekers and refugees arriving at the southern borders of the United States and the European Union.
Decades ago, American and European governments institutionalized their commitment to protect refugees and asylum seekers and proudly led efforts to encourage other countries to do the same.
But today, a slew of U.S. and EU policies are forcing refugees into miserable conditions and separating families. Western governments may be confronting a “refugee crisis” of sorts, but it is crisis of their own making. And it threatens to become a larger crisis if other refugee-hosting countries follow suit.
We recently visited the informal tent “cities” in Greece and Mexico where asylum seekers pursuing their legal right to seek protection are forced to wait while their cases are reviewed. We interviewed hundreds of asylum seekers, local community members, government officials, and even authorities patrolling the borders. All agree on one key point: the conditions in these camps are unacceptable.
Greece — which receives more asylum seekers than any other country in Europe relative to its population — restricts them to the island where they first arrive. Some 40,000 people are waiting on several small islands, settling into muddy hillsides wherever they can find room to pitch a tent.
They are waiting for the authorities to review their applications for asylum—a process that can take months or even years. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights recently remarked that the conditions in the camps “no longer has anything to do with the reception of asylum seekers.
This has become a struggle for survival.” The situation has become so desperate that a number of people, including children as young as ten years old, have attempted suicide. Meanwhile, other European governments have largely shut their doors to new arrivals and have expressed little or no interest in resettling some of those entering Greece.
At the same time, along the Unites States border, more than 55,000 asylum seekers have been sent to Mexico to await decisions on their cases. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says these people “receive appropriate humanitarian protections there.” But that is untrue.
There are not enough shelters to accommodate all of those sent to Mexico. In the northern Mexican city of Matamoros, several thousand asylum seekers live in a growing tent encampment between the international bridge and the Rio Grande that does not even meet basic standards for UN refugee camps globally. Most alarming is the lack of services for children and security for families.
The U.S. State Department warns against travel to the area due to common “gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion, and sexual assault.” In December, a Honduran asylum seeker made to wait for his case near there was kidnapped and tortured in front of his son.
There are dozens of additional policies and bureaucratic hurdles that have created and exacerbate these dire conditions on the borders of Europe and the United States. Yet asylum seekers will continue to arrive, and both the United States and Europe have the capacity to manage this issue humanely.
If there is a crisis, it is not in asylum seekers arriving, it is in how we are treating these men, women, and children. The crisis is in our collective failure to act in accordance with our values.
Are policies that lead people to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for extended periods of time — like what we are seeing in Greece and Mexico — really the best that we can do? In fact, countries with far fewer resources host the majority of the world’s displaced people and many lower-income countries have been far more welcoming to asylum seekers.
With much greater resources at our disposal, we can clearly offer a more humane and organized system for managing migration.
The solutions are not out of reach. The first step is to invest in dignified reception and processing of asylum seekers.
In just 2019 alone, almost 19 billion dollars was allocated to patrolling external borders through Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in the United States and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in the EU.
These numbers are set to increase in 2020. For a fraction of this cost, Western governments could offer a more humane welcome to those seeking refuge at our borders.
Governments should hire more asylum officers and train staff in international refugee law and the risks that people face in their home countries. They should also invest in reasonable reception facilities or allow asylum seekers to live with family members until their cases are decided. In this way, Europe and the United States will treat asylum seekers with dignity as they seek refuge instead of leading the race to the bottom.
Similarities abound between the borders of Europe and the United States. Tragically, the most overarching and consequential commonality today may be that both are making it more difficult, more dangerous, and more miserable to access asylum. We must remember that just because policies are pushing asylum seekers farther out of sight, does not mean that that they do not exist.