An Odyssey to forgo

by Christos Nicolaou

One cannot say that Ithaca was not worth the Odyssey. Unfortunately, sometimes Ithaca does not seem to want you. Sometimes, you are more like Aeneas than Odysseus, expelled from Troy to find a new home. This is how it must feel to the 60 million people currently seeking asylum throughout the world. A great number of which are trying to find their way to Europe.

However, policies in Europe’s member states do not seem to be very welcoming. In 2017, applications throughout the EU faced a sharp decline, and Germany only accepted about 50% of its applications[1]. Angela Merkel’s altruism in 2015 was a one-time move, brought about by miscommunication and pressure from governments along the Balkan route.[2] When policies are perceived as deterrents, migration waves do seem to slow down. The closing down of the routes and the deal reducing refugee movement from Turkey have decreased the flow of asylum applicants towards Europe, but there are still many people fleeing warfare in the Middle East.

The apparent willingness to welcome refugees shown by various European governments in 2015 does not seem to be present now. And it has been exploited by a new generation of politicians; such as Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Yet the violence in Syria, Libya and Sudan continues. The Turkey-EU deal and the closing of the Balkan route has simply made Europe less accessible to the ones fleeing warfare. The summit in December 2017 failed to develop a redistribution plan, mostly due to the Visegrad Group’s refusal to accommodate such a plan.[3] Despite the fact that redistribution plans do exist, such as the one used by the Landers of Germany, and they could be applied to an EU-wide scale[4], there has been no agreement amongst the states. The relocation policies previously agreed focus on factors such as size and GDP to assign redistribution, however they were not renewed last autumn.[5] Orban himself has been very negative towards relocation policies.[6]

This is in some ways irrational. Many EU-Member States are responding to a sudden but infinitesimal change in demographics with almost paranoid measures, as the fence in the Serbo-Hungarian border can attest. An ironic measure, if one remembers the Hungarian refugees in 1956. However, it would be hypocritical to attribute this deadlock on a ‘less humane’ Eastern Europe. The truth is that anti-refugee rhetoric has been part of the discourse in the more affluent parts of Europe, such as Germany, the Low Countries, the Nordics and the United Kingdom. In fact, Denmark has some of the most restrictive asylum policies in Europe, and neighbouring Sweden has also tightened its policies.[7] Sweden and Germany had up until now been exceptional in accepting refugees. Short-term stresses, and pressure from conservative and far-right political groups has put a stop to that.

Angela Merkel’s change in response was due to both internal CDU and external AfD pressure, whereas the Sweden Democrats simply co-opted liberal rhetoric and directed it towards refugees, making an Orientalist monolith of a diverse group of people trying to scrape by after displacement.  Indeed, the Swedish government’s statistics themselves show that claims about refugee criminality have been overblown.[8]

The spread of these false narratives has more to do with distrust towards official statistics (after all, can you trust a government which has imposed cuts on your welfare?) combined with an anti-establishment rhetoric which may sound plausible (though unfounded).[9]

Dad’s Radio by Alan Levine
Source: Flickr

The results are pitifully dark. A disproportionate number of refugees are stuck in the southern portion of the continent.[10] The countries most hit by the 2008 recession have been, for geographical reasons at the fore-front of the crisis. In particular, Greece and Italy have been most affected. The Dublin Regulations force refugees to request asylum in the country they arrive in. In essence, this means that the “disappearing” borders between EU states are not really disappearing, but the external border becomes the states of the European periphery.

It is important to note that asylum claims and illegal entries can be very different, as evidenced by the large numbers of people moving through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.[11] The infrastructure of these countries is under strain, while the rest simply play a game of live-and-let-live. While Italy has tried to control boat flow, and Greek authorities are putting a commendable effort, the strain is still large.

There has been an attempt to manage the flow, via a monetary deal with the largest recipient of refugees, Turkey.[12] However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to avoid the long-term incorporation of refugees, meeting their needs but otherwise leaving them to their devices. He is more than happy to blackmail a continent than treat the problem. The results are unrest like that in Europe, and refugees are turning to odd jobs and the grey economy.[13] Erdogan is essentially treating refugees in the same way his compatriots were treated in Europe in the 1960s; temporary problems, who will hopefully one day pack up and leave.[14] An act of hypocrisy, if there ever was one.

As for the roots of the problem, one may only see at one case study; Syria. Turkey has invaded Afrin, while the UK and France have just helped the United States launch strikes. Many of the arms currently in the region are European in origin. Given the number of arms being sold and the proximity of European arms to the Middle East, reducing this would be great for short term reduction of hostilities. All the while Russia is also intervening in a war already inflamed by Saudi and Iranian incursions[15]. If Europe wants to stop the flow, it should seek an accord with all actors that can set the foundation for lasting peace in the region.


What is needed is multilateral engagement, both to solve the conflicts and to manage the refugee flow. When a refugee has the means to survive and adapt to their new country, they will have nothing but gratitude. When a native-born person has austerity off their back, they will have less reason to blame someone worse off than them. And when the flames of war are not burning, the factors driving people to flee from their home with nothing, will no longer exist.

An Odyssey without an Ithaca is an aimless journey.  The refugees, unlike Odysseus, did not chose to go to Troy, they were forced out like the Trojans. Like Aeneas, they wander trying to scrape by. Aeneas did find somewhere to call home, some space in which to survive. Will we cooperate and solve this complex issue? Will we deal with the flow together, or separate? Will we try and stop the turmoil to solve the issue at its root? European states seem to behave like Olympians, squabbling and machinating with the refugees as mortal pawns. If the Union and its States wish to be seen as places of the Enlightenment and Humanism, they ought to take the responsibility that geography has given them. Otherwise, the death toll of these conflicts will only go up, and avoidable turmoil within countries will harm both Europeans and the refugees.


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