It has now been three years since the biggest migration wave flowed into Europe in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of people headed towards the European continent. Although news coming from the Middle East showed a dramatic escalation in migration after the extensive uprisings and revolutions, none of the governments or politicians in the European Union were expecting what is known today as the European migrant crisis.
Two major events in Iraq and Syria changed the traditional concept of the conflict in the Middle East.
First, the excessive use of force employed by the Syrian regime against people involved in the uprising eventually led to one of the most devastating civil wars in the recent history. The second was the rise of the terrorist group, ISIS.
Its radical thinking, the implementation of extensive violence towards regional societies and the sudden possession of huge territories in northern Iraq and eastern Syria all contributed to its rise. All these turbulent events changed the nature of one of the most densely populated communities in Syria and Iraq.
In the light of these disasters, Europe immediately showed its solidarity and empathy for the victims of brutality and violence. We still remember when Merkel decided to open the doors of her country to those fleeing death in Syria and Iraq and when other European countries did the same.
Now we’ll look at the sequence of events which started in the spring and summer of 2015, namely involving the scenes of people throwing themselves into the sea. They faced death every second to reach the coasts of Greece and Italy before continuing their dangerous journey to unknown countries. Day after day, hour after hour, the number of refugees seemed uncountable sometimes. At that moment, the red lights and alarms were set off, especially in Southern Europe, that things were growing out of control. Local authorities were unable to handle this issue alone with their limited resources. Gradually, the disturbance in the south turned into serious challenge to the notion of human rights adopted by the European governments after the Second World War. People started to hear of blame and accusations amongst European leaders.
Now, where does Finland fit in? Suddenly, the country found itself a preferred destination for asylum seekers. Within just a few weeks the numbers increased until an estimated 35,000 people had entered the country according to Migri (The Finnish Immigration Service). Authorities responded actively to the large numbers. New reception centres were established all around the country and many people advocated for the newcomers. The country managed to absorb the shock and authorities began the investigation process that involved handling thousands of files and cases. Investigators found themselves overseeing cases revealing unbelievable details about incidents in the areas of conflict. One case, for example, reveals how the loyalties of brothers from the same family were divided between the government’s armed forces and jihadists.
It was difficult for authorities to distinguish between individuals who entered the country under questionable circumstances and hundreds of thousands of innocent immigrants. The urgent question became how to distinguish a terrorist from an ordinary dispirited immigrant? Tracking the race between the terrorist groups and law enforcement authorities shows how fast and effective the groups are in attracting new followers. While the authorities were stumbling over bureaucracy and political sensitivity in sharing intelligence with other European countries, it was obvious how determined radical terrorist groups were to target Europe.
Unfortunately, there was a lack of independent political vision by the European governments regarding the conflict in the neighbouring Middle East. Muslim immigrants had been used in Europe as a weapon in the global conflict between capitalism and communism in a campaign to rally supporters to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Thus, a monster was born and when its mission ended, just like Frankenstein, it did nothing but turn back on his maker. The casualties of that nasty ugly plot were the innocent people of Paris, London, Baghdad and Aleppo, just to name a few. Now the whole world has realized that the monster had turned into the more sophisticated and brutal version that is ISIS.
During the massive influx of refugees, there was only one thing making it impossible to prevent them from entering the borders. The spectacle of people trying to reach Europe by whatever means necessary was almost inconceivable to a generation who did not experience the horrors of World War II. The media has played a major role in presenting the suffering of refugees, from their dangerous migration routes to the loss of many lives in the process. What especially stands out is the painful and horrifying images of drowning children.
In Finland, the scene was less dramatic than in other European countries. The major percentage of refugees came from Iraq, rather than from Syria and Afghanistan. Most of these people had no prior knowledge of this country and its harsh, long winters. What they were certain about, however, was that Finland grants asylum in record time, usually taking no more than couple of weeks. This was news that was quickly spreading amongst refugees. The impression of Finland as a receptive country was reinforced by the warm welcome and fast sheltering process in the reception centres across the country.
There was some logic to this in past decades when there were only a few thousand asylum applicants each year. But with such a huge influx of asylum seekers in just a few weeks this logic doesn’t apply anymore. At that time, the prevailing view amongst Finns was that Finland was inexperienced regarding the asylum seeking and migration issue.
When winter arrived with its long hours of darkness and cold, people in reception centres realised that it is not the heaven they were expecting. The Finns themselves faced hardships and discomfort. Above all the newcomers faced the fact that in order to integrate successfully, they must learn Finnish so that they are able to seek work.
The general feeling amongst Finns was that many integration plans for refugees had failed. Associated with this was the disappointment in the way issues such as employment, language, education and housing had been handled.
We must consider the limited number of qualified individuals in the police and migration departments handling the matter. There was also a shortage of professional translators speaking Arabic and other languages used in Afghanistan.
As a result, asylum seekers spent a long time waiting in reception centres. A high number of rejected cases became a threatening element for the thousands who had fled their countries and were facing a very bleak future.
In addition, there was an emergence of intelligence reports confirming the infiltration of some terrorist figures amongst the refugees. This was exploited by refugees themselves who reported people who differed from them ideologically and ethnically, essentially perpetuating old conflicts.
There was an increasing demand from the growing far right movements across Europe of an urgent review of the impacts and the potential danger of the open-door policy. Particularly the potential economic burden on European countries, a concern that was highlighted by the recent economic stagnation which resulted in many people losing their jobs and savings.
The populists felt that lazy governments in Europe were distracting its people from the real problem of losing state nationality in the chaos of the European Union. They claimed that governments were opening the doors to refugees without considering their backgrounds, emphasizing that the majority of them were unskilled labour. They succeeded to some extent in shifting people’s previous feeling of sympathy with those fleeing from tragedy.
Headlines about refugees found their way to the front pages of the newspapers and television channels. Because of the persistent rejection and deportation, rejected people started to look for other solutions to evade negative decisions. For example, seeking work outside the financial support provided for them by the government. This meant some were forced to work illegally, running a high risk of being exploited by employers.
Other attempts to disappear from the eyes of the authorities include applying for asylum in another country despite the same high risk of being rejected.
Later, we will shed light on cases of asylum seekers who have faced rejection several times. We will explore their journey from the beginning, trying to understand the reasons behind leaving their countries and what they have gained from the hard experience of asylum seeking.