DISPLACED LIVES

Investigating Europe's handling of the refugee crisis and giving voice to asylum-seeking migrants.

The ‘refugee crisis’ triggered by the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 transformed Europe’s attitudes and actions towards migrants. Yet, public awareness of these seismic shifts remains limited.

Even less well known are the experiences of those who have been turned back at borders, detained, deported, separated from families and granted asylum far from home.

Whether in parliamentary debates or the media, migrants’ stories have been drowned out by concerns about security, integration and preserving European ways of life. But for the past three years, RESPOND, a Horizon 2020 project, has been investigating migration governance in 11 countries by foregrounding the insights of asylum-seeking migrants.

RESPOND’s principal investigator at Cambridge is social anthropologist Dr Naures Atto. “All humans develop a deep connection to their home and homeland. It takes something huge to make someone decide to leave,” says Atto, whose own family fled Turkey in the 1980s. But more and more, she finds “migration is seen as an internal security issue not a humanitarian one. At the same time, people ignore the fact that most displaced people desperately want to do something positive with their lives.”

The scale of the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East has made it all too easy for individual atrocities to go unnoticed. In July 2014, the Iraqi city of Mosul lost its entire Christian population, a community established almost 2,000 years ago. Having captured the city, ISIS gave its last remaining 30,000 Assyrians three days to convert to Islam, leave or be killed. The vast majority fled, as did around 200,000 more Assyrian Christians from Qaraqosh and the villages of the Nineveh Plain.

Coming amid preparations to commemorate the centenary of the 1915 genocide of Christians in Ottoman Turkey, this new existential threat sent shockwaves across the Assyrian diaspora. Beyond it, however, the plight of an entire society forced from their ancient homeland went largely unnoticed.

Three years on, a Syrian woman awaiting an asylum decision in Germany told RESPOND: “Some friends told us to go to another European country like Holland just to gain time and see if changes meanwhile will happen in Syria, so we can go there again. But, I can’t do that anymore. I am so tired. I cannot change camps anymore and sleep in a bed that is not mine [she starts crying] … You reach a state where you dislike everything… you feel as if Europe is suffocating you. But that’s what God gave us, to be refugees.”

In 2015/16, nearly 800,000 asylum- seeking migrants arrived in Germany, stretching the country’s cut-back reception and procedural systems to breaking point. Having survived treacherous journeys over land and sea, new arrivals encountered lengthening delays and procedural errors.

Nearly 12% of asylum-seekers interviewed by RESPOND reported failings by immigration officers or lawyers – including the loss of papers, identities and files being mixed up, erroneous changing of names and dates of birth, and incompetent translators. These failings had decisive effects on their chances to secure protection status.

When told his papers had been lost, a young Syrian recalled being “totally broken” because “I wanted to bring my parents, and I knew that repeating everything would take a year”. A Libyan, who went to court to remove an interview from their record, said: “The translator was deceitful. It put words in my mouth I never said.” And a Syrian struggling to reunite his family in Germany complained: “That’s the worst thing… They keep you on hold”. Eighteen months after receiving his residence permit, the man’s teenage brother was granted the same. Later still, their mother was allowed to join them, but their father and other siblings had to stay in Turkey.

RESPOND’s researchers, from 14 partner organisations, have interviewed more than 550 refugees in 66 cities, as well as more than 200 stakeholders working in migration. The project’s recent reports – covering the transit countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Poland and Hungary; and the destination countries of Germany, Sweden, Austria and the UK – draw attention to numerous state-specific circumstances and failings.

The UK screening interview faces criticism for the evidential weight placed on it, but also for the behaviour of interviewers and translators. Other concerns focus on the UK’s increasing use of detention centres – one asylum- seeker told RESPOND: “It was a proper prison… I was shocked, especially after the bad experiences of being in prison in Iran”.

The project’s researchers also draw attention to problems that have transcended borders. In addition to pervasive delays and administrative failings, the team links a restrictive turn in policymaking to a significant reduction in refugee rights, opportunities for family reunification and access to legal support and social welfare.

Project co-ordinator Soner Barthoma from Uppsala University says: “When faced with mass migration, governments fall back on a tired repertoire of failed solutions. They put aside concerns about human rights and reach for quick fixes. The securitisation of migration has blocked the search for better solutions to societal problems.”

In Cambridge, Atto’s work focuses on the experiences of Assyrian Christians and Yazidis, populations indigenous to ancient Mesopotamia, and today mainly concentrated in northern Iraq refugee camps. At least 400,000 Yazidis have been displaced by ISIS, and thousands more have been killed and abducted. “There needs to be more strategic intervention in conflict zones to prevent the mass displacement and persecution of minoritised indigenous groups,” Atto says.

To this end, she raises awareness in the West through talks, exhibitions and film. She has also given expert testimony in asylum cases and aims to help people retain some elements of their cultural identity after having lost everything back home, including hope for a future there, as they establish new lives in unfamiliar host countries.

In late 2020, Atto curated Displaced Bodies and Hearts, a digital art exhibition featuring work by migrant artists that represents the suffering and hopes of peoples forced to leave their homelands. Some of the most poignant and disturbing pieces were created by Assyrian and Yazidi artists who survived Islamic State’s genocidal violence. One painting, by Yazidi artist Narin Ezidi, now living in Canada, depicts the 19 Yazidi women burned to death in cages in Mosul.

Find out more about the artists and their work by clicking on the following images:

Ismail Noah

Ismail Noah

Ismail Noah

Painting by Ninos Thabet

Ninos Thabet

Ninos Thabet

Painting by Salam Noah

Salam Noah

Salam Noah

Photograph of children playing with the wreckage of a car by Aziz Alias

Aziz Alias

Aziz Alias

Painting by Agnes Ishak

Agnes Ishak

Agnes Ishak

Painting by Jason Noah

Jason Noah

Jason Noah

Photograph of the artist Nadia Bashar sat on a grave

Nadia Bashar

Nadia Bashar

Painting by Saddiq Khidhir

Saddiq Khidhir

Saddiq Khidhir

Photograph of an abandoned bicycle by Nashwan Alhadaay

Nashwan Alhadaay

Nashwan Alhadaay

Painting by Fouad Roham

Fouad Roham

Fouad Roham

Painting by Jelbert Karami

Jelbert Karami

Jelbert Karami

Photograph of a football match in the ruins of Aleppo by Issa Touma

Issa Touma

Issa Touma

Painting by Narîn Ezîdî Îsmaîl

Narîn Ezîdî Îsmaîl

Narîn Ezîdî Îsmaîl

Painting by Ammar Salim

Ammar Salim

Ammar Salim

Painting by Diala Brisly

Diala Brisly

Diala Brisly

Ismail Noah

Ismail Noah

Ismail Noah

Painting by Ninos Thabet

Ninos Thabet

Ninos Thabet

Painting by Salam Noah

Salam Noah

Salam Noah

Photograph of children playing with the wreckage of a car by Aziz Alias

Aziz Alias

Aziz Alias

Painting by Agnes Ishak

Agnes Ishak

Agnes Ishak

Painting by Jason Noah

Jason Noah

Jason Noah

Photograph of the artist Nadia Bashar sat on a grave

Nadia Bashar

Nadia Bashar

Painting by Saddiq Khidhir

Saddiq Khidhir

Saddiq Khidhir

Photograph of an abandoned bicycle by Nashwan Alhadaay

Nashwan Alhadaay

Nashwan Alhadaay

Painting by Fouad Roham

Fouad Roham

Fouad Roham

Painting by Jelbert Karami

Jelbert Karami

Jelbert Karami

Photograph of a football match in the ruins of Aleppo by Issa Touma

Issa Touma

Issa Touma

Painting by Narîn Ezîdî Îsmaîl

Narîn Ezîdî Îsmaîl

Narîn Ezîdî Îsmaîl

Painting by Ammar Salim

Ammar Salim

Ammar Salim

Painting by Diala Brisly

Diala Brisly

Diala Brisly

Atto is also directing and producing a film in which displaced migrant women speak about the extreme challenges which they have had to overcome.

She says: “We developed RESPOND at the start of the crisis. The number of migrants coming to Europe has fallen but the region’s displaced people are more vulnerable than ever. As Europe reflects on its actions, we are determined to give voice to the millions of people who continue to be denied a home and basic human rights.”

Dr Naures Atto is a Senior Research Associate at Cambridge's Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

This story appears in Horizons magazine, Issue 40.