Hot Spots: What They Mean

From the Series: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna.

The title of this section of the Cultural Anthropology website also happens to be the name given by the European Union to its imagined solution to the so-called refugee crisis. Hot spots are reception centers situated at main points of entry to the territory of the European Union, particularly in Italy, for people coming from the African continent, and in Greece, for those arriving from the Middle East and Central Asia. Placed under the authority of the governments concerned, the hot spots benefit from the financial and administrative support of the European Union via the agencies that coordinate the functions of control, policing, and legal assistance across countries. Their role consists in classifying those entering the European territory as either “true refugees” or “economic migrants,” acting on the assumption that such a distinction is relevant and possible. The former are to be “relocated” according to a plan for the equitable distribution of asylum seekers among European nations. The latter have their return to their country “facilitated.” In other words, this process will lead to resettlement for some and deportation for the others.

Photo by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

The new policy is said to be fair for countries as well as for refugees. Thus, under the plan, each European country should receive its just share of the demographic burden depending on the size of its population and the value of its gross domestic product, while all refugees should receive conventional protection under the procedure of relocation. However, this official presentation is flawed on both counts. Indeed, not only did several countries, including Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, immediately reject the quotas, but the objective of distributing a total of 120,000 refugees across the European Union corresponds to less than one-fifth of the estimated number of people who entered Europe in 2015. To fix a quantitative goal to the hot spots implies, against the very principle of the 1951 Geneva Convention, establishing in advance a rate of recognition independent of the asylum seekers’ actual situation. Moreover, considering the estimated number of people arriving on the Italian and Greek coasts on a daily basis, this rate is implicitly determined at a level that is substantially below the current one for the European Union at large. The hot spots are to do the European Union’s dirty work: a summary human triage with the aim of massive rejection. Instead of benefiting from a thorough examination of their situation, as would be the case before national institutions in charge of asylum, applicants will have their fate decided by a fast-track process, making the provision of evidence for their claims difficult and ultimately diminishing their chances of being admitted while denying the possibility of appeal.

Hot spots are, in fact, the last of a long series of strategies invented by the European Union to deal with the refugee question. Contrary to what is generally thought, and in spite of the efforts of human rights activists and humanist policy makers, generosity has never been the main reason for granting asylum. In the first two decades after the ratification of the Geneva Convention, the motivation was mostly economic, due to the need for a workforce to rebuild European countries after the Second World War, and ideological, in relation to the Cold War. With the interruption of labor migration and, later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, these two reasons ceased to be. As nonnational workers became undesirable and Communist regimes collapsed, asylum seekers were considered with suspicion and even hostility, all the more since they were now coming from the global South. Various methods were conceived to hinder the path of the refugees, from policing and screening at the borders, complemented by the creation of waiting zones and detention centers, to the imposition of increasing administrative constraints on potential claimants, which progressively reduced the probability of a favorable outcome for asylum applications. In France, for example, the rate of recognition by the national Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons dropped from more than nine out of ten to less than one out of ten between the mid-1970s and the mid-2000s.

Yet the obstacles to applying for asylum—or, after applying, to being granted refugee status—were not entirely satisfactory from the perspective of the European states, since abuses could be contested and decisions could be appealed. In the past decade, new policies have consequently been developed to stop refugees even before they enter European territory. The control of potential candidates for immigration has been outsourced to neighboring countries: to Morocco, whose police are known to deport would-be asylum seekers into the Sahara; Libya, whose dreaded prisons and camps are a common passage point for those hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea; and, most recently, Turkey, which was offered €3 billion by the European Union to prevent the passage toward the Greek islands and provide shelter to refugees on its own territory at the very moment when its government has taken an authoritarian turn. It is remarkable that the corresponding regimes, which have long been criticized by Europeans for their infringements of human rights and the rule of law, would now be seen as guaranteeing sufficient protection for refugees.

But as this outsourcing of policing was still considered to be partially ineffective, hot spots were created to offer an alternative solution by screening those ultimately able to enter European territory in spite of the obstacles and arrangements with neighboring countries. They achieved a new frontierization of the border control regime, satisfying most governments and reassuring public opinion. Hot spots were sufficiently remote to operate at a distance from the gaze of human rights organizations, yet they remained within the perimeter of the Union so as to avoid gross violations of international law. Morals were satisfied. As in J. M. Coetzee’s novel, these hot spots became the front lines where Europeans could safely be “waiting for the barbarians.”