During the 2015-2016 ‘migration crisis’ in Europe, more than 38.000 asylum seekers found their way to Finland by travelling through South and Central Europe and from Russia through the Arctic route. In this chapter, we examine the ‘migration crisis’ as a combination of different forms of crises. We focus on the perspective of the asylum applicants: In which ways do ‘crises’ function as drivers of migration for the people on the move? The analysis is based on two sets of qualitative data collected: 18 official asylum application protocols of Syrian migrants who came to Finland through Northern Russia and so-called the Arctic route and 25 interviews with Iraqi asylum seekers. We argue that the possibilities to settle in, and build a home and sentiments of belonging are dependent on the ability to feel secure in one’s everyday life, trust the system and be able to see a future in that place. The failure of this manifests as two types of crises in the lives of our informants: a crisis of trust, and a personal ontological crisis of existence.
Nearly two and a half million first-time asylum-seekers arrived in Europe during the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ in 2015 and 2016. Many of the asylum-seekers used the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece and continued north through the Western Balkans. More than half of the arrivals in the European Union (EU) originated from countries with war or unstable, war-like circumstances, namely Syria (700,000), Afghanistan (360,000) and Iraq (250,000) (Eurostat, 2021). The movement and reception of these individuals created political pressure for the receiving and transit states from both the public and the media (Koikkalainen et al., 2021; Virkkunen & Piipponen, 2021a). Many of Europe’s borders were closed, and the unity of the EU and, ultimately, the rationale of the entire European free movement regime, were questioned. The sudden arrival of asylum-seekers in such high numbers at once was termed a ‘refugee crisis’ or a ‘migration crisis’ (e.g. Campesi, 2018; Triandafyllidou, 2018), even though people have sought refuge and better opportunities in Europe for years.
Menjívar et al. (2019) argue that the term ‘crisis’ is overused by the media and public officials when they describe migratory flows as crises, a point also emphasised in Chap. 1 of this volume. Furthermore, Kotilainen and Laine (2021) remind us that the crisis discourse is often framed by using politically or ideologically loaded metaphors that create and reshape meanings, and how we perceive and see things. Metaphors such as ‘migration waves’ are not just innocent figures of speech but strongly influencing manners of representation that structure our mindsets, what we notice and see, and how we act. They are also easily picked up by political actors who often ground their talk on fears of ‘invasion’ and ‘disruption of identities’.
Andersson (2016) notes that the ‘European migration crisis’ was in fact ‘man-made’ and was created as the result of tightening border controls and visa requirements since the early 1990s. Legal pathways for migration to Europe have been gradually replaced by irregular ones. As new clandestine routes and increased border policing have grown in parallel, European countries have been faced with an increasingly frequent series of ‘migratory emergencies’. The international community has failed to see and react to the worsening security situation in key migrant and refugee-sending regions such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan prior to 2015. This was the consequence of the rise of the violent extremism of ISIS. Repression and atrocities have been committed also by groups like Boko Haram in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Sudan (Crawley et al., 2018). As the European borders to the South across the Mediterranean Sea and to the East from Russia ‘opened’, the ‘crisis’ was about to transfer to the EU.
Within this broader context, we argue that, besides the ‘migration crisis’, there are at least two other crises at work: the immediate crisis created by wars and prolonged conflicts in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, and the crisis caused by everyday insecurities related to poverty, ethnic and racist violence, unstable political regimes, bad governance, overt corruption, and impact of the climate change. Campesi (2018, 201–202) notes that in forced migration studies the word ‘crisis’ is mainly used to refer to situations in countries of origin. In 2015–2016, it became clear that the crisis was not only about the ‘destabilising effect’ in the countries of origin, or in different parts and institutions of Europe but also about processes and events in the countries of destination and transit. Crawley et al. (2018) aptly assess that ‘crisis’ became a lens through which a number of other issues came to be viewed and magnified when thinking of the EU’s and its member states’ responses.
In this chapter, we examine the ‘crisis’ from the perspective of the asylum applicants, rather than from the viewpoint of the receiving states. We ask, in which ways do ‘crises’ that materialise in insecurities and disillusionment with place function as drivers of migration for the people on the move? This approach transfers the focus about the ‘migration crisis’ from states and the EU to individuals, who migrate for safety and who want to improve their lives by leaving contexts characterised by poverty, war, conflict, violent extremism, poor governance, and weak rule of law.
We argue that the ‘crisis’ goes beyond the state to social, economic and political processes as well as to inequalities that impact migrants’ everyday life, sense of place, and future prospects on a very personal level. We explore this in more detail by analysing migration strategies of Iraqi and Syrian asylum-seekers who applied for asylum in Finland during the so-called 2015–2016 ‘refugee crisis’. In Finland, the 38,000 arrivals signified a more-than-eightfold rise in the numbers of asylum applications from 2014 – the highest rise in the whole EU (Eurostat, 2016; Laine & Rauhut, 2018; Migri, 2021). While Syrian citizens were the largest group among all arrivals into Europe at the time, among those who arrived in Finland the largest group was Iraqis (20,029, 63 per cent). The 1439 Syrians who applied for asylum in Finland accounted for less than 5 per cent of all asylum-seekers (Migri, 2021).
Up to 95 per cent of the asylum-seekers, including the Iraqi citizens in this study, arrived in Finland by using the Mediterranean route and then proceeding through Central Europe, Denmark and Sweden. The rest, 1756 asylum-seekers, used the Arctic route through Moscow to Northern Russia and further across the ‘open’ border to Finland (Piipponen & Virkkunen, 2020, 648). As an empirical question, we ask how the feeling of belonging in place manifests in the migration narratives of Syrians and Iraqis who came to Finland in 2015–2016. What role did such a belonging in place play in the asylum-seekers’ decision to migrate?
2 Theoretical Background
Our study of Finland’s ‘migration crisis’ or ‘refugee crisis’ begins with an assumption that the events of 2015–2016 were broader than usually presented. The ‘crisis’ was multi-layered, again as stressed in Chap. 1. In order to grasp that, we will look at migration dynamics and migrants’ strategies, decision-making, and journeys, as well as geographical image and place-making practices. Collins (2018) notes that a migration management perspective often relies on an idea of the migrant as a utility-maximising individual whose migration is calculated and based on facts. Carling and Collins (2018) stress that economic narratives of migration are socially constructed and can only be interpreted in relation to migrant subjectivities, feelings and desires. Thus, a strict categorisation of migrants into ‘real refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’, which are common within media and political discourses on migration, are arbitrary and do not reflect the point of view of the individual on the move. Therefore, the Syrians and Iraqis of our study are not only ‘asylum-seekers’ or ‘irregular migrants’, but rather individuals with complex personal histories, motivations and narratives that influence their migration decisions.
Migration takes place in temporal, spatial and political contexts. Thus, a more sensitive reading of migrant stories can help us grasp some of the essential characteristics of migration strategies, which are often fuelled by personal crises. The three interrelated concepts that we draw from are home, building everyday life in one’s social and economic conditions; place-making, the attempt to accommodate in the local community and society; and ontological security, the fulfilment of the fundamental needs of existence.
Boccagni (2016) regards home as a unique source of attachments, desires, needs and dilemmas that are visible when people are transnationally mobile. According to Noble (2005, 108), migrant home-building ‘must, by necessity, constantly negotiate the affective and cognitive dissonance thrown up by the act of migration as it attempts to secure a place in a new world’. Thus, migrants attempt to find their place in social and economic contexts that are often characterised by racism and where everyday worries trigger feelings of insecurity and inability to look forward and give meaning to one’s life. This more abstract notion of ‘homing’ and place-making combines a threefold conceptualisation of ‘home’ – home as the symbol of identity, home as private (closed) space, and home as public (open/closed) space (Brednikova & Tkach, 2010; Buffel & Phillipson, 2016; Ralph & Staheli, 2011; Virkkunen, 2017). For many migrants, living a precarious existence in overcrowded flats without privacy and secure employment, combined with structural and everyday racism, corruption and feelings of inequality are key obstacles in adapting to the new environment.
Massey (1993, 1994) suggests that space is constructed from the multiplicity of social relations across all spatial scales, and place is a particular articulation of those relations, a particular moment in those networks of social relations and understandings. Based on this, Brun (2001) points out that refugees try to accommodate themselves with the (new) place, community and society, and to find a home, without losing their identity and ability to exercise power. For migrants, accommodation with the new place and the ability to create a meaningful home integrates existing identifications, mixing and reforming them with those of the new place. Using Giddens’ (1996) concepts, these create (or do not create) a sense of security and belonging that responds to migrants’ ontological needs in answering existential questions of existence, stability of life, self, and interaction.
In this way, the notion of ontological security is related to place-making and to the concept of home. Ontological security captures the integration and everyday experiences among both immigrants and people seeking asylum outside their countries of origin. That is closely interwoven with the notion of trust and safety that gives all kinds of people hope and courage against various everyday threats, pressures and fears in relation to the surrounding communities (Debuis & Thorns, 1998; Noble, 2005). At best, a sense of ontological security provides the person with a sense of autonomy. The feeling of security in one’s everyday life is, in turn, also related to the kinds of futures one imagines for oneself in that place. Boccagni and Miranda Nieto (2021) propose the use of ‘non-home’ as a category of practice and a mode of analysis, and not only the antithesis of the more familiar concept of ‘home’. When linked to ontological security, non-home is a space in which the routines of everyday life and existence can be performed relatively safely and free from external surveillance.
When people are not able to create a home or ontological security, and there is a serious discrepancy between the desired future and the experienced present, the option of migration emerges as a rational course of action. Often people are subjected to different rumours. Thus (incorrect) information about the possible countries of destination and ‘cognitive migration’, imagining a future abroad prior to the actual move, precedes the migration decision (Koikkalainen & Kyle, 2016; Virkkunen & Piipponen, 2021b). Carling and Collins (2018) underline that the desire to aspire for change, and what we here call ‘crisis’, is a key component in migration. Collins (2018) advocates using the lens of desire for understanding migration, i.e. paying attention to how mobility choices are influenced by a range of conscious and subconscious influences. The importance of desire, which can be understood as a hope of a safer and better future, is according to Collins (2018, 966) ‘expressed through the mobilities of migrants, the combinations of strategic planning, opportunism and fancies that manifest in movements to take individuals into other worlds, to achieve or avoid (un)desirable futures’.
Building on these foundations, we now proceed to examine the situation of two migrant groups through the lens of a personal crisis. Thus, the ‘crisis’ of physical danger in one’s country of origin (Iraqis in Iraq) and life as a migrant without trust and ability to secure social, economic and legal citizenship (Syrians in Russia) are key factors which urge people to migrate.
3 Data and Methods
The article is based on two sets of data collected separately in 2016 and 2017. Our data contain the stories, firstly, of Syrian citizens who were living as immigrants in Russia and arrived in Finland by using Northern Russia and the so-called Arctic route and, secondly, of Iraqis who used the Mediterranean route and travelled to Finland through Central Europe and Sweden. Both nationalities were among the three largest groups of asylum-seekers entering Europe during the ‘crisis’ and there are large diaspora populations of both Syrians and Iraqis living abroad (Eurostat, 2016). While acknowledging the different political and geographical contexts of migration, we note that there are some important similarities in the experiences of migration. However, there are also key differences.
The first set of data consists of asylum application protocols of Syrian citizensFootnote 1 who lived in Russia as immigrants and decided to join the Arctic route and to apply for asylum in Finland during 2015–2016. A total of 87 Syrian citizens – 69 on transit and 18 immigrants – made up a small share of our full dataset of 1164 protocols. Even though the media publicity usually portrayed asylum-seekers as young single men, most of the Syrians in our material travelled with family members. The group consisted of both men and women of different ages.
The evidence studied consists of asylum investigation and asylum hearing protocols. The former, conducted by the Finnish Border Guard or the Police of Finland, are fixed-form interviews that determine applicants’ travel documents, identification, route and journey, border crossings, family members, and former stays, including possible asylum applications, in other countries. The latter protocols, conducted by the Finnish Immigration Service, determine the grounds for the applicant’s asylum application. They are conducted in formal institutional settings, in an interaction between an interviewer (a representative of the authorities), the asylum-seeker, and a translator.
The second set of data consists of semi-structured interviews of 25 Iraqi citizens who arrived in Finland in 2015–2016 and were waiting for the processing of their claim for asylum. The interviews were conducted in English and the questions focused on the interviewee’s background, reasons for leaving Iraq, refugee journeys, experiences in Finland, and future plans. It was impossible to obtain an even gender balance of interviewees, as more than 80 per cent of those arriving in Finland in 2015 were male (Migri, 2021). Thus, there was only one female interviewed. The ages of the interviewees ranged from 18 to 45 years. They were all Iraqi Arabs, mostly from the Baghdad region and had mixed religious backgrounds. In terms of their socio-economic backgrounds, they were a diverse group. However, each individual had invested thousands of euros on the trip to Europe, so they had the means required to take the journey.
In terms of method, we use qualitative content analysis of, firstly, the Syrians’ asylum application protocols with an emphasis on their experiences and interpretations of their motives for migration and asylum, residence and daily lives in Russia; and, secondly, the Iraqis’ stories on what motivated them to head for Europe. We analyse the protocols and interview data as narrated stories in which asylum-seekers reconstruct their migratory journeys, experiences and interpretations in relation to their social and cultural contexts. According to Patterson and Monroe (1998, 330), narrated stories are a source of information in which people make sense of their lives, assemble information, conceive of themselves, and interpret the world. Such stories include both the experiences and the means of interpreting them available to those telling the story in a given culture and context.
The protocol material concerning the Syrian citizens is characterised by various asymmetries (Tanttu, 2017) and the focal point of the interaction is in the kind of information the authorities are interested in for the purpose of processing the asylum claim. The Iraqi interviews, on the other hand, were conducted in an informal setting and the interviewees were free to talk also about other topics outside the interview framework. A true comparative analysis of the experiences of the two datasets and migrant groups is neither feasible nor desired. However, we are confident that they can be used in tandem to increase our understanding of ‘crisis’ and the relationship between the sense of place and international mobility in the context of humanitarian migration. In the following, we reflect on the trope of ‘crisis’, based on our material, as firstly the ‘crisis of trust’ reflecting the everyday insecurities among asylum-seekers in the countries of origin and as immigrants in Russia; and secondly as an ‘ontological crisis’, mirroring individuals’ ability to create homes in contexts that, for them, seem not only insecure but also hostile.
4 Crisis of Trust: Immediate Motives for Migration
The first aspect that became evident in our empirical study was the crisis of trust and a desire to improve one’s security and everyday life. In the context of everyday insecurity, narratives relating poor governance, different forms of discrimination, violence and racism were common and clearly indicated a lack of trust.
The Syrians living in Russia as immigrants had found their way into that country but, later, realised how difficult it was to apply for asylum or to legalise their status by residence permit. The applicants could not be sure if their temporary asylum or work permit would be renewed, and for how long. Even if the application was rejected, there were costs involved, the bureaucracy was unclear, and the authorities were not willing to help. Only a small share of the 10–12 million immigrants living in RussiaFootnote 2 reside in the country with an official work or residence permit and are, thus, entitled to social benefits and public health care (Reeves, 2013, 509; Round & Kuznetsova, 2016, 1018; Turaeva, 2019, 133). Most of the immigrants lack an official work permit, work license or residence registration. Related to this, they are in an extremely vulnerable position, facing possible arrests and a real threat of deportation.
The protocol material indicates how different temporary visa arrangements and changing regulations, and the ways in which they are enforced, cause chain reactions forcing the migrants to orbit between countries. Often neither settling nor making a life in one country is possible. Detours, breaks, and stays in-between, as well as changing destinations – instead of constant ‘flows’ – are part of global, irregular migratory movements (e.g. Crawley et al., 2018). These situations were very much part of the Arctic route from Russia to Finland.
A father of a Syrian family told a long story about his efforts to gain legal status for the family in Russia. He was able to renew his short-term visa once, but not for the second time. He ended up getting a three-month UN permission for staying in Russia after which he got a one-year permit but decided to leave the country for Poland through Belarus. The Polish authorities returned the family to Belarus where, in turn, the authorities ordered them to leave the country within three days. The family returned to Russia. The oldest son decided to try to go to Poland once more on his own, but he was caught in Belarus and ended up in prison.
The example of another Syrian man and his family shows the arbitrary character of the Russian immigration governance. The family entered Russia legally and tried to renew their legal status in Russia but, according to the man, the ‘authorities’ told him that getting refugee status is impossible, as Ukrainians get priority. In Russia, asylum is not necessarily based on a person’s individual need for protection, as it should according to the international conventions accepted by Russia, because the authorities make politicised judgements (about Syrian refugees in Russia, see also Kubal, 2016). The man and his family had tried 15 times to get to Sweden, where they had relatives, but they were returned every time. Similarly, in the case of another Syrian man in our protocol material, Russian immigration authorities had told him that Syria is a secure country, and it is the Syrians themselves who are fighting, so he has no grounds for getting asylum in Russia.
In Russia, narratives about the arbitrary conduct of the police were very common among Syrian and other immigrants. The asylum-seekers talked about illegal stops and document checks on the street. The ways police officers handled the immigrants did not depend on their status, as such, but on if a person was able to pay, and how much. Such corrupt practices gave space for immigrants to negotiate their ways when trying to survive as irregular migrants. Significantly, they also increased insecurity and lack of trust in the police and other authorities. A young Syrian woman told a story of not being able to turn to the police. She also faced the attitudes of people in Russia.
They were persecuted because of their clothing in Russia, especially older Russians did so. [They said that the veil is a bad thing. Why are you in this country? They told us that we were bad Muslims. Once an older woman tried to rip off the veil that I was wearing from my head.] The applicant did not go to Russian authorities because she did not believe she would get help.
The main troubles and insecurities among Syrian immigrants in Russia related to everyday issues such as access to (paid) work, school, study, social and health services and free movement in the city space. They were able to get only occasional work, e.g. delivering goods for shops, or working during unsocial hours in the evenings and nights, but the missing residence permit or residence registration clearly made them vulnerable to abuse. The unemployment or extremely poor pay followed the economic difficulties, difficulties in accessing food, healthcare, medicine, and things like children’s vaccinations. Thus, the Syrians, just like many other immigrants in Russia, lost their trust both in the system and for their future in the country in general.
A lack of trust in authorities was also visible among Iraqis, even though the situation was somewhat different as the interviewees were living in their own country of birth. Jawad,Footnote 3 a computer scientist in his 40s, explains how his life in Baghdad was filled with fear of terrorist attacks and random violence. Unofficial militias were more powerful than the police and the authorities were unable to stop kidnappings that were a constant fear for those with opposing views, wealth, or other assets that the militias were interested in. According to him, the government was too weak to remedy the situation, so he chose to leave for Europe when his life was threatened at the university where he was working. The same despair towards the authorities was shared by most of the interviewees, and many explicitly stated that ‘there is no hope for Iraq’ (Koikkalainen et al., 2020).
Some of the Iraqis also already had quite complex migration histories. Zayd had found it difficult to get a job that matched his qualifications as a teacher in Iraq. He had worked in Egypt in 2014 and had taken a boat from Alexandria to Italy. After having been caught in the sea by Egyptian authorities, he ended up in prison for two months and then later returned to Iraq. He had been dreaming about travelling to England, but as he knew that crossing from Calais to Dover was near-impossible, he chose to head for Finland after hearing stories about this less-known destination. As a geography teacher, he was quite knowledgeable about the possible routes to Europe and had also compared his experiences with a Kurdish friend who had arrived via Russia. The friend had explained that staying in Russia was not an option as it was impossible to find work there:
You know it’s different people and different governments, but it’s the same Saddam Hussein, same Vladimir Putin, you know it’s a very difficult government.
In the case of Iraqi citizens, the feeling of everyday insecurity was mainly based on violence and the threat of car bombs or other random acts of terror. Yazid, an accountant and father of two boys, explains his life in Iraq was ‘dangerous anytime and anywhere’. You never knew when someone would come to your home, break your door, and kill your family, he explained. He was afraid of making new friends, as it was not safe to trust anyone whom you did not know. His sister lives in Norway and begged the family to come to join her there. After running into some trouble with a member of the militia and knowing that the police would rather invent a charge against him than help, Yazid finally decided that it was time to go.
I say to myself; Iraq is dead. Justice is dead in Iraq. So, I go directly to my home and take my children, take my wife, and go to another area, take my passport and go to Turkey.
These empirical examples of experienced insecurity and uncertainty demonstrate how a continued sense of failure in everyday life can lead to a fundamental crisis in trust in the government, the authorities and the system itself. For the Syrians, Russia was not a place where one could securely live as an immigrant, and for the Iraqis, their native country had time and time again proven to be a disappointment. This crisis of trust leads to another crisis of a very personal nature: if I cannot have confidence that the state is on my side – or at least are not actively working against me – then what is my place in this country?
5 Ontological Crisis: Lack of Opportunities, Future, Existence
Besides the lack of trust and immediate sources of insecurity, a more in-depth crisis in individuals’ home and place-making influenced our informants’ decision to migrate. This was a more profound question of existence and the ability to create ‘home’ in a place that may not only face war, conflict and violent extremism but was also characterised by corruption, structural inequality and everyday racism. With regard to personal security, the ability to adapt to pressure and fear in one’s everyday life and to build trust for the future, the experience is similar among those considering migration for the first time and among those who try to find their place in a new country. As our examples of Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers indicate, the 2015–2016 situation was not only a ‘crisis’ of border management – as it was often portrayed in European media – but also a crisis of lack of opportunities and personal advancement. In turn, this led to a failure of trust for the future that motivated even some seemingly settled people to migrate.
It is obvious from the Syrian protocol material that the insecurity caused by the everyday difficulties did not provide a sustainable basis for the future. Due to the worsening economic situation, they could not see any way to make a proper living in Russia. Due also to the constant struggles with authorities that forced them to stay low and invisible, they could not foresee any prospects for their children. It is difficult to build a sense of belonging when attitudes are such, as the following quotation depicts. A Syrian mother of five talked about difficulties in getting her children to school and getting birth certificates for those two who were born in Russia. According to her:
In Russia, authorities made the problems but not the people – they tried to help. The people are afraid of the state. That is why we were moving all the time. Even if my children were born in Russia, the state did not take it into consideration.
She also spoke of her dispersed family: her husband’s parents lived in Turkey, and he wanted to go to visit them before joining the wife and children who already left for Finland. Thus, he could not join his family before the Russian-Finnish border closed in February 2016.
For the Syrian immigrants who joined the Arctic route, the consequences of the everyday hardships made it difficult to belong and develop a sense of place in Russia. The implicit, and many times explicit, message both from authorities and the public was that they were not accepted. Another Syrian woman explained the attitudes of the authorities:
Lately, they did not grant permissions to stay to Syrians, as Russia is participating in the war there. They think that they went to fight instead of us, and we came to live in their country.
Living without legal status and trying to avoid the authorities does not give the opportunity to integrate into the society as a full member, not as a neighbour, colleague, friend or schoolmate.
Similarly, in the Iraqi interviews, it was clear that a deep disappointment in how the country has been run during the past decades made it impossible to have hope for a better future. The insecurity caused by fear of violence and arbitrary policing and governance had seriously impacted their trust in the state. For some interviewees, the situation had already turned personal as they report incidents of violence against themselves or close family members. This was the case for Abu Bakr, a 37-year-old father who arrived in Finland with his 10-year-old son. He had taken part in anti-government demonstrations and the son had been taken as a warning:
They kidnapped him for four days. (...) Because they say to me, if we give you your son, you must leave Iraq, don’t stay here. If you stay, we kidnap all four of your children.
Also, Hadi explained that he was forced to leave Iraq because of a threat made towards his family. He had been working in the telecommunications sector and thus had access to the contact information of the clients of the company. Members of the militia came to his house to demand that he provide them with the addresses of people they wanted to find. This was valuable information, as in a country with 32 million people it is not always easy to locate a person. ‘I went to my family and told them to start packing, we are leaving. And after 24 hours I lost everything’, he explains. For some, the experience of a lost future was related to education or career opportunities, even though the precarity of everyday life in Iraq was an important push factor. Ibrahim explained that he considered heading for the United States because he has family there, but chose Finland instead because he wanted to finish his PhD with some Finnish scientists, who are among the most cited in the world: ‘I did my homework. (...) Finland is first in the world in education’.
International migration is one solution to a fundamentally difficult situation where the current location does not provide any prospects. For the Iraqis, this meant contemplating possible destinations abroad in relation to what they hoped to achieve in life. For the Syrians, return migration was only a theoretical option due to the ongoing conflict and forced return was one of the threats they faced in Russia. Some had already gotten an expulsion order from Russia and some knew it would inevitably be coming later. One of the Syrians explained that he had been a member of an activist group and had participated in actions against fundamental Islamists in Syria. Family members and other activists of the group had already been killed, so he was sure that he would face the same destiny if he went back. For others, the return was not possible for other reasons, as the protocol of a woman who had been suffering from health problems describes: ‘The applicant is ill and would not get treatment in Syria due to the war conditions. Would like to return, but it is not possible’. Considerations of the family were also strongly present in the protocols, as this mother explains: ‘There is war in Syria, it is not safe there, and there is death. I fled death, and it is not possible to give future to my children’.
While the Russian authorities accused the Syrian migrants that their ‘own country’ was the reason for their problems and misery, these Syrians were sure that they would be doomed if they returned to their country of origin. Thus, the spreading of news and rumours about the Arctic route and ‘open border’ in the North to Norway and Finland seemed to be the best way to get away from the deadlocked situation in Russia. For the Iraqis, the opening of the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan route towards Europe seemed to offer an exceptional chance of fleeing a country with no hope. Many chose Finland because it was thought of as a lesser-known destination and a country offering peace, democracy and prosperity. Our informants showed agency in defining Russia and Iraq as ‘non-homes’ (Boccagni & Miranda Nieto, 2021) and therefore as impossible locations for a meaningful life. Based on our data, therefore, the crisis of trust and the crisis of ontological security were two important drivers of migration due to disillusionment in having a future in one’s current location.
6 Concluding Discussion: Disillusionment with Place
The migratory situation in Europe in 2015 and 2016 shows the complexity of the ‘crisis’. Based on our theoretical discussion and empirical study in Finland, we note how simplistic the assumptions of straightforward push-pull models frequently presented by the media and authorities are. The ‘crisis’ was not about the high number of incomers, Russia’s hybrid attack or the failure of Finland’s or the EU’s border management but also about individuals experiencing a fundamental disillusionment in having a future in their current location. Migrants from different countries of origin used varied migratory routes and had different motives for migration – some fleeing immediate danger while others fulfilling a long-term plan to relocate somewhere abroad. The situation showed also how mixed the movement was: step-by-step migration, primary and secondary migration, and straight and transit journeys. Crawley et al. (2018) point out that, even though migration across the Mediterranean was larger in scale than ever before, Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ was still small compared with the number of refugees and displaced people in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, i.e. in countries neighbouring Syria. Moreover, if compared with the population of the EU at that time, 508 million, the number of migrants during the ‘crisis’ added to this only by 0.2 per cent.
Our datasets on the Syrian and Iraqi citizens show how the possibilities to settle in and build a home and sentiments of belonging are dependent on the ability to feel secure in one’s everyday life, trust the system and be able to see a future in that place. The failure of this manifests as two types of crises in the lives of our informants: a crisis of trust, and a personal ontological crisis of existence. Moreover, there is plenty of convincing evidence in the migration literature, in addition to the empirical material of this study, that the consequences of disillusionment with the current home and place are of importance in irregular migratory processes. The choice of destination was based on two factors: available routes, and the preconceptions of Finland, often based on social media or word-of-mouth information, as a place where life could start anew. This was a highly idealised version of Finland as a prosperous and welcoming country at the northern edge of Europe, outside the beaten track leading to Germany or Sweden, for example (Koikkalainen et al., 2020).
Andersson (2016) criticises the mechanics and logic of the European ‘border security model’ which, rather than addressing the real causes of migration, has generated absurd incentives and negative path dependencies that fuel further migration and frame mobility-as-threat. We also note that the tools for governing these global migratory realities are out of date and there is a major discrepancy between the logic of border regimes and the expectations of those wishing to cross the said borders in search of a better life. Migrants are very much on their own and in a constant waiting room between states, between their lost pasts and only vague, uncertain futures.
From the perspective of migrants, the reasons for heading for Finland during 2015–2016 among the Iraqis using the Mediterranean route and ‘the caravan of Europe’ to the north, and among the Syrian immigrants in Russia using the Arctic route, are surprisingly similar. The Syrian immigrants in Russia faced severe everyday insecurities due to their immigration status and the related corruption, poor working and living conditions, and decided to leave. Similarly, many Iraqi asylum-seekers were disillusioned by their prospects in their home country and were eager to start life anew abroad. The hope of a brighter future convinced these individuals to leave but, unfortunately, their plans were often based on false promises of the asylum route being a real possibility to establish themselves in Europe.
Our research contains two datasets, but the different nationalities complemented each other. In both cases, everyday insecurities, alienation and a failed sense of place developed anxieties and urgencies that drove these people to migrate. We argue that crisis situations, such as the events of 2015–2016, also influence the mobility of individuals who do not necessarily flee war or personal persecution. Thus, we conclude that major migration events such as the ‘migration crisis’ show how seemingly settled individuals, migrants or other, may in fact be in vulnerable positions and thus willing to relocate quickly if an opportunity appears. The ‘crisis’ was, above all, multidimensional.
The entire dataset included 1164 individuals from 32 different nationalities. The largest groups were Afghan (421), Nepalese (88), Syrian (87) and Indian (81) citizens as well as asylum applicants from 13 different African countries. About 75 per cent of all asylum-seekers used Russia as a transit country (Piipponen & Virkkunen, 2020; Virkkunen et al., 2019).
During the Covid-19 border lockdown, the number of foreign citizens in Russia dropped from 10–12 million to about 5.5–6 million. Most of them are from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Iraqi interviewees are referred to with pseudonyms to protect their identity. The protocol material on the Syrians was also anonymised but they were not given pseudonyms because the whole dataset contains over 1000 persons.
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This research has received funding from the Academy of Finland consortium ‘Multilayered Borders of Global Security, GLASE’ 303480, and mobility grants 308914, 322407, 309602, 325449, as well as from the Kone Foundation project ‘Journeys through Time and Place: Asylum-seekers in Northern Finland’ (2016–2018).
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Virkkunen, J., Koikkalainen, S., Piipponen, M. (2023). Migration Strategies at the Time of a Crisis: Asylum Applicants in Finland. In: Jakobson, ML., King, R., Moroşanu, L., Vetik, R. (eds) Anxieties of Migration and Integration in Turbulent Times. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-23996-0_3
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