In this week’s post, Elidor Mehilli considers another boat-load of people and reflects on Europe’s recent history of distinguishing bewteen ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ refugees.



This dramatic image has been going around on social media for the past few weeks. If you have seen it, chances are that it came along with one of three possible stories.

The first is that the image depicts recent Syrian refugees (or various other combinations of “Muslims”) “invading” Europe. Nothing makes the idea of an invasion more tangible than the sight of thousands of disheveled men ready to disembark on some European port. Not surprisingly, one early online comment accompanying the post raised the alarm: “The next step is a Muslim Europe”. Another warned of a “growing cancer.”

In Belgium, a local branch of the French-speaking conservative liberal Mouvement Réformateur party (part of the ruling coalition) became embroiled in a mini-scandal, when its Facebook page shared the image, along with the previous poster’s comment declaring that the rival Socialist Party was getting a whole lot of new voters. (The branch has since distanced itself, blaming a site administrator for the faux pas.)

Others, however, have insisted that the image depicts exactly the opposite; that these were Europeans fleeing to North Africa from the mayhem of World War II. The implication is that Europe has a clear moral obligation to return the favor by letting in desperate refugees fleeing war and putting their lives in danger by crossing the Mediterranean (most often, as we have seen, using small boats rather than ships). One German-language post to this effect was reportedly shared over 140,000 times.

Since viral culture relies on rapid-fire sharing, it encourages mass outrage. And so a third story quickly took over social media. The image, we finally learned, shows neither Syrians fleeing to Europe, nor Europeans fleeing to North Africa after World War II. These are Albanians fleeing to nearby Italy, aboard the commercial ship “Vlora,” in August 1991. Most commentators left it at that, but some offered the additional nugget that the depicted episode followed the collapse of the Communist regime there.

Beware the fake migrant images,” warned a French media blog. “Fake!” declared Austria-based investigators. It was now clear that the image originated in another era (though this clearly has not stopped others from posting the image and insisting that it shows what they think it shows).

There is nothing new in the fact that images tell us whatever we want them to tell us. The devastating picture of little Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach was bound, perhaps, to encourage counter-images. Images have long been instruments of power, and we now have unprecedented means for instantly attaching millions of eyes to them.

The problem is that the debunking can obscure as much as enlighten. By disassociating the 1991 event from what is happening in 2015, the debunkers unintentionally created the illusion that these events are completely disconnected.

Once assigning those thousands of bewildered Albanians to a different historical moment — having reinserted them into the post-Communist frame where they belong — we can then quickly move back to the urgent crisis. The Albanian bodies disappear into the virtual world where they came from, to let our screens populate once more with the “real” bodies in crisis.

Over at the London Review of Books blog, Thomas Jones rightly pointed out that falsification “can turn out to be a useful reminder of the past, once you’ve identified it” but then stopped short of identifying the stakes in the historical parallel.

Yet, the concept of a “fake,” and the shadow of legal precedent over who counts as a “real” refugee, has long been part of the European legacy of handling displaced persons. So when we actually take the long view, some connections emerge.

Every crisis is specific, but let us briefly recall what happened in the early 1990s. While other Eastern bloc regimes had collapsed, the unreformed Albanian Communist party clung to power. This was Europe’s most brutal and isolated regime. In the summer of 1990, thousands of desperate inhabitants (overwhelmingly young men) stormed West European embassies in the capital Tirana. By December of that year, spontaneous student-led protests turned into broader demonstrations. Instead of cracking down, the regime unexpectedly permitted the creation of other political parties, thus ushering in the liquidation of the party-state.

Months of chaos, clashes, and uncertainty followed. Thousands of Albanians fled to Greece. Others took control of ships in the ports of Durrës and Vlorë and set sail for Italy—a trickle, at first, and then by the tens of thousands. By some estimates, half of the country’s population (roughly three million) migrated between 1990 and 2010.

Consider the Italian reception in 1991. Then, too, at first there was sympathy for the victims of a ruthless Communist dictatorship. But the Italian public debate then quickly shifted to obsession over who was a “real” refugee and who was a “fake”— the “clandestini,” in other words, seeking refuge in Italy for economic reasons rather than out of safety concerns. There was, after all, no war in Albania in the summer of 1991.

Does this sound familiar? This is a European legacy, too. The framework for what constitutes a refugee was established in 1951 — in a post World War II context. Originally, it was a limited response to displaced Europeans in the 1940s. Later, however, the UN decided to make the definition universal, conferring the obligation to the always-murky “international community,” in whose protection refugees have ever since found themselves.

Taking the recent refugee crises in Calais as a departure point, Jessica Reinisch has recently argued that this postwar solution enshrining “collective responsibility” over refugees has had a contradictory legacy. One outcome of the international compromise has been that those claiming refugee status have needed to show that they are “genuine,” or in the long-established language of the 1951 Refugee Convention, that they have a “well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Longer term outcomes of the institutionalization of this standard have included ever more elaborate systems of policing, detention, and investigation, along with criminal smuggling networks, small businesses in the fake ID industry, and creative story-telling strategies among asylum aspirants.

For decades, European economic integration has unfolded in parallel to the expansion of visa regimes, screening systems, sanctions, severe penalties for airline carriers, declarations of “safe third party” states, and knee-jerk anti-smuggler offensives—all designed to control the circulation of would-be-asylum seekers. The Mediterranean did not suddenly become a place of death; it has been in the making for over a quarter of a century. (Albanians drowned regularly on their way to Italy in the 1990s and early 2000s, albeit in far smaller numbers than recent tragedies.)

What European history also shows, especially in light of celebrations in Germany last year and more recently, is that walls and militarized borders tend to encourage desperate people to find other creative and dangerous ways to evade barriers.

All of this makes dealing with Syrians fleeing a devastating war all the more complicated. Any mass movement encourages other people fleeing for economic reasons, or a host of other reasons, whom the “international community” continues to deem “fake.” (According to EU statistics, between April and June of this year, Albanians constituted one of the three largest contingents of first-time asylum seekers. Still no war there.) But European invasion panic also obscures the fact that 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries (like Turkey, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Chad).

Europe is stuck with a system that neither adequately protects the people that desperately need immediate protection, nor recognizes that a post-World War II insistence between “real” and “fake” refugees has had wide-ranging and self-defeating consequences.

Dr Elidor Mehilli is Assistant Professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and a former visiting fellow of the Reluctant Internationalist project. His email is