The horror and the hope for refugees in Europe

September 4, 2015

People fleeing violence and oppression are meeting the same from Europe's rulers--but an alternative to the scapegoating and hate is growing, reports Nicole Colson.

IT'S THE single image that has crystallized the horror of the refugee crisis in Europe: On September 2, a photographer took a picture of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, lying face-down on a Turkish beach.

The toddler was one of at least 12 refugees--including his 5-year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rihan--who drowned during a desperate attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos. They fled hometown of Kobanê in Syria, and traveled hundreds of miles through Turkey.

The two-mile sea voyage from Turkey to Kos is considered less dangerous than the longer crossing from Libya to Italy that many other refugee make--but it proved deadly for Aylan, who joins the more than 2,500 refugees who have perished in the Mediterranean this year.

Aylan and the others who washed up on the beach have come to represent--as a social media hashtag would term it in Turkish, "#‎KiyiyaVuranInsanlik‬"--"humanity washed ashore."

Compounding the horror is the fact that their deaths were entirely preventable. They are the result of civil war, Western imperialism, crushing poverty and closed borders. More like Aylan will undoubtedly die in the days and weeks to come--unless European governments are pressured to open the gates to those begging for entry--and to provide the resources they so desperately need.

Children arrive in Europe to face an uncertain future

The steady tide of refugees from the Middle East and portions of Africa--many of them fleeing violence and war, as in Syria--has elicited both the worst and best of responses.

The worst: routine violence from police and security forces under orders to maintain control of the borders at all costs; the callous indifference of mainstream politicians who won't acknowledge their share of political responsibility for the refugees' plight in the first place, nor their humanitarian responsibility to provide relief; and the vile bigotry of the far right, eager to capitalize on the crisis by scapegoating refugees and migrants to further a conservative agenda.

But the best has also been on display in Europe today. There has been an outpouring of solidarity and generosity among ordinary people organizing to declare that immigrants are welcome in Europe--and to push their governments to open the borders. This show of solidarity can be built on in the coming weeks as more refugees make the desperate journey to Europe.

IN THE past several months, tens of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere across the Middle East and portions of Africa have tried to get to Europe, hoping to gain entry into countries where they and their families will have a chance at a life free from war and poverty.

In the past few weeks, the influx has escalated dramatically, becoming what officials now call the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, expects a 40 percent increase this year in the number of people fleeing to Europe by boat. An estimated 310,000 people have already crossed the Mediterranean Sea this year, according to the UN. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the figure even higher, at 350,000--and reports that at least 2,535 people have died making the crossing so far this year.

Makeshift refugee centers in Greece, Italy and elsewhere have been filled to the bursting point already for months. Yet more people arrive each day, hoping for a chance at eventual asylum in other parts of Europe.

Before facing the ruthless response of European governments, the refugees are typically at the mercy of ruthless profiteers as they try to get to Europe. UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told CNN that in some cases, refugees making the Mediterranean crossing have been charged money by smugglers to come out of the ship's hold to breathe fresh air. Fleming said that one Syrian refugee reported: "We didn't want to go down there, but they beat us with sticks to force us. We had no air so we were trying to get back up through the hatch and breathe through the cracks in the ceiling."

The cost to hire a dinghy for the 2-mile trip from Turkey across to Greece that Aylan Kurdi and his family perished on reportedly costs as much as 1,000 euros--$1,120--per person.

Drowning has not been the only cause of death. In Austria, the bodies of 71 Syrian refugees, including at least three children aged 2, 3 and 8, were found abandoned in a truck alongside a highway. They had suffocated to death as they were being trafficked from Hungary.

INTERNATIONAL LAW mandates that refugees in particular have the right to asylum when they flee. But many European countries continue to refuse to allow refugees timely entry.

Last month, there was iconic video footage of the grim consequence: Macedonian police attacking refugees, including families with small children, as they gathered at the border.

Now such scenes are being revealed on a regular basis. On September 1, hundreds of refugees with paid-for train tickets were expelled from Keleti station, the main train station in Budapest, Hungary, as police attempted to stop the flow of refugees to Germany.

The crowds of refugees, many fleeing the violence of the civil war in Syria, chanted, "We are human. We are human"--a fact that European Union officials seem slow to recognize. Some 2,000 migrants have taken to living in the open air around the station in what the New York Times termed a "squalid" migrant city-within-a-city. Some of those waiting for the chance to leave say they have gone days without food or water.

"In Europe, they're treating us like ISIS did, beating us up," said Ahmad Saadoun, who came from Falluja, Iraq, one of the cities now under the control of the reactionary fighters that the U.S. government, in alliance with the European Union, has declared war on. Saadoun continued to the reporter: "Either take me to Germany or just send me back. I don't care anymore."

Scenes like the one outside of Keleti station are becoming more common across parts of Europe.

Trains going through the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France have been repeatedly delayed as sometimes hundreds of refugees have attempted to cross through the tunnel on foot or by hanging onto the roofs of trains. The British government's response: new funds for an extra 100 border guards at the Channel tunnel terminal.

THE RESPONSE of punishment and repression is justified by political leaders with the claim that wealthy Western nations in Europe are being "swarmed" by migrants--as UK Prime Minister David Cameron characterized it in late July.

But this simply isn't true. As Eugenio Ambrosi of the IOM said in a statement: "[W]hile there is a crisis in humanitarian terms and in terms of people losing their lives, IOM does not view this as a crisis in terms of numbers, because France, the UK and the EU as a whole have the size, resources and capacity to deal with these relatively low numbers of migrants and asylum seekers."

In fact, vastly more refugees have fled to other countries in the Middle East. As the IOM reported:

To understand the current and future situation, it is essential to comprehend the drivers of such movements across dangerous routes...[The refugees] are often individuals fleeing widespread violence and human rights abuses, particularly those coming from Syria and Eritrea. When put into context, the number of Syrians reaching Europe is minimal in comparison to the 4 million refugees in Syria's neighboring states, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

As Patrick Kinglsey reported in the Guardian last month:

There are countries with social infrastructure at breaking point because of the refugee crisis--but they aren't in Europe. The most obvious example is Lebanon, which houses 1.2 million Syrian refugees within a total population of roughly 4.5 million. To put that in context, a country that is more than 100 times smaller than the EU has already taken in more than 50 times as many refugees as the EU will even consider resettling in the future. Lebanon has a refugee crisis. Europe--and, in particular, Britain--does not.

BUT THAT, of course, hasn't stopped European leaders from refusing to respond to the crisis--and for some, engaging directly in racist scapegoating.

In Hungary, where the right-wing government's main rival is a far-right party with ties to neo-Nazis, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on September 3 that the migration crisis was a "German problem," and that Europe had a moral duty to block migrants from coming.

As the desperate migrants continued to mass outside Keleti station, hoping to leave the country, the New York Times reported that Hungary's railroad operator had suspended service to Western Europe. When a train with about 500 migrants was stopped in Bicske, about a half-hour west of Budapest, "all Hungarians were told that they could get off, but non-Hungarians remained locked inside the train without drinking water," the Times wrote. "Riot police officers fended off migrants hanging out of windows and chanting that they wanted to go to Austria and Germany."

In her not-at-all-vigorous response to Orban, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "Germany is doing what is morally and legally obliged. Not more, and not less." Merkel signaled her country's willingness to take in refugees only very reluctantly. In late August, she waited days before finally speaking out against racist anti-immigrant riots led by neo-Nazis and the right in the city of Heidenau.

Merkel, in particular, has pushed for the refugees to be distributed more evenly among various European countries or processed in refugee centers at their points of entry. But why shouldn't wealthiest Western governments--particularly Germany and Britain, whose political and economic policies and status as junior partners to U.S. imperialism have helped fuel the wars in the Middle East that are driving the refugee crisis--now provide for those who are suffering?

As for Britain, data released by the government in late August revealed that only 216 Syrian refugees--out of some 4 million total refugees and the hundreds of thousands who have fled to Europe--have qualified for the government's official relocation program. An additional 5,000 have received asylum after traveling to Britain on their own.

This is by design. British political leaders and the media routinely characterize migrants and refugees as scroungers seeking to take advantage of a supposedly generous welfare state. UK Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond was typical when he claimed in August that Europe "can't protect itself" from African migrants and called for the repatriation of "marauding" refugees.

Though the crisis in Europe is front-page news, U.S. leaders should not be able to escape their own responsibility for the tide of refugees either.

As of June, the U.S. had taken in fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees. Washington recently announced a commitment to accepting between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian refugees, but as in Europe, this is woefully inadequate--and particularly galling given the U.S. role in fueling the civil war in Syria and the destabilization of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.

To defeat the Arab Spring revolutions, the U.S. government and its allies in Europe stoked and supplied the counterrevolution in the Middle East. Now the victims are landing on Europe's doorstep--and European leaders want to pull the welcome mat out from under them.

THE IMAGES and testimonies of the nightmare endured by refugees are gut-wrenching. But there is another picture and another story: The determination of the refugees to fight for their rights, as best they can--and the solidarity from many ordinary Europeans who are organizing against their leaders to declare that immigrants and refugees are welcome.

Their numbers and resources are still too small to turn the tide, but their example shows the potential for an alternative to Fortress Europe.

Thus, while German leaders have suggested they can't "handle" the influx of refugees, the German population has decided otherwise. A recent poll by the German public broadcaster ZDF found that 60 percent of people said that the country--Europe's biggest economy--is capable of hosting asylum-seekers.

Some people are putting that sentiment into practice. German soccer clubs, pushing back against the far right, organized the display of banners welcoming refugees at matches across the country last week. Soccer club Bayern Munch announced that it would donate $1.1 million to refugee charities and that players would take the field for upcoming games by walking hand-in-hand with refugee children.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), whose independently run rescue boats in the Mediterranean have saved more than 10,000 people, said it has seen a 15-fold increase in donations in the 24 hours after the pictures of Aylan Kurdi were published. "People are saying they don't want to be bystanders any more," MOAS's director Martin Xuereb told the Guardian.

Other charities and aid organizations are likewise reporting an huge influx of donations. Calaid, a charity which coordinates aid to refugees in Calais, the northern French city at the end point of the Channel Tunnel, reported that carloads of donations are arriving each day, along with growing numbers of people volunteering to help on the ground with distribution.

In the German city of Munich, after officials announced that 590 refugees had arrived and tweeted, "Anyone who wants to help is welcome," the outpouring of toys, food and other donations was so great that within hours, police reported being overwhelmed with too many items.

Meanwhile, more and more people are questioning their governments' inadequate response and calling for more to be done. A petition demanding that the British government "accept more asylum-seekers and increase support for refugee migrants" got 280,000 signatures in just a few days--more than 100,000 of them came in the day following Aylan Kurdi's death.

Across the continent, thousands of individuals and families have offered to open their homes to host refugees and migrants--a stark answer to the paltry numbers that governments have pledged to give asylum to. In Iceland, after the government announced in August it would give asylum to just 50 Syrian refugees, more than 12,000 people said they would offer their own homes, after prominent author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir called for ordinary people to help.

People are taking to the streets to make their point as well. In Dresden--the main base of support for Germany's Islamophobic PEGIDA movement--some 5,000 people turned out August 29 for a rally in defense of immigrant rights called by the Anti-Nazi Alliance. Holding a banner reading "Prevent the pogroms of tomorrow today," protesters chanted, "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here."

On September 1, some 20,000 marched in Vienna, Austria, in a "welcome" rally for refugees. Their signs read, "I don't want Europe to be a mass grave." The demonstrators cheered as trains carrying refugees arrived in the city.

September 12 has been called as a European day of action for refugees, and tens of thousands across the continent are expected to march under the banner "Refugees welcome." In London, a Facebook page for the September 12 demonstration had 56,000 people signed up to attend--to prove to government officials, as organizers put it, that people in Britain won't let "thousands die trying to reach the EU and their legal right to claim asylum."

The solution to the refugee crisis lies in these examples of solidarity--of ordinary people organizing to hold their governments accountable, and to declare that immigrants are welcome in Europe.

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