A “no entry” sign for refugees

September 21, 2015

Irish Times columnist Eamonn McCann looks at the frightening scope of the increasing crackdown against migrants and refugees across Europe.

IF DISPLACED people had a country of their own, it would be bigger than Spain. The numbers--50 million and rising--are set to grow, soon and significantly.

The refugees' ranks will be boosted by an exodus from Yemen, where war threatens not just the country's stability but its existence. Thousands of civilians have been killed, more than 3 million displaced, 1.8 million children suffer malnutrition, 80 percent of the 24 million people are in need of aid. Only half have access to potable water. The UN describes the situation as "one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters."

Yemen is farther from Europe than Syria. Hence, presumably, the relatively sparse coverage and apparent absence of political concern. It may also be a factor that the main perpetrator of violence is Saudi Arabia, an important Western ally. The Saudis have intervened to support pro-western president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi against tribal-based Houthi fighters who deny the legitimacy of Hadi's election and who are regarded by the Saudis as proxies for Iran.

Refugee children are detained in Lesbos, Greece
Refugee children are detained in Lesbos, Greece (Thomas Andre Syvertsen | IFRC)

Before the surge in violence triggered by the Saudi assault last January, Yemen was host to 246,000 registered refugees, 95 percent of them Somalis. Many of those have now fled, this time accompanied by tens of thousands of Yemenis in the migration towards Europe.

Just under half a million refugees from the war-wracked Central African Republic--10 percent of the population--are in camps in neighboring countries. There are more than 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 70,000 in a camp near Bangui airport, 30,000 in the grounds of a church, an unknown number in the bush. The UN estimates there are 615,000 South Sudanese refugees in adjacent countries and 1.5 million IDPs, out of a population of 11 million.

Violence, human rights' abuses, starvation and despair have generated comparable crises in Eritrea, Gambia, Senegal, Mali and elsewhere in Africa. In recent months, cash-strapped UN agencies have withdrawn or drastically reduced food rations for Somali and Sudanese refugee camps in Kenya, Darfuris in Chad, Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan. Syria is emptying of people with no place to go.

Meanwhile, the biggest refugee problem of all, of Palestinians ethnically cleansed to facilitate the creation and expansion of Israel, steadily worsens. The perpetrators are welcomed into the community of respectable world leaders. Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank hear influential Israeli voices in Israeli politics calling for the job to be completed.

LAST WEEK, EU interior ministers discussed detention camps in Africa where refugees could be contained, but from which they could not apply for asylum in Europe. Germany sent border guards to its frontier with Austria, which rushed troops to its Hungarian border. Hungary completed its 175 kilometer (110 mile) barbed wire fence along its Serbian border and announced its extension to its Romanian frontier.

Refugees who manage to make it into the country will be jailed as criminals. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have begun to strengthen border security. The Netherlands is operating police checks on traffic from Germany.

Also last week, EU leaders failed to agree a plan to distribute 160,000 refugees around the union. British Home Secretary Theresa May told reporters Britain had already accepted 5,000 Syrian refugees and would take 20,000 more over the next five years. These will be selected from camps in the region. No one who has made it to Europe will be considered. "Removal centers" should be set up in African countries, to corral and hold back migrants on the move.

All of the concrete measures that were agreed on had to do with keeping refugees out. But the numbers crowding towards Europe are certain to continue to grow. Desperate people seeking safety for their families will press up against barriers erected against them by Europe and continue in ever-greater compression.

They will be aware that European powers bear great blame for the cataclysm which has driven them onto the roads and the seas. Manipulation of borders, theft of natural resources, divide-and-rule policies, funneling arms into the area, invasion, bombing...But now...Nothing to do with us...You've been warned...One more step...

The walls are going up all over Europe. Racism and nationalism are on the rise. All the talk is of how many "we" should take--not many--and the refusal of others to accept their fair share.

The wave of misery washing over the world will not ebb soon. This is not a crisis but an epoch-changing moment. Only an upsurge of decency from below, challenging the priorities of the elites on policy at home as well as in relation to refugees, will meet the challenge. The attitudes of EU governments on display on Monday make violence with unpredictable consequences inevitable. On their heads be it.

First published at The Irish Times.

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