Their cynical agreement that punishes refugees

March 24, 2016

Nicole Colson looks past the media spin and examines the details of an agreement on refugees engineered by EU leaders to look humanitarian while stopping the migration.

SEEKING TO stem the flow of refugees fleeing to the European Union (EU) from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, European Union leaders announced a deal with the Turkish government in mid-March that is designed to put a humanitarian spin on a barbaric policy.

The agreement will punish refugees--in particular, those fleeing the violence in Syria caused by the country's dictatorship and by outside intervention--who risked their lives to reach the EU by sending them to Turkey, while handsomely rewarding the repressive regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the process.

Under the deal, after March 20, undocumented refugees arriving in Greece by crossing Mediterranean Sea--a perilous journey that more than 1 million people have made in the past year--will be sent to Turkey. For each refugee sent to Turkey from Greece, the EU has promised to take in a future refugee directly from Turkey's camps, under a supposed "one-for-one" formula.

EU leaders say they hope that the plan will "deter migrants from trying to make dangerous journeys into Europe and encourage a legal path to Europe by offering to resettle at least some Syrians among the nearly 3 million migrants already in Turkey," reported the New York Times.

Refugee families stranded in a camp in Greece
Refugee families stranded in a camp in Greece

As part of the deal, the Turkish government will receive $6.7 billion for refugee aid, Turkish citizens will be given the right to travel to the EU without a visa by summer, and Turkey has been promised faster progress in its negotiations to join the EU.

ALREADY THIS year, some 147,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Greece (with another 13,000 crossing to Italy). At least 488 have died doing so, according to the International Organization for Migration--including a four-month-old baby who perished on March 19 when the boat the child was travelling on sank off the coast of Turkey. Currently, an estimated 1,100 refugees and migrants are arriving in Greece each day--though that is down from an average of 2,000 per day in February.

As of March 19, some 47,500 migrants and refugees were stuck in Greece. The conditions in many of the camps are appalling--but that could be remedied by an influx of aid by wealthier EU nations--and by those countries agreeing to take in more refugees.

Instead, EU nations--and the U.S., which bears an especially large responsibility for causing and escalating the wars and sectarian strife afflicting the Middle East--have failed to provide for the refugees' needs, leaving desperate families to languish in squalid conditions.

The camp at Idomeni, close to train tracks near the Macedonian border, holds as many as 12,000 people currently, including some 4,000 children. According to Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN's refugee agency, "The majority are families, many of them with young children. Hygiene is a major concern, negatively impacting people's health. People are burning plastic and rubbish to keep warm. The general environment is very challenging."

According to the Guardian:

Doctors are quick to say that until they got to the camp they had no idea what a public health emergency meant. Exposed to the elements, the place is being described as a timebomb. The vast majority of refugees have been here for weeks with some close to completing a month. Cases of fever, pneumonia, septicemia, hysteria and psychotic breaks are all on the rise, according to health workers.

"We have found women in tents writhing in pain as a result of [intrauterine] fetal deaths," says Despoina Fillipidaki, who is coordinating volunteers, clinics, drug supplies and medics for the Red Cross in the tent city. "My biggest fear is that soon people will start to die. And what was their crime? All they want is a better life, to escape war, to escape poverty. And what do they get? Greece of [Nazi] occupation. These are scenes from another century, another time."

UNDER THE new agreement, camps in Greece where refugees and migrants have been received, assisted and registered will now essentially become detention facilities for newly arrived refugees as they wait to be sent to Turkey. The UNHCR, which opposes mandatory detention for refugees, condemned the agreement and says it has had to cease some of its operations in Greece as a result.

Greek officials are also moving to close down autonomous camps and shelters that have been largely run by volunteers and aid groups working with refugees themselves. In a statement protesting the closure of the Pikpa refugee camp--an open, self-organized refugee camp in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos--the group Lesbos Solidarity condemned the EU/Turkey deal as "barbaric":

At this historic moment when the EU has shown no respect towards upholding people's human rights, the abolition of Pikpa camp in Lesvos is strongly related with a political decision that imposes:

The closure of open and self-organized accommodation spaces
-- The complete destruction of the beach rescue and support system structures on the beach
-- Attacks to autonomous structures, medical units, social kitchens and lifeguard teams.
-- The abolition of the solidarity network...

This new EU regime seeks to crush solidarity movements and deny people's access to their human rights: We refuse to live in this kind of Europe.

To enforce the return of refugees to Turkey, 2,300 security and legal "experts" are expected to arrive in Greece before enforcement of the agreement begins in earnest on April 4. This number includes 600 "police and asylum experts," according to Agence France Presse--leading to fears of increased repression.

With tens of thousands of refugees currently stranded in Greece, and tens of thousands more waiting for the opportunity to attempt the journey to get there, the EU's attempts to hang a "closed" sign on its shores have created the conditions for abject misery and a potentially explosive situation.

THE HUMANITARIAN catastrophe demands an outpouring of aid and resources for the refugees, but instead, it is being treated by more powerful nations primarily as a criminal and security issue.

The idea that the EU--which contains some of the wealthiest countries on the planet--can't afford to take in more refugees is absurd. Turkey alone is home to almost 3 million refugees. EU leaders last year pledged to deliver $3.4 billion in aid to Turkey for the refugees--but that money has not been delivered. By comparison, Europe took in 363,000 Syrians last year.

Humanitarian groups say the EU's new policy is not only barbaric, but likely unenforceable--and it will make refugees seek increasingly desperate measures to escape to other parts of Europe to avoid being sent back to their countries of origin.

It is especially outrageous that the agreement puts the onus on the Turkish government to safeguard the legal rights of refugees. Erdoğan's government has been carrying out a brutal campaign against the Kurdish population, along with a cross-border bombing campaign against Kurdish rebels in Syria and Iraq.

Within Turkey itself, Erdoğan has clamped down on democracy, including the recent seizure of Zaman, the country's biggest daily newspaper, which had been critical of Erdoğan's regime. "Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on it being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral," noted Amnesty International.

Human Rights Watch and other refugee and human rights groups have condemned the EU-Turkey agreement as illegal and a violation of the refugees' legal rights under international law. According to Amnesty International, just hours after it went into effect, the Turkish government deported a group of some 30 Afghan refugees who had been trying to reach Greece by boat--even though they faced the threat of being killed on their return.

"The ink wasn't even dry on the EU-Turkey deal when several dozen Afghans were forced back to a country where their lives could be in danger. This latest episode highlights the risks of returning asylum seekers to Turkey...It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion," John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.

At heart, the EU agreement with Turkey has more to do with playing politics than humanitarian concern.

The plan was backed in particular by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been celebrated in the press for her supposedly charitable impulses toward the refugees. But Merkel has come under increasing pressure from the right to clamp down on the flow of refugees.

In March elections, the anti-refugee far-right "Alternative for Germany" party (AfD, by its initials in German) made big gains in regional elections, allowing it to enter state parliament for the first time in three regions. While the left also increased its vote in some areas, as the Guardian noted:

[I]t was the breakthrough of the AfD--a party that did not exist a little more than three years ago and last year was on the verge of collapse--that was arguably most striking. In Saxony-Anhalt in the former East Germany, the party with links to the far-right PEGIDA movement had gained 24.4 percent, according to initial exit polls, thus becoming the second-biggest party behind [Merkel's Christian Democrats].

These signs of political polarization are being felt elsewhere. In France, the far-right National Front has made gains on the basis of anti-immigrant sentiment, while Hungary's right-wing government has unleashed a wave of repression against refugees attempting to cross its borders.

AND NOW, there is a new worry for refugees: The threat of increased repression in the wake of the bombings this week in Brussels, Belgium, carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Globally, Muslims are the main victims of attacks by ISIS--and ISIS is explicit that one of its aims with terrorism in places like Paris and now Brussels is to undermine hope in the possibility of solidarity and coexistence. That aim has been furthered by Western governments, which have responded to attacks like in Brussels with a ramping up of their repressive security state apparatus, including the detention of Muslims and laws curtailing religious freedom.

For the hundreds of thousands from the Middle East and portions of Africa who have fled, or will attempt to flee, to Europe, the attack in Brussels will likely lead to a further backlash--with politicians using the attack to bolster the case for keeping out refugees, and the far right further demonizing immigrants inside the EU.

The more palatable "liberal" version of this argument was on display in a New York Times article following the Brussels bombing that warned about the "vulnerability of an open European society," and noted "a new round of soul-searching about whether Europe's security services must redouble their efforts, even at the risk of further impinging on civil liberties."

Fear of repression led to heartbreaking scenes, captured on video in the Idomeni camp, of refugee children holding signs reading "Sorry for Brussels" and expressing their solidarity with the victims of the bombings. "We are suffering injustice here," Syrian refugee Um Amer told the Huffington Post. "We are not going [to Europe] to bomb anything or become terrorists. We are escaping a war in our country and the bombings in our country. We are running away from injustice, that's why we're here."

Speaking to Democracy Now! about the impulse to assign guilt to all Muslims, Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, said:

I think we should take a slightly longer-term historical perspective and see what happened after the United States, during the Bush administration, overreacted very strongly to the 9/11 attacks. Many of the problems that we face today are at least related to that overreaction.

It's very important that Europe deals with the security threats it faces...But that reaction and the security response has to be proportionate, and it's important that it doesn't target people who have nothing to do with this and that some of the underlying social issues in Belgium and France and other European countries--the marginalization and the joblessness and hopelessness in some of these communities--is also addressed.

We should not allow the media and politicians to assign collective guilt to refugees or Muslims generally. Instead, we must stand in solidarity, and continue to call for open borders and democratic rights.

The way forward lies in actions like the coordinated protests on March 19, in which thousands marched in London, Athens, Barcelona, Vienna, Amsterdam and several Swiss cities in opposition to the EU-Turkey agreement. In London, some 4,000 people marched, holding signs saying "Refugees welcome here" and "Stand up to racism"--while in Athens, some 3,000 people, Afghan refugees among them, shouted slogans that included, "Open the borders" and "We are human beings, we have rights."

At this moment, it's imperative to send a message to EU leaders and beyond that we stand in solidarity with the refugees--and that no human being is illegal. While the response of EU political leaders will be more racist scapegoating, Islamophobia and repression, we can build support for a different message.

As Lesbos Solidarity defiantly stated: "We refuse to live in this kind of Europe."

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