A devastating photograph documenting human tragedy has once again brought the refugee crisis in Europe to front page news. In this photograph hundreds of refugees are seen frantically clinging to a capsizing boat turned almost completely to one side, some of them jumping from the boat to join others already struggling to stay afloat in the water.
It is impossible to know exactly how many refugees died on that boat, but the non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) estimates that in just the final week of May, 900 refugees have lost their lives while attempting to cross through this deadly passage between Libya and Italy. May was the deadliest in the Mediterranean Sea since April, 2015.
In the past five months the refugee crisis in Europe that first began in the winter of 2015 has continued to deepen. Over 200,000 refugees seeking safety and a decent life have landed on European shores, fleeing wars, occupation and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. However, as borders close across Europe and new policies to control the movement of refugees are put into place, tens of thousands of people are stranded in sub-human conditions, stuck in a horrible limbo wondering where exactly are the human rights that Western governments profess around the world.
The Deepening Tragedy for Refugees
For most refugees that arrive through the Mediterranean Sea, a Greek or Italian island is the first place in Europe they encounter. Although it has been over one year since the refugee crisis began, the detention centres on the islands are still too small, and with too few resources, to process the asylum claims of refugees in a human and dignified way. This is especially true following the deal between Europe and Turkey, which now requires refugees that land in Greece either have their asylum claims decided in Greece or be deported to Turkey.
As the refugee crisis continues, there are also more and more closed borders and razor-wire fences as European countries remain divided on how to best control the mass exodus of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Austria is only the latest country threatening to build a fence and severely limit the movement of refugees, following the lead of Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia.
Beyond just preventing the safe travel of refugees from countries in Southern Europe to the North, the shut-down of borders has also created another humanitarian disaster for refugees. When Macedonia first closed its border with Greece and began allowing only limited numbers of just Syrian refugees through, an estimated 54,000 refugees were left stranded in Greece. Many of them ended up in a make-shift camp in Idomeni. Now, the Greek government has forcibly relocated 3,000 people from the camp to new sites with supposedly better living conditions. However, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reported on these camps saying, “The air circulation is poor, and supplies of food, water, toilets, showers, and electricity are insufficient. Refugees transferred by bus from Idomeni received little information about conditions at the new sites and the duration of their stay there. UNHCR remains concerned about families being separated during their transfer.”
Further to the North, at the refugee camp in Calais, France known as “the Jungle” conditions are no better. The camp, which is home to between 4,000-7,000 people, is even more crowded since the French government began to demolish sections at the end of February. According to a report released in April by the Refugee Rights Data Project, 76% of refugees in the Calais camp reported that they had experienced police violence, including physical violence, verbal abuse, tear gas and sexual violence and 77% reported that they had health issues from the conditions at the camp.
The Failure of European Refugee Policy
"We have come from war to be jailed like animals. Why?” These are the words of Ahmed Ali, a refugee from Afghanistan who is being detained on the Greek island of Moria awaiting a decision on his claim for asylum.
More then likely, after spending months detained in crowded conditions on the island, Ahmed will be denied his asylum claim as he is from Afghanistan, a country which European countries claim is safe enough for people to return. Both Britain and Germany have begun deporting people from Afghanistan back, despite the fact that 2015 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Ahmed's unjust detention is part of a new agreement between the EU and Turkey, a plan which also includes the agreement that the EU will re-settle one Syrian asylum seeker directly from Turkey for every one Syrian refugee that lands in Greece and is deported to Turkey. Other provisions in the plan also allow for non-Syrian refugees to be deported to back to Turkey from Greece if and when their claim for asylum is denied.
One of the stated goals of this agreement is to decrease the number of refugees leaving Turkey for Greece. This was supposed to be accomplished by providing deterrents for refugees, including NATO ship patrols in the Aegean Sea, increased interception of boats by Turkish authorities, as well as changes to the laws for applying for asylum in Europe. Since the agreement was put in place, refugees are either required to register as asylum seeker in Greece, or risk being deported back to Turkey. This new requirement can prevent a refugee from continuing North to build a new life in a country of their choice under current EU refugee policy.
Looking only at the number of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece, the agreement appears to be working. The number of refugees crossing the Eastern passage of the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece has decreased by 90% in the month of April as compared to the month of March, as reported by the European border agency Frontex. However, as an effective policy for dealing with the human catastrophe and the refugee crisis as a whole, this agreement has absolutely failed.
In the first month of its operation only 400 refugees were returned to Turkey from Greece. In this same period only 177 Syrian refugees were re-settled from Turkey to Europe. Even with the decreased number of arrivals, nearly 5,000 refugees still landed in Greece in the months of April and May (International Organization for Migration), not to mention the 30,000 more refugees that arrived in Italy. This means that not even one refugee was resettled for every 90 that landed in Europe. And so the refugee crisis deepens and the condition for refugees in Europe worsens.
The legality of the EU-Turkey agreement has also been challenged by human rights groups with regard to its compliance with international law, including the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and well as existing law in the EU in regards to the detention and deportation of refugees. Additionally there more questions regarding whether or not Turkey can be considered a “safe-country,” which stands as a criteria for the legality of deportations there.
Beyond these questions of legality, which will continue to be debated in the coming months there is also the simple human question of the right of refugees to seek a place to be safe and a dignified life. For refugees in Turkey, over 2.7 million of which are from Syria, life in Turkey is not an option. As the United Nations Children’s Agency, UNICEF has reported, nearly 80% of Syrian children living as refugees in Turkey are not at school, most of them forced to work instead for the survival of their families.
Whether through shutting down borders, putting up fences, signing agreements or, as in Germany and Denmark, passing laws that legalize the confiscation of the assets of refugees, it is clear that the Europe's response to the refugee crisis has done nothing to end the violence and humiliation faced by refugees. Europe has provided no safe way for refugees to flee their lives of devastation and war in the Middle East and Africa and has instead left them in the hands of smugglers, forced to give up their savings, possessions, and dignity, if not their lives.
Who is Responsible for the Refugee Crisis?
It has now been over one year since the refugee crisis began in Europe. In total more than 1.2 million people have fled from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, only a small percentage of the 10’s of millions of refugees displaced from their home countries, but not yet displaced from refugee camps in the region.
With all of the discussions between leaders in Europe and the U.S. and Canada, there still seems to be one thing missing from the conversation, who, exactly is responsible for the this crisis for humanity?
For Greek journalist, Kostas Kallergis, this question was not a difficult one to answer. In an interview with the Status Audio Journal, he simply said "War and insecurity in these countries is the single most important reason why these people decide to leave their houses and their homes, or even the refugee camps close to their homes."
If war and insecurity is the reason that people are fleeing for their lives, then the responsibility for the crisis must lie with those that have brought so much war, occupation and destruction to the Middle East and Africa – governments like the United States, the U.K., Canada, France and their imperialist allies.
The refusal of European and the U.S. and Canadian governments to accept responsibility for the refugee crisis brings to mind the saying about elephant in the room that everyone can see, but non one is talking about, only this time the elephant that everyone is ignoring is a 250 kilogram BLU-126 bomb used by the French in their assault on Syria.
The Destruction of Libya and the Refugee Crisis
The role of the country of Libya is one example of the fatal relationship between the death and destruction caused by imperialist war and occupation and the refugee crisis.
Beginning in March of 2011, the United States, Canada, France and NATO began dropping bombs on the North African country of Libya under the pretext of supporting a force of "rebels" against a brutal dictator. Within seven months the Western forces had flown over 26,000 bombing sorties, and assassinated the President of Libya, Muammar Ghaddafi. Libya was left in ruins, with over 2.5million people in need of humanitarian assistance and “Shortages of food, fuel, water, medical supplies and electricity, as well as reduced access to health care and public services . . . ,” as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The situation has not improved for people in Libya since the imperialist bombing campaign ended. Today, Libya remains a country in complete chaos. Out of this chaos the terrorist organization Daesh has also grown in Libya, giving the U.S. justification, not only to drop more bombs in Libya in February of this year, but also to justify the covert operations and threats of further intervention by the United States and their allies that have begun. Understood in this light, the motivation behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent proposal that the Britain send a 5th warship to the Mediterranean Sea in order to stop refugee boats is also clearer.
It is also apparent that leaders in Europe are worried that the Mediterranean Sea route from Libya to Italy is going to begin to bring more and more refugees to Europe. Both the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, warning that that “’alarming’ numbers of potential migrants were gathering in Libya,” and French President Francois Hollande warning that “a new wave of migrants could try to move ‘through Malta, Italy and, eventually, once again, through Germany and France’” have expressed this apprehension.
Mass media has also joined this latest imperialist offensive against Libya and refugees coming to Europe from Libya. While reading a CNN article on the recent drowning of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, another video about refugees, also from CNN, appeared within the article. Far from being sympathetic to refugees this video was instead meant to make people afraid of refugees, especially those from Libya. It was titled “ISIS infiltrates the migrant route in Libya” and went on to say
"Smuggling Jihadis to Europe" and "the West is doing next to nothing about it." The video was short, but to the point in its propagation of fear-mongering and Islamophobia against refugees.
Can Europe End the Refugee Crisis?
Looking back at the past year of failed European government response to the refugee crisis, someone might even wonder if European governments are at all interested in ending the refugee crisis. It is certainly clear that they not interested in ending it in a way that refugees are given their guaranteed rights, or even treated as dignified human beings.
What European governments are interested in doing is controlling the flow of refugees to and through Europe, not stopping it all together. In fact, more then this, the main objective of Europe refugee policy has been to contain the refugee crisis to within the regional borders of the Middle East and Africa.
When the refugee crisis first began, Europe was caught by surprise. Suddenly the tens of thousands of refugees had arrived on the doorstep of those that had made their homes and countries un-livable. Refugees whose lives were destroyed by the imperialist wars, occupations and covert and overt interventions in the Middle East and Africa that are part of the new era of war and occupation which began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
In the face of the refugee crisis, some countries, like Germany, responded quickly, seeing in refugees a way to fill low-paying jobs or bring up declining birth rates. Other countries shut their doors almost immediately. However, no matter which country in Europe, the U.S. or Canada, it is clear that the ruling class does not want millions upon millions of refugees to leave the Middle East and Africa and come to Europe for safety, instead they want to be able to control the movement of refugees in a way that is beneficial to their criminal interests.
Imperialist governments, led by the U.S. have a long-term plan for the people of the Middle East and Africa - more war and occupation and bloodshed. This means that in order to be successful in carrying out their plans, they want people in North Africa and the Middle East to get used to living in destruction and misery, used to survival in failed states, perpetual war and chaos.
Furthermore they are also working to maintain control over the refugees that have already entered Europe. This is one of the objectives of the campaign of Islamophobia and racism, to keep refugees too afraid to stand up for their rights and to keep people in Europe too divided to join with refugees and fight for the rights of all poor, working and oppressed people.
Open the Borders! Stop War and Occupation! Not refugees!
In contrast to the European ‘solution’ to the refugee crisis, there is another solution, and one that will not only lesson the immense human suffering, but end it entirely.
As long as there are wars and occupations in the Middle East and Africa, there will be refugees fleeing for somewhere safe to be.To put an immediate end to the needless deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and along other parts of a refugees dangerous journey, the borders must be opened. To put an end to the human misery, family separations, lack of access to housing, food, water, refugees must be granted their full legal and human rights instantly.
To finally put an end to the refugee crisis, imperialist wars and occupations in the Middle East and Africa must also be ended. This is the only permanent solution to this crisis for humanity.
Here in Canada, we also demand that the Canadian government take responsibility for its role in destroying the lives of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen. This starts going well beyond the 25,000 Syrian refugees recently settled in Canada, and further then the 10,000 refugees that the Liberal Government has promised to accept. We demand that the government of Canada re-settle an additional 175,000 refugees in Canada this year, including Syrian and non-Syrian refugees.
Open the Borders Now!
No to War and Occupation!
Follow Alison Bodine on Twitter:@Alisoncolette
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