Refugees, Values and the European Way

It has been a busy start of the year. On Friday the 27th of January, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signed a new executive order on immigration. The order aims to constrain the entry of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, to suspend all refugee admission for 120 days and to bar all Syrian refugees for an indefinite amount of time. In the US, protests against the ban sparked across the country; attorney general Sally Q. Yates was fired for showing her disapproval on the measures; and three federal judges unanimously held a restraining order blocking the reinforcement of Trump’s initiative. Across the Atlantic, some European leaders stated their perspectives on the American situation. While these opinions were few and many were also quite ambiguous and cowardly (diplomatic, as the euphemism goes), there was one trait that repeated itself in them: the mention of European values. European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas declared that “this is the European Union and in the EU we do not discriminate on the basis of nationality, race or religion”. Likewise, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that “this is not the European way, the European Union will continue to first of all to take care and host Syrian refugees and others who are fleeing from war”. Several more heads of ministries and governments lectured similar responses.

Image by Edu Aguilera.  

These claims of European principles are fine-looking; but dismayingly empty. European institutions have consistently broken their promises, leaving thousands of refugees high and dry. For a start, in September 2015, the Justice and Home Affairs Council committed to relocate across the continent 160,000 asylum seekers in Italy and Greece. More than a year later, only 8,162 have been found a home – that is a mere 5% of the initial number. Hence, it is estimated that today there are more than 57,000 people stuck in temporary camps in Greece, living in conditions that, according to the International Rescue Committee, do not meet international humanitarian standards. Articles and videos published by media such as The Guardian or The New York Times, among others, report on the deplorable conditions of these camps, with migrants living in overcrowded abandoned warehouses, containers and stalls without proper housing, heating or clothes to shelter themselves from the harsh winter. And where is the European Union while this takes place? Spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud wiped the European Commission’s hands clean of the guilt by stating that “ensuring adequate reception conditions and managing the refugee centers in Greece is a responsibility first and foremost of the Greek authorities”. In the meantime, refugees stranded across the continent are literally dying of cold, with Europe’s indifference being at the core of their despair.

Then, out of the EU’s inability to unite in order to provide asylum, it was decided last year to outsource the problem – as if pushing it outside the European radar made it go away. Thus, in March 2016, the EU signed a treaty with Turkey so that, in exchange for 3.000 million euro and other diplomatic concessions, the country would stop “irregular migrants” from traveling to Europe. This then means that those that arrive to Greece from Turkey without an approved asylum petition – which does not necessarily mean that they aren't apt for asylum – are deported back to Turkey until their situation is formalized. In theory, for every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey, another Syrian asylum seeker is found a home in Europe (which is an odd preposition, since there are also other nationalities of immigrants fleeing deadly conflicts). However, in practice, the deal is not so smooth. For example, there have been a series of bureaucratic blunders in the execution of the treaty which have left an estimated 15,000 migrants in limbo and still trapped in Greek land under appalling conditions. On the other hand, there is a legal tight rope, since according to international law, forceful blanket returns are illegal. Therefore, the Greek law regulating the deportations to Turkey stipulates that whether said nation can or cannot be considered a “safe third country” should be assessed depending on each specific asylum seeker’s case. Yet, according to a report by Amnesty International, there have been several testified cases in which this non-refoulement principle has not been respected – a serious violation of the migrants’ rights. Other reports have also put into question whether Turkey is safe for refugees in general terms. For example, the UNHRC issued a letter in which they claimed to be having problems accessing and properly monitoring the conditions and legal status of the refugees at the Reception Centre in Duzici (where the Syrian refugees are taken from Greece). There have also been testimonies in the near past of Syrian refugees being shot trying to reach Turkey’s border (which has been closed since 2015) or being returned to Syria itself. However, all in all the boat arrivals to Greece (where many lose their lives) have considerably decreased since the pact went active. This decrease is probably the reason why there are talks of outsourcing efforts to other African and Asian countries as well – one of the latest pacts effectuated being with Afghanistan.

Therefore, to claim that the European Union is, at the moment, in touch with its founding principles is an act dangerously reminiscent to what George Orwell coined as doublethink – to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. When doing so, we forget what actual empathy, dignity and morality are supposed to look like. The European Union’s failed promises and ways of brushing these issues under the carpet are not the ideals that the community was founded upon – a community that was once built out of the ashes of wars much like the ones today these refugees flee. Now more than ever, we must not allow our humanity to become wastepaper.