In its haste to rid itself of Syrian asylum seekers fleeing war and terrorism, the European Union (EU) is binning its responsibility under its own charter and the UN Refugee Convention with its deal with Turkey to return all those landing on the shores of Greece. In other words, its member states are placing their own interests before their hallowed humanitarian principles and are willing to bend international law in so doing.
European countries are struggling to cope with the influx placing a heavy burden on economies and triggering civil unrest; others have raised the drawbridge threatening the free movement of EU nationals under the Schengen Treaty. Moreover, in the few countries that initially put out a welcome mat, racism and bigotry are on the rise, feeding the far right wing.
However, this is a catastrophe partly of the EU’s own making.
The EU covers four million square kilometres, is home to more than 503 million inhabitants and its GDP is greater than that of the US. The idea that it cannot easily absorb a few million refugees — most on a temporary basis as the majority can’t wait to return home — is ridiculous. There would be no crisis if the EU had succeeded in instituting a quota system whereby none of its 28-member states would be exempt from taking its fair share, based on its population, size and economic health.
The EU parliament should have wielded a big stick rather than allow certain states to erect fences and padlock gates stranding tens of thousands without food, medicines and shelter.
Alternatively the EU could have offered these desperate people temporary asylum until such time as Syria is stabilised, but instead it’s bent on using its vast common wealth to rid itself of the problem, which isn’t an option open to small countries without such resources.
Simply tearing up the refugee convention conceived in the aftermath of the Second World War sets an ugly precedent that may be emulated by other states set on ejecting unwelcome guests. Kate Allen from Amnesty International rightly described this new reality as “a dark day for the Refugee Convention, a dark day for Europe and a dark day for humanity”. Her message has been echoed in different forms by just about every major human rights agency.
For instance, what’s to stop Lebanon whose economy is at breaking point from expelling over a million Syrians who’ve taken refuge there? Likewise, citing the EU’s actions, Jordan could decide it was no longer willing to bear the brunt of caring for 750,000 Syrians without mega international recompense. The critics of Australia’s harsh refugee policies would no longer have a leg to stand on. The EU is setting our world on the first rung of the ladder towards becoming a dog-eat-dog planet where selfishness rules and age old concerns for human welfare go by the board.
The one country that is set to reap massive benefit from this heart-wrenching situation is Turkey. Seen as the key to keeping refugees away from the EU’s front door, Ankara has overnight become Europe’s saviour with the power to dictate terms.
EU leaders have agreed to a deal whereby Turkey would intercept smugglers’ craft and take back all refugees and migrants who succeed in crossing the Aegean in return for more than €6 billion to aid Syrian refugees, visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Turkish nationals — and the fast-tracking of Turkey’s entry into what the Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan once referred to as “an Islamophobic Christian Club” for dragging its heels over his nation’s membership.
Indeed, Ankara’s application first lodged in 1987 has been processed in a snail-like fashion and was believed to have virtually died a death until now when Turkey has European leaders over a barrel. Despite the EU’s expressed intention to speed up the pace, obstacles remain. Cyprus threatens to veto Turkey’s entry unless it formally recognises the Cypriot government and engages in talks to reunify the island. Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and curtailing of civil liberties is another, although the EU seems to be prioritising Turkey’s usefulness over just about all other considerations.
As a sop to humanitarianism, the EU is prepared to resettle one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp for every one who entered its borders illegally and was reaccepted by Turkey, a system reminiscent of swapping card games. The fact is that no Syrian should be deemed illegal when they have every legal right to seek safety for themselves and their families and states are obliged to afford them protection. Such low bartering tactics are a stain on the EU’s reputation. Historians will not be kind.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.