One year after European Union leaders signed a deal with the Turkish government to cut off the wave of desperate refugees seeking to reach Europe’s shores, the policy has caused even more death and suffering.
As of March 14, nearly 20,000 refugees and migrants had arrived in Europe this year after making the desperate trip across the Mediterranean Sea, according to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project. That’s a sharp drop compared to the same period last year, when more than 152,700 people entered Europe.
Yet the number of migrant and refugee deaths has actually risen — as a direct consequence of EU governments clamping down on their borders, forcing refugees into ever-more-dangerous crossings. As of March 14, some 525 had been killed or gone missing this year, while 482 were reported killed or missing in the first 73 days of 2016.
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Under last year’s deal, the repressive regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given billions in aid, ostensibly for the refugees, and promised faster progress in Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU. In exchange, Turkey agreed to take in undocumented refugees arriving in Greece. For each refugee sent to Turkey, the EU promised to take in a refugee directly from Turkey’s camps at some point in the future.
As a result, just under a thousand refugees have been deported to Turkey from Greece. But thousands more already in Greece have been stranded in a kind of legal limbo resulting from EU leaders’ unwillingness to let them in — stuck in abysmal conditions in what amounts to little more than prison camps.
“Many of the camps are overcrowded and there are frequent clashes, with those inside tired of the long wait for asylum papers and fearful of being returned to Turkey,” Agence France-Presse reported in a recent feature. “On Lesbos, there are nearly 5,000 people in camps nominally built to hold 3,500, according to government figures.” Those in the camps also face reports of repeated police brutality.
But that didn’t stop European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos from hailing the EU-Turkey deal as a success because it has reduced the number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from about 10,000 per day to less than 100 per day.
Over the winter, images from the camps in Greece showed refugees living in tents amid heavy snow. In January, three people detained in the badly overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos died within the span of six days — possibly from carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from the fact that some in the camps have been forced to use wood-burning stoves to keep warm.
“During the four months I have been here, I have not been interviewed once, and they [authorities] keep postponing [my interview],” Arash, an asylum seeker from Iran, told Human Rights Watch last month, as he described conditions in the camp including “[e]xtreme cold temperature, lack of heating, adequate food and clothing, and humiliating treatment.”
Driven to despair by the detention, and suffering from nightmares he says resulted from torture while imprisoned in Iran, Arash attempted to visit the camp psychologist, but was told there was a long waiting list. Arash later attempted suicide.
After a fire inside the Moria camp in September burned many refugee families’ meager belongings and tents, Fahim — who had travelled with his wife and two small children rom Afghanistan — explained how dire the situation was to the aid organization Save the Children:
People here are so sick of the situation. Every single person is suffocating. Because we’ve been here so long our minds are decaying, they become rotten from within. And people are pushed to do things that they wouldn’t normally do…This whole place is a ticking time bomb and I don’t think anyone is paying attention.
Such despair is the norm, especially for the youngest refugees.
According to Save the Children, the appalling conditions in the camps are psychologically devastating for the estimated 5,000 children who remain in them. Its report “A Tide of Self-Harm and Depression” documents a spike in children in the camps harming themselves and displaying other signs of psychological trauma:
Incidents of self-harm in children as young as nine are growing, with mothers finding self-inflicted scars on their children’s hands while bathing them. Some children as young as 12 have even attempted suicide — and in one case claiming to have filmed the event — in response to seeing others do so.
There has also been a spike in drug and alcohol abuse amongst teenagers in the camps who are trying to escape their painful realities, a vulnerability which dealers are exploiting.
Children have been caught up in violent protests, have seen dead bodies in the camps, have spent winter in flimsy tents or even slept in car parks, have been denied an education, and have lost all of their belongings in fires.
“The EU-Turkey deal was meant to end the flow of ‘irregular migrants’ to Greece, but at what cost?” asked Andreas Ring, humanitarian representative for Save the Children in Greece. “Many of these children have escaped war and conflict, only to end up in camps many of them call ‘hell,’ and where they say they are made to feel more like animals than humans. If conditions remain unchanged, we could end up with a generation of numb children who think violence is normal.”
Some children have found ways to leave the island with smugglers in the hope of reaching the EU — only to find themselves victimized again. According to a recent report from the EU’s criminal agency Europol, an estimated 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe — many of them thought to be victims of human trafficking.
Refugees are caught in an impossible situation. For many, the choice is a stark: risking life and limb in the increasingly slim hope of making it to Europe or staying at home, where the threat of war, repression and other catastrophes in countries like Syria may be an even bigger threat.
As Warsan Shire wrote in her poem “Home” — which has become a rallying cry for the plight of refugees:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well…
you have to understand
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
But obscenely, lack of decent treatment for refugees is by design. “It sends a message to migrants: Do not come,” Dimitris Christopoulos, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, told the New York Times.
Now, refugees are being cynically exploited yet again by international leaders. Leading the way is Donald Trump, who has demonized Muslim immigrants and refugees in particular as a terrorist threat. But it should be remembered that the stage was set by Barack Obama — whose administration took in a pitiful number of refugees, despite the fact that U.S. imperial policies have been a major driver of the refugee crises.
Last week, when the governments of the Netherlands and Germany blocked attempts by Turkey’s government to whip up support among immigrants for a new constitution that would grant Erdoğan even more restrictive powers, the Turkish regime threatened to ditch its agreement with the EU.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the government would scrap its EU deal and allow 15,000 migrants a month to flee to Europe.
While this is widely believed to be a bluff on the part of Erdoğan’s regime, such inflammatory statements only succeed in whipping up the anti-refugee sentiment that far-right parties across the EU — like Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France — have been capitalizing on in recent months.
In response to the threat from Turkey, Jane Collins, spokeswoman for the far-right UK Independence Party, sneered: “There needs to be a strong message sent out that we will be turning back boats from whence they came.”
The response from centrist politicians has been predictably craven as well. Fearing a surge of the far right at the polls, political leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have not only failed to defend the rights of migrants and refugees, but have capitulated to racist scapegoating in an effort to shore up their own political base.
In Italy, where more than 500,000 refugees and migrants have landed over the past three years, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of the center-left Democratic Party has pledged to crack down, reportedly sending out a directive to police stations across Italy to increase deportation. The government also has announced plans to open 16 new migrant detention centers.
And while Angela Merkel has been hailed as a “hero” for maintaining her composure when Trump refused to shake her hand last week, the woman being hailed as the new “leader of the free world” engaged in textbook immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia as she launched her bid for a fourth term as chancellor.
At the annual conference of the center-right Christian Democrat Party (CDU), Merkel “pledged that not all of the more than 1 million migrants who flooded into the country last year would be allowed to stay, and that those who are will have to integrate into German society,” reported Britain’s Telegraph.
Reportedly, Merkel’s call for a ban on the burqa won the loudest applause from delegates. “Showing your face is part of our way of life,” Merkel said, adding, “Our laws take precedence over honor codes, tribal customs and sharia.”
But if the politics on offer from Europe’s political leaders are centered on racism and scapegoating, others are fighting for a different vision — exemplified by the call to smash Fortress Europe by opening the borders and letting the migrants and refugees in.
That was on display on March 18-19, as marches and rallies took place in several cities across Europe to coincide with UN Anti-Racism Day. In London, Glasgow, Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, Athens, Paris and others, thousands marched and embraced refugee and migrant rights as central demands — as well broader opposition to the nationalism of right-wing politicians like Trump and the vicious racism of far-right forces.
In Lesbos, refugees themselves took the lead in a protest of 2,000 people, marching against racist persecution and specifically opposing the deal between Turkey and the EU that has amplified the suffering for so many. “Shut down Moria” was one of the main calls. In Athens, an estimated 15,000 took to the streets, including Syrian and Afghan refugees.
In the UK, some 30,000 turned out in London for a march against racism, war and poverty and in defense of refugee rights. Anti-racist supporters carried signs that read “Migrants make our [National Health Service]” and “Blame austerity, not migrants.”
Zakariya Cochrane of Stand Up to Racism, the group that called the march, told Press TV that the rally was about “anti-racists uniting and going on the defensive on all the issues: child refugees, defending migrants and refugees, the divisive policies of Donald Trump and Theresa May.”
These protests came on the heels of a February demonstration in Barcelona, which drew over 160,000 calling on the government to allow refugees in. On banners and signs, marchers proclaimed: “Enough excuses; Let them in now.”
That kind of solidarity has to be our guiding principle. Defend the refugees and end their suffering. Open the borders and let them in now.