Don’t Block Syrian Refugees, Feed Them

This year, according to the United Nations, more than 560,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Europe, creating the worst refugee crisis on the continent since World War II. It’s no secret why refugees are so desperate to reach European soil. Fleeing from the violence in Syria, refugees carry few possessions, accumulate crippling debt and struggle to find work in neighboring countries. Families go hungry. Back in August, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that refugees in Lebanon receive less than a dollar a day in food assistance. In Jordan, 85 percent live below the international poverty line.

Humanitarian efforts to fight refugee hunger are tragically underfunded. In September, the World Food Program was forced to cut one third of its aid to refugees across the Middle East. Western governments have only donated 45 percent of what the UN Refugee Agency asked, leading to a $2.5 billion shortfall. Syrian families have told UN researchers that the increasing gaps in food assistance have forced them out of the Middle East.

Instead of helping to feed Syrian refugees, the European Union is spending its money to aggressively block them. On November 29, the European Union announced a deal with Turkey: In exchange for three billion euros ($3.2 billion), the Turkish government will halt the migration of Syrian refugees into Europe.

European Council President Donald Tusk emphasized that the EU expects “immediate and substantial” results – not the type of eventual change that results from building settlements and schools. European leaders are paying the Turkish government to aggressively police the Dardanelles, and process any Syrians caught making the dangerous crossing. The European Union will continually Turkey’s performance, reviewing the agreement on a monthly basis.

The Turkish government has already begun its crackdown. On November 30, in one of the largest mass arrests in recent memory, Turkish police rounded up more than 1,300 asylum-seekers in Ayvacik, a coastal town in Northwestern Turkey. This show of coercion is presumably what European leaders have in mind, and it can only harm refugees further – driving the smuggling process further underground and making the passage to Greece more dangerous.

In addition, the European Union is knowingly injecting cash into a police state. The government in Ankara has an abysmal human rights record. At the request of President Erdogan – a man known as much for his fiscal corruption as for his brutality – Turkish police have attacked peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned journalists. The Turkish government blocks YouTube and has attempted to censor Twitter. In the past, Turkish police have systematically used torture and abused ethnic minorities. European leaders understand the brutality of the Turkish justice system, and are intentionally empowering it to mistreat refugees.

Criminalizing migration can only exacerbate the underlying problems refugees face. Refugees in Turkey are currently barred from seeking paid work, so they can’t pay down their debts. In many cases, they go hungry. And instead of helping to meet these needs, the European Union is funneling hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people into an authoritarian criminal justice system.

Out of the 4.2 million Syrians who have fled violence, only a small fraction have attempted to travel to Europe. If refugees were given a decent life in a country that borders their homeland, most would never contemplate the dangerous journey to Europe. Obviously, humanitarian aid would not immediately halt the flow of refugees – resettlement and integration is a gradual process. But by investing in food aid, medicine and temporary housing for refugees, Western nations can eliminate the underlying causes of the European influx.

The Paris attacks have given European leaders a new excuse to block refugees, despite the fact that the attackers were all French and Belgian nationals. As more European countries line up to bomb ISIS, the Europe Union has a growing obligation not to mistreat the people fleeing from the fallout. Europe has to play its part, not by blocking Syrian refugees, but by helping provide for them.