Europe must share responsibility for the Greece migrant crisis

“Europe has sought for decades to avoid the responsibility of receiving refugees and hosting them in dignified conditions by paying to seal off borders in countries along their route to safety.” In the light of appalling images of clashes between refugees and police on the Greek-Turkish border, Zoe Gardner from Another Europe Is Possible argues that the EU must take responsibility, support Greece and move to a more humane refugee and asylum policy.

Young girl from Syria at Greek border
Europe has sought for decades to avoid the responsibility of receiving refugees and hosting them in dignified conditions by paying to seal off borders in countries along their route to safety.

Image: Freedom House

Zoe Gardner

The situation at the Greek-Turkish land and sea borders has erupted into nightmare images and reports again this week, with the Greek military being deployed to violently repel refugees. Europe’s response shows how voices of practical common sense and humanity have lost ground even since the failed response to the 2015 “refugee crisis”.

In the face of this disastrous capitulation to the extreme-right narratives that characterize refugees as “invaders” it is more urgent than ever that we make the case for solidarity. Brexit in no way absolves our responsibility to participate in a Europe-wide system of humane reception for refugees.

Rarely has the phrase “we told you so” brought less satisfaction than this week, where the EU-Turkey Agreement brokered in early 2016 that exchanged billions of Euros for Erdogan to seal off his Western borders and stem the flow of asylum seekers broke down in spectacular fashion. Entirely predictably, President Erdogan has proved to be a less than reliable partner to manage migration into Europe. 

It is unclear quite how many of the promised billion Euros have been paid into his pockets, but regardless, it was never going to be enough. We gave an autocratic tyrant a trump-card threat to hold over us, by categorizing innocent refugees fleeing Assad’s bloodbath in Syria as the ultimate threat and assigning him our protector. Now he has finally made good on his often-repeated threat to “unleash” homeless men, women and children to our borders, and we have played directly into his hands by responding with panicked violence, rather than cooperation and compassion. 

Neither now, nor in 2015, have the numbers of people seeking refuge truly been unmanageable for a large and prosperous region like Europe to take in. Our mismanagement of the situation has produced crises that the likes of Erdogan can all too easily exploit. Now we see that while the money that could never be found to fund dignified asylum conditions in Greece and across Europe was handed instead to Turkey. 

And again this week, instead of releasing emergency funds for accommodation, asylum processing and relocation to safe countries with hosting capacity across Europe, the EU has seen fit to fund the provision of helicopters, infra-red surveillance vehicles, aircrafts, and naval patrol vessels, on top of 100 more border guards and €700 million in spending money for them – presumably to fund a restock of teargas to be fired indiscriminately into crowds containing young children.

Taking responsibility

The EU-Turkey Agreement followed the logic of a long-standing approach of the EU as a whole, and its member states individually, of externalizing asylum responsibilities. Through a long list of more or less clandestine cooperation deals with countries throughout Africa and the Middle East, Europe has sought for decades to avoid the responsibility of receiving refugees and hosting them in dignified conditions by paying to seal off borders in countries along their route to safety. 

Just in the last couple of weeks it has emerged that the government of Malta had concluded a secret deal with the Libyan authorities to share intelligence on migrant boats in order to stop them from escaping. This despite the well-documented fact that migrants caught by the Libyan coast guard are routinely arbitrarily detained, tortured, held for ransom and sold at slave markets.

The extreme reaction that we have seen from the Greek authorities this week is entirely indefensible. It is, however, another predictable outcome of the failures of European refugee containment policies. Where migrants cannot be kept externally to Europe through deals with despotic regimes, they are at least restricted as far as possible in Europe’s peripheries. This has resulted in detention centers, filled many times over capacity, crammed with refugees on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos. The local people, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, object to the proposed creation of yet more such facilities and have clashed with police in the last weeks over this. Conditions in these camps are shameful, and they inevitably have become permanent structures, despite always being billed as temporary measures. 

All inhabitants of these island camps must be immediately relocated to decent facilities across Europe, prioritizing, where possible, reuniting family members. The Greek Government is undeniably failing to house and provide for asylum seekers in dignity in line with their international legal obligations, but as long as there is no meaningful effort from the rest of Europe to share responsibility, but rather to treat Greece as a “shield”, it will be impossible to convince them to allow safe passage across the border as is so desperately needed.

Finally, we in the UK must not imagine that Brexit has absolved us somehow of responsibility for this situation. Brexit will not take away our international responsibilities to refugees, nor will it make the homeless migrant children in Calais disappear any more than the Syrians on the Greek border will disappear in a large enough cloud of teargas. We must continue to pressure our politicians to ensure a generous responsibility-sharing and cooperation with the EU on asylum as part of our Brexit deal. 

The UK will seek to remain party to all the externalization measures – remaining party to the coordination forum for migration “management” partnerships in Africa, for example, as well as the Dublin Regulation. We must ensure that we also undertake a relocation programme from Europe’s overcrowded island camps that reflect the size of our ability.

Zoe Gardner is Policy Advisor at The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and is on the national committee of Another Europe Is Possible.