In 2015, the number of people applying for international protection reached record highs in most European countries. As a consequence, European politicians looked for ways to stem the influx of arrivals. A key measure was the Agreement between the EU and Turkey. This agreement contains various measures aimed at combating irregular migration from Turkey. Most notably, the EU promises to provide financial support to Turkey so that the country would retain and host refugees. It also committed to increasing resettlement from Turkey in exchange for the return of refugees that arrived in Greece by boat.
COLLATERAL DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE EUROPE-TURKEY AGREEMENT
Here on the Greek islands most of the migrants and refugees stay for months, even years, in dilapidated and overcrowded camps. This situation is a direct consequence of the agreement with Turkey since the policy went into place overnight and people were no longer allowed to travel. The islands have thus become open prisons. Civil society organizations, the local population, and local journalists have tirelessly denounced the situation over the past four years. In the meantime, more than 40,000 people are waiting for their international protection applications to be processed. However, the agreement with Turkey did not prevent the crossings — and continue and will continue to cost lives.
The situation has not only become unsustainable for applicants for international protection but also for the local population, NGOs, and local volunteers. Tensions make humanitarian work even more difficult.
GREECE: BORDER STATES ARE IN CARE OF THE DIRTY WORK
The EU border-states are left to their own responsibilities by the other Member States. As a result, the humanitarian situation in these countries has also deteriorated. Greece has more than 5,500 unaccompanied minors, most of whom live without access to basic services such as housing, medical care, psychosocial services, and legal support. Not to mention that EU citizens of the border countries feel abandoned by Brussels. This impasse is slowly but surely eating away at the European project.
THE MAJORITY OF REFUGEES ARE HOSTED BY COUNTRIES OF THE GLOBAL SOUTH
Although the EU’s border Member States are under heavy migration pressure, the countries of the Global South in particular are the ones hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide (86%). However, no country accepts as many refugees as Turkey; currently, 3.7 million refugees live in Turkey and 3.6 million of them come from Syria.
Resettling some of these people is a necessary part of the solution. However, the EU, which is one of the richest regions in the world, only accounts for 1.6% of the world’s resettlement needs. Moreover, the number of refugees actually resettled in Member States is much lower than promised. In Belgium, for example, resettlement activities have already been frozen several times. Year after year, these delays have led to a decrease in resettlement arrivals in Belgium.
In addition to resettlement, the EU has pledged to provide financial and humanitarian support to countries hosting large numbers of refugees (“reception in the region” policy). It has earmarked six billion euros in support for Turkey under the agreement. This support will expire in the coming months and it is not yet clear if it will continue. The proposed multi-annual budget for the EU (MFF) currently on the table, no longer seems to include support for Turkey to host refugees. Furthermore, it is still unclear if the billions of euros spent actually brought concrete and sustainable prospects to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES: AN UNACCEPTABLE MEANS OF POLITICAL PRESSURE
Any condemnation of the situation on the Greek-Turkish border must be accompanied by a critical self-analysis of the current European migration policy and its foreign policy. In the province of Idlib in Syria, nearly one million people are trapped and exposed to wintery conditions since they are wedged between bombings and the Turkish border, which remains closed.
Whether it’s the deterioration of the situation on the Greek islands, on the Balkan route or at the Turkish border, these human tragedies are partly caused by the European withdrawal and a poor reception policy. Europe is more focused on border control and crisis management rather than effective long-term solutions.
Turkey understands that the EU will only feel compelled to react if it is threatened by a “migration crisis.” Therefore, through inhumane and outrageous actions, Turkey uses these refugees as diplomatic blackmail. European Member States are now faced with a fundamental choice: turn Europe into a fortress, and face the dramatic humanitarian consequences of it, or create a common, united, and sustainable migration policy. In the coming weeks, the European Commission will finalize a new European pact on asylum and migration. If the way the EU reacted this week is a sign of new things to come, it does not bode well. It reinforces the image of a continent that is deaf to the cries of distress of people in need.
THE SITUATION CAN STILL CHANGE
But this is not our Europe. Let this crisis be an opportunity for Europe to do things differently. With this in mind, we urge the EU Member States and in particular Belgium to…
- Invest in safe and legal pathways, such as resettlement and family reunification, to relieve pressure on border-states and prevent them from closing their borders under the pressure;
- Develop as quickly as possible a humane and united European distribution plan in which all the Member States bear their responsibilities in the protection of refugees;
- Ensure that fundamental human rights and human dignity of all migrants are guaranteed and respected on European territory and at its borders;
- Address the topic of migration in a humane and decent way and refrain from using military, inflammatory and frightening language that endangers the lives of migrants and refugees as well as humanitarian workers.
OThis article is written within the framework of the MIND project, which receives financial support from the European Union’s Development Education and Awareness Programme (DEAR). The contents are the responsibility of Caritas International and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.