The U.N. lists three “durable solutions” for refugees and refugee crises: repatriation, integration, and resettlement. The first hope, always, is that conditions in the country of origin will improve and people can voluntarily repatriate to their countries and return to their homes and lives after the end of conflict or periods of repression. A second option is integration: that the refugees can be accommodated in the new country to which they are fleeing, maybe among people from their own ethnic group, but in any case in such a way that they can integrate into their new countries and become economically and socially productive. The third is resettlement: when refugees, usually in camps but also in urban environments, having exhausted all hopes of returning to their homes or of staying in their countries of first refuge, are accepted by third countries, usually affluent ones (and, in fact, in over two-thirds of cases, the United States) and are brought to that new country and settled there.
Other than Sweden, Norway, and Finland, European countries have always accepted disproportionately fewer refugees for resettlement than the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Eastern European countries hardly ever accept any. Even Germany, which has gained publicity in the last year for being open to asylum-seekers, has never pulled its fair share. But European governments are now struggling with the million-plus refugee influx in the past year, on top of fifteen years of Afghan, Iraqi, and Kurdish refugees already there. Rather than the durable solutions of repatriation, integration, and resettlement, in the border zones governments and police are adopting a strategy of exclusion, expulsion, and eradication. This is not to say that the European countries don’t grant asylum and residence to some, especially Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy in a way, and France. But hand-in-hand with this protection, when people have access to courts, are growing attempts to keep people from entering in the first place (despite the Geneva Convention which expressly allows this). This has quickly become a humanitarian disaster and, here and there, the situation is reaching a boiling point.
Aside from the humanitarian considerations, the ethical problem for the European countries is that they can’t enforce their policies without violating international law, lying, deluding themselves and others, or, as I have written before, attempting military and violent solutions.
I’ve been meaning for a month to write about Sweden and Finland, historically two of the best countries for refugees, but which announced in late January that they had already decided in advance they would be rejecting half to two-thirds of asylum claims this year. Sweden has promised to deport 60,000-80,000 of the 160,000 asylum applicants who entered last year, while Finland chimed in they would be sending back two-thirds of of their refugee claimants. Given that over 80% of refugees entering through Greece come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and that three of the top four countries of people entering Italy are Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, it strains credibility that half or two-thirds of asylum applicants will not have valid claims. (In fact, the UNHCR reported that in 2015, 84% of migrants crossing the Mediterranean were from the top ten refugee producing countries.)
Oh, but Sweden actually admits this. In fact, the interior ministry spokesman, quoted in The Guardian, tipped their hand concerning what this is really about. After saying invalid claims would be rejected, he added, “You can seek asylum in Europe but there are a lot of safe countries where you won’t be troubled by war and persecution, so you don’t necessarily have to end up in Sweden.” This is an admission that there will be people feeling persecution and war who will be turned down. So this is really a question of using refugees as pawns to force other European counties to take their fair share. But are the rejected claimants going to be deported to these other “safe countries” in Europe, or just sent back to Turkey, Jordan, Afghanistan or Syria – only to risk their lives a second time and try to go through the process all over again? Naturally if people are fleeing for their lives, this is something they have to do.
As I wrote last week, Austria got Macedonia to declare that Afghans are economic migrants, not refugees, and thus close the border to them. This dangerous fiction is spreading. The Greek deputy national security minister, Dimitris Vitsas, from the left-wing Syriza party, was quoted in an Austrian newspaper as having said on Greek TV that “if we consider Afghans as migrants,” then most of the people coming through Greece are economic migrants, not refugees. And in a devastating legal decision the other day, a British appeals court ruled in favor of the Conservative government and reinstated deportations to Afghanistan, over the objections of the Afghan government but also, as reported in The Independent, despite the fact that last year showed the highest rate of civilian casualties, the Taliban control much of the country, and ISIS is becoming more active. (Equally disappointing are the reader comments which cheer on the increase in deportations – and which are actually skeptical they will take place. I recognize that reader comments are disproportionately populated by xenophobes, but still, the willful lack of understanding of the situation in Afghanistan, the lack of respect for international law, the distrust of the government to actually enforce deportations, as well as the simple lack of humanitarianism, is disturbing and finds root in growing anti-immigrant and nationalist politics.)
Meanwhile, there is a crisis at the border between Greece and Macedonia near the Greek town of Idomeni, where there has now sprung up an impromptu refugee camp with between 11,000 and 14,000 people who have accumulated there since Macedonia imposed the new ruling. Doctors Without Borders is there as is the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, reporting on the lack of heat, decent plumbing, mud, illness and parasites among children, who make up around 40% of the camp. (They are doing a great job documenting the current situation on Twitter, using #Idomeni.) And if that weren’t stringent enough, today’s new rule – according to a tweet from a UNHCR spokesman – is that refugees who have spent over 30 days in Greece or Turkey will no longer be eligible to cross the border and pass into the rest of Europe.
So part of the new European strategy for dealing with refugees is exclusion and expulsion, both of which depend on rationalization by simply declaring arbitrarily (and not always in a court of law) that the situation causing people to flee Afghanistan is primarily economic and not related to politics or war. Time does not permit me tonight to cover the other two aspects of this topic that are part of this entry, including the demolition of part of The Jungle in Calais, to which I will return next time.
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However, I will close with this image, posted on Facebook by an Afghan friend in Greece, a response to closed borders and to governments that are no longer responsive to human suffering. I don’t know the source, and a Google search turned up no sources. (If it’s copyrighted let me know and I’ll take it down.)