Category Archives: Greece

Doing a Better Job

This is an expanded version of a letter to the editor I sent to The New York Times back in July which they didn’t print, so it’s fair game for a blog post. It has to do with a linguistic turn of events which we in the Global North – that is, countries with net inflows of immigrants – have come to think of as normative. That has to do with the value judgment implicit in the notion of what constitutes a “better” job of immigration enforcement, indeed, and by extension, in the question of provision of human services to immigrants, and especially to refugees. Under international law, as I have pointed out in this blog in the past, refugees are a special class of immigrants, and they are not to be penalized by national laws for exercising their human right to seek asylum in other countries, even if that means crossing borders without inspection or even valid documents. The logic behind this, as developed in the first Geneva Convention on Refugees, is that in a chaotic situation of war and violence, or the sudden threat of death or persecution from the state, it’s not just to expect people to have the time to obtain legal passports from their own governments (which may be unwilling to let them leave), exit visas from those countries that require them of their nationals, or entry visas from other governments (who may want to restrict entry for a variety of reasons).

But what has happened in the misnamed “European refugee crisis” of 2014-to-now (misnamed both because the refugees are not Europeans, and because Europe is only seeing 15% of the refugees from Syria, while the vast majority of Syrians and Afghans are still in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, and Pakistan), is that enforcement, not protection, has become the standard by which governments measure success – and the press, who come from the same countries and the same class bias with fears of having to share their resources, have followed suit.

Here’s what I wrote to the Times:

In their article, “Austria’s Far Right Presents the E.U. With a New Test at the Polls” (July 1), Alison Smale and James Kanter observe thatCentral and Eastern European nations are demanding that the European Union do a better job of dealing with migration.” This is actually not the case. Under international law, namely the Geneva Convention and Protocol, “a better job” would be upholding the right of refugees to make claims of asylum in signatory countries. A more accurate statement would have been, “Central and Eastern European nations are demanding that the European Union do a better job of flouting the rule of law.”  The United Nations as well as every major human rights NGO have been quite clear that the EU, and particularly Central and Eastern European countries, have been illegally preventing migrants from exercising their legal rights, as well as providing the kind of humanitarian protection afforded to refugees throughout the world. What your reporters are calling “a better job” is actually code for greater enforcement and curtailment of migrants’ rights, which is what the governments of Austria, Hungary, Poland, Macedonia, and others are advocating. “A better job” would also require greater humanitarian conditions all along their route, as well as greater legal representation for asylum-seekers in Greece and other frontline EU states so that bona fide refugees can be recognized as quickly as possible. The EU, but even more, those very Central and Eastern European nations themselves, have been the ones responsible for not doing a better job according to the laws and treaties they themselves pledged to uphold when it pertained to European refugees. It would be great for New York Times reporters to actually report on the context of existing international law, rather than accept as “better” the flagrant violations of law these governments espouse.

Since I wrote that, I’ve become more aware of the rhetoric of complicity. A more egregious example comes from Greece, especially in light of the recent confirmation that the Greek Coast Guard has fired on refugee boats coming from Turkey. The German government was reported to have complained that Greece needs to do a better job of enforcement, in order to stem the flow of refugees eventually ending up in Greece. (Setting aside the gauntlet that refugees already have to run just trying to get from Greece through the former Yugoslavian countries and/or Hungary, and Austria, each of which have choked off border crossings or tried to influence other countries further down the chain to do the same.)

But what is so easy to overlook, given the clarity of international law and its proscriptions against blocking refugees from exercising their rights, is that what Germany is asking Greece to do is to violate international law more thoroughly and effectively. Germany is not saying “you need to provide a greater level of humanitarian service,” but instead is saying, “you need to violate established international law against innocent civilians more effectively so we won’t have to recognize (or subsidize) their rights when they get here.” In the most simple terms, “doing a better job” now means, in this upside-down world (to use Eduardo Galeano’s phrase) committing greater and more effective state-sponsored illegal activity.

That is to say, this is completely contrary not only to humanitarian standards of justice and ethical behavior, but to law that has been affirmed and recognized by every European country for the past sixty years. I cannot recall a time when the press and popular discourse accepted and encouraged the idea that government should do a better job at committing illegal activities.

In the U.S., the explicitness of this position has reached absurd levels under the proposals of candidate Trump, acknowledging that he is not just talking about refugees. Still, his idea that the U.S. needs to “create a deportation force” ignores the existence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which was created under the Homeland Security Act as a separate entity from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was divided into three agencies in 2003. I’m still waiting to hear anyone from the press pointing this out to him and asking him what about “the deportation force” we already have. (This has even been echoed by Governor Christie of New Jersey who certainly knows better given his known awareness of the increase in immigration detainees in county jails in New Jersey.) Trump’s claims that we need to deport people who are in the U.S. illegally, especially criminals, overlooks the fact that this has already been going on for years, and even at an accelerated rate under President Obama, under whom deportations have increased 25% over the George W. Bush administration. Trump of course cannot admit that, from his perspective, the Obama Administration has been “doing a better job” at what he wants than the Bush Administration.

The idea that any deportation can be done “humanely” is absurd on its face as well. Since by definition deportation is the forced removal of someone from a country, that has to be done against the wishes of the defendant, as well as, in most cases, that person’s family. It usually involves at the very least a court order, police (or ICE) capture or arrest, physical removal to a jail or detention center, and putting someone on a plane (which, actually, several German pilots have been refusing to honor). It also has to involve in the U.S. “due process of law” under the 14th Amendment, though only 37% of those coming before immigration judges have benefit of counsel (to which they are entitled, but not guaranteed, under the law – a subtle distinction most Americans are unaware of), and far fewer among those already detained and facing deportation. I am not arguing here that all deportation is wrong – that’s a separate discussion – only that the idea of more deportations is only “better” depending on where you stand, and that the question of “humaneness” in deportation (which also usually involves splitting families or forcing them in the name of staying unified to leave the country of whom some are legal nationals) is a nonsensical argument in a world in which bona fide refugees are denied due process and legal counsel, held in jails and detention centers (including mothers and their infant children), housed in concentration camps, shot at, and prevented from exercising their human right to seek asylum.

The “better job” we need to do is the very antithesis of what the governments of the world – whether persecutors or would-be protectors – are trying to do. It is up to an independent press to point that out, especially those whose beat it is to cover law and human rights, rather than adopt the value-drenched rhetoric of the wealthiest and most privileged nations who show their willingness to enforce walls rather than, ironically, their own laws, treaties, and constitutions. It’s the press that needs to do a better job, not accepting governmental self-interest, while governments need to do a better job of protecting the most vulnerable as they are instructed to do under the United Nations and the Conventions on the protection of refugees.

Two very interesting endnotes to this.  First, the Australian government has just announced it is closing the refugee detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.  Meanwhile, the Italian Coast Guard has just been involved in rescuing some 6,500 migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Following through on these promises of hope is essential.

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Filed under Greece, Human rights, international law, Militarism, Policy, Syrians, Turkey, U.S.

A Place in the World

Their number is now 65.3 million, according to the UNHCR report released on Monday. That’s a 10% increase in one year, and the highest number ever recorded. Every minute, 24 people are displaced around the world. More than half are children. They include refugees, asylum-seekers awaiting decisions, and people displaced within their own countries. Half of the world’s refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, although as I have noted before, according to the EU which is doing everything it can to keep refugees out, Afghans can now only be considered economic migrants, purely for reasons of expediency. The U.N. says something quite different (as does every NGO). In the world population, 1 in 113 people is currently displaced. Among people displaced within their own borders, even though 6.6 million of them are from Syria, that country only comes in second place, behind Colombia which still has an astonishing 6.9 million internally displaced. Despite what one might think listening to the world news, only 14% are in wealthy countries, with 86% in low- and moderate-income countries. Lebanon has the highest refugee percentage of the population: nearly 1 in 5, while Turkey has the largest absolute number with 2.5 million, followed by Pakistan at 1.6 million, Lebanon at 1.1 million, then Iran at nearly a million. A footnote in the U.N. report tells us this does not even include 1.5 to 2 million undocumented Afghans in Iran, and another million in Pakistan. (That means the 65.3 million figure is undercounts Afghans by 2.5-3 million that the U.N. knows of.) In fact, there are more refugees in Pakistan or Iran than in all of Europe. Germany does not even crack the top ten, though Germany did receive around 442,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone.

And none of these numbers, by the way, include climate migrants. Not yet, anyway.

Just over one million arrived in Europe by sea, while 3,771 people are known to have drowned in the attempt in 2015.

And in other news, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has stopped accepting donations from European governments to protest their hypocritical actions. Also the EU-Turkey deal is already showing signs of collapse, given that a Greek court ruled Turkey is not a safe third country, not all asylum applicants in Greece are getting representation – but more on this in a later post.

The more I read about the worldwide refugee crisis, and especially its impact on Europe, the more certain I become that while the circumstances that force people to flee make a safe life impossible for them in their homelands, the response about how to handle their arrival is a matter of moral choices. We know these are choices that can in many cases be reversed, that accommodations can be made, and that the peoples of the world could band together to solve these problems, if only the will and the generosity were there. How do I know this? Because history has shown us that even at times of far worse crises – namely the Second World War – people did what they could especially when there was no risk to their own safety and security. Iran and Syria, for example, welcomed Polish and other European refugees at that time, and the Western European countries, when they wanted to, welcomed Hungarian an other Eastern European refugees during the Cold War. There were some 60 million displaced people after the Second World War. And similarly, despite great numbers, and poverty, the Greeks welcomed a million ethnic Greek refugees back from Turkey after 1922 and the Treaty of Lausanne, when it was a far significantly higher percentage of the population. Greece’s population was 5.5 million at the time (it is just under 11 million now) and they experienced a net gain of nearly 700,000 in eight years (many ethnic Turks left at the same time). This was a 12% increase in the population. But they made the choice that it was ok, because of the ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties with the refugees.

The equivalent today would be an increase of 1.3 million refugees – which is closer to the number in all of Europe, not just in Greece. So these protestations today that Europe can’t handle this influx have no basis in truth, if history is any guide – and Europe is a lot wealthier and more adaptable than Greece was in the 1920s. And look again at those hosting numbers coming out of Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan that I cited in the opening paragraph. But sixty years ago, almost all the refugees mentioned above were white, Europeans. We must not overlook the fact that the original Geneva Convention on refugees, in 1951, only pertained to European refugees even though it was a globally ratified U.N. document. Refugees from other parts of the world weren’t even included until 1967.

I have just learned that in Lebanon – where there really is a crisis (around one million Syrians, and that’s not counting the Palestinians who are already there), and nearly one in five people is a refugee, the response has been very different. With public and private funding from Europe, there are now increasing numbers of “double-shift” schools, so that refugee children can be educated along with citizen Lebanese, according to this article by former British PM Gordon Brown. Not only that, but Syrian refugee teachers can be employed to teach in the classrooms. Whose choice this is – whether it was the Lebanese government, the U.N., or the E.U. – can be analyzed later, but what this shows is that with determination, the problem of dehumanization can be addressed even in countries that are not wealthy. And it’s not that radical an idea, if even a moderate Labour politician like Mr. Brown can get behind it with such enthusiasm. (It was Brown whose biggest campaign gaffe, ironically, was referring to a constituent, when he thought his mic was off, as “a bigoted woman” because she had confronted him about her fears of increasing Eastern European immigration to England.)

Which raises the question: if this can be done in Lebanon (and with Jordan and, the article suggests, Turkey to follow), why is it such a hardship to do the same in Germany or the Netherlands or Norway? Not that they are not educating children, but they are dealing with significantly smaller numbers distributed among a much larger population and geographic area, and far more economic resources to work with. Granted, part of the appeal for Europe in such a local education program is that is makes it less likely for people to travel to Europe, which for many Europeans is their primary objective. Then again, if refugees can live a safe and decent life in a neighboring country, where they don’t have to learn a new language and way of life, and don’t have to risk their lives or lose everything they have in a perilous journey, no one can have any objection as long as they are not being warehoused and the local population isn’t being impoverished by the situation (a problem that has been solved elsewhere when the will of the international community was there). Obviously the chief goal is to prevent the kinds of crises that produce refugees and to reach peace settlements so people can return home – peacemaking is something that several commentators have pointed out governments show little interest in these days – but short of that, if local humane spaces can exist for people to flee to, where they not only are safe but won’t be living in stagnation as their lives waste away, then they shouldn’t have to flee so far to survive. Even if you are safe, but you can’t provide for your family and young people can’t get an education – for themselves but also to benefit the rebuilding of their country – you can’t blame anyone for trying to do what they must to find the opportunities they need. With no opportunity to transcend the confines of a refugee camp, it becomes a prison.

For the host countries, if anything, the problem is one of culture and psychology: the tendency of many people towards xenophobia – and some towards outright racism – coupled with real (but in this case irrational and often unwarranted) fears of economic loss. That and, as I have written previously the lack of will on the part of Europe’s leaders to educate their people about the undeniable long-term economic benefits of migration and to set a tone that recognizes that even supposedly monocultural states are and have historically been filed with diverse ethnic populations: Roma, Jews, Basques, Celtic minorities, Muslims, Kurds, while states like Switzerland and Belgium have never claimed to be monocultural. But leaders and parties that have done a poor job of promoting and defending what we in the U.S. call “cultural diversity” (flawed as it may be) start from a position of weakness when their nationalistic political opponents do all they can to whip up fear, anxiety, and the easy defaults of distrust, suspicion, and hatred. At the same time, contributing to a culture of fear and reinforcing often false stereotypes is an easy path to power as well.

Some of the latest thinking challenges whether the idea of the camp is the most desirable option. People such as David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, have suggested that a better alternative is to provide adequate living for refugees within a larger urban area, by providing housing, basic needs, and opportunities for work and education. Why keep people encamped if their needs (and more) can be met in a free urban existence? Of course, that does beg the question of how to also address the needs of the locals in the new country, especially if they are poor, including, for example, how to make enough housing available so that refugees don’t end up displacing locals who can’t afford housing. If people already have fears about competition for jobs, which research shows is short-term and limited to certain social classes, anyone who has been living in a tight or gentrifying real estate market is going to know that a large influx of new tenants is going to put pressure on the market (especially if landlords know that rents are being subsidized by the U.N. and NGOs). This new model that breaks down the walls of the refugee camp concept needs a lot of further research but the burden on the local population has to be taken into account, because the place of first refuge is usually not in a wealthy country – in fact, it is usually in a country where residents are already living precarious lives.

Which brings us to a study in contrasts. In May, the Kenyan government has, just like that, very publicly declared they will be closing down their refugee camps in November. Some 600,000 people in Dadaab and Kakuma camps stand to be displaced, the majority from Somalia (and by the way, less than 1% of the world population of refugees and displaced persons). While this appeared at first to be some kind of brinkmanship to force the international community to provide more support for the costs associated with having a population of the size of, roughly, the U.S. city of Baltimore, the official claim is that it’s a response to the security threat posed by the al-Shabab Islamist guerrillas. When the U.N. countered that that will actually further destabilize the security situation by trying to force the people back to Somalia, the Kenyan government has argued it will force the nations of the world to act more rapidly to stabilize Somalia after all these years of civil war. Aside from the fact that, taken on their face, these are two diametrically opposed predicted outcomes, the main questions in practical terms are: 1) How are they going to move 600,000 people who don’t want to be moved? and 2) Where are they going to go – to live and to work? These are not just able-bodied young adults who can move into fully furnished homes with all the means to support themselves. They are older people and many, many children, who have been living in camps for twenty years or more in some cases. It is not as if there are whole empty blocks in Mogadishu that are waiting for the arrival of a healthy and hale population that is returning from vacation. So how this can be “stabilizing” in any social sense – even if it led to a solution of the political conflict – ignores the reality of sheltering and feeding a massive, and displaced, population. There are also unacknowledged ways that Kenya actually benefits, according to this interesting analysis.

Not that this is any worse or impractical than when France decided it was ok to burn down part of “The Jungle,” the squatter community outside of Calais where refugees wait to find a way to get to England. People who have no safe place to go aren’t staying in refugee camps or squatter communities to be thorns in the side of their host countries. They really don’t have alternatives. Now, I have not been to Calais yet myself, so I am only writing about it based on what I have read and some extraordinary photos from a colleague who was just there (whom I will keep nameless for now out of respect for her privacy). What was most striking to defenders of The Jungle was that the residents, no matter how transient and short-term, had established small shops, restaurants, and other businesses. This is common to refugee camps and squatter settlements, more than you might think. I even saw a computer repair shop among the little vegetable stands in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. But why it should be such a threat that it needs to be destroyed or eradicated is, again, a moral choice, not a practical necessity. After all, there has always been development, and if the will is there, local government or national governments (and even NGOs and the UN) could provide the resources to help turn a dirty plot of land with poor drainage and unsafe health conditions (something I have also witnessed in a squatter camp in Greece in 2008) into a makeshift community. Plywood, latrines, solar cookers, electricity, bedding, medical clinics – these are not extraordinary challenges. After all, the major nations have shown repeatedly this can be done in a matter of weeks for invading and occupying armies. So why not for refugees whom we recognize meet the international legal criteria for protection?

At the same time, over fifty thousand refugees remain stranded in Greece, unable to move on because other countries such as Macedonia have closed their borders. Local Greeks have been helping out, not only as volunteers (especially on the island of Lesbos) but also in paid positions, since there can be jobs in humanitarian work. Locals can be hired to do the kind of work necessary in refugee protection and humanitarian relief. Again, there is the money – maybe not in Greece, but from Western Europe, especially if it’s in their interest to keep refugees in Greece – to pay for decent living conditions, especially if they want to keep people in Greece. There is always the pernicious argument to work against, that showing any kindness to refugees (in the form of decent housing, jobs that pay, good living conditions) becomes an incentive for others to come. Aside from the fact that this does not recognize the central fact that refugees don’t have a choice, it also shows up the larger issue of vast economic inequality and the unwillingness to contribute to decent and safe living conditions for people in their countries of origin. That’s a choice of a different kind, but a choice that the wealthy nations make that has human consequences abroad and at home, wherever that may be.

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Filed under Afghans, Europe, Greece, Human rights, Squatter communities, Syrians, Turkey

Chaos in Chios, and other places

The downward spiral of implementation of the EU-Turkey refugee accord has already begun, as expected, and it’s only been, what, a little more than a week since it went into effect.  Already flimsy lies are being deployed to prop up the illusion that this is not only legal, but fair.  But the news is getting out, and as more neutral and international organizations are reporting, the failure of the EU to support Greece (or the refugees, of course) with what they need is resulting in violence, misery, and frustration.

Here’s what we already know in the first ten days.  First, what we knew before, which was the great doublespeak declaring Afghan refugees to be economic migrants with at most a declaration by the European powers, none of whose leaders would ever feel safe living in Kabul.  We also know that the promised staff to provide basic needs in Greece as well as adjudication of asylum cases has not arrived in time.  Nearly three hundred Greeks are in place, but of 800 internationals expected to be brought in to help, only 60 have arrived as of March 31st. (Hard to know what the problem is with their travel to Greece, while meanwhile hundreds of refugees daily are risking their lives to arrive in Greece.) There are badly overcrowded detention centers holding 4,000 refugees on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos (the last of which I visited in 2007), and in the past couple of days there have been violent outbursts in Chios, Samos, and also the port of Piraeus just outside of Athens, where there are almost 6,000 refugees camped out. The Chios uprising began in the detention center and culminated with the mass escape of detainees streaming out of the center. The New York Times also reports that Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, and the U.N. High Commission on Refugees have stopped working in detention centers to protest the new agreement.

Some 52,000 refugees are stranded throughout Greece trying to cross borders into the Balkans en route to Western Europe, which is what all this is really about: keeping refugees and immigrants out of a Europe that has always been uncomfortable with perceived outsiders.

We also know that deportations back to Turkey will begin on April 4th, and the Greek parliament, which has a nominally left-wing, pro-refugee government (or so they claimed), voted to allow these deportations to commence.  Of course the Greek government is somewhat over a barrel, because there is always the implicit threat that if they don’t follow the agreement, the wealthier European governments could also see to it that this would jeopardize their bailout and other needed support.

But worse, Amnesty International has just released a report stating that thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey have been forced back into Syria. Another report this week, from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights charges that Turkish border police have been shooting Syrian refugees as they cross the border, with 16 deaths documented so far.

Finally, on the Turkish side, the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, repeated the claim that humanitarians shouldn’t worry because those being returned will be replaced one-for-one with other bona fide Syrian refugees already in Turkey (with preference for some reason given to those who haven’t tried to cross the border on their own already – a refugee version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, one could say). But this is less than a half-truth, because he omits the fact that there’s a 72,000 person cap on this transfer, so if more than that number of refugees are sent back to Turkey, they won’t be replaced.

Ironically, the President of Turkey Tayyip Erdogan has warned about the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S., when in fact his support of the EU-Turkey deal stokes European Islamophobic fears of fake asylum claims, higher crime, terrorism, and Islamicization of European law and culture, even as the deal will purportedly make it easier for Turks to get visas to Europe.  (We’ll see about that.)

As if it weren’t apparent when signed, this agreement is revealing itself to be not only unworkable, which is bad enough, but based on illegality and lies: illegal mass deportations from Europe to Turkey, illegal deportations from Turkey to Syria, mass denials of legitimate refugee claims without due process, overcrowded detention centers, arbitrary caps on refugee admissibility, lack of adequate legal or humanitarian staffing, violence against refugees, and coercion against sovereign states to force them to change their laws to provide less human rights protection (in itself a stunning reversal of hundreds of years of moving towards greater human rights for all).  This is a policy that was imposed by European leaders unwilling to provide sensible solutions and infrastructure in a time of world crisis, with no input from refugees themselves, and minimal input from international humanitarian organizations, violating international  covenants and laws that, unfortunately, have never had enforcement mechanisms.

It is probably premature to say we are at the beginning of a legal free fall, but the longer the world takes to find a way to put the legal brakes on these abuses, the greater the human catastrophe and the greater the risk of dismantling international standards of refugee protection everywhere.

And deportations begin tomorrow…

 

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Filed under Afghans, Europe, Greece, Human rights, Policy, Syrians, Turkey

The New Europe: Expulsion, Eradication, and Blockade – 2

It’s been a bad week, in a historic kind of way. The greatest refugee crisis since World War II, and Europe decides to scuttle the very agreements designed precisely to protect people in the event of… another refugee crisis like World War II: the 1951 and 1967 Refugee Convention and Protocol.  The cynical EU-Turkey agreement on refugees is the culmination of Europe’s retreat from its own promise of human rights.  As Amnesty International termed it, it was ” a dark day for humanity.”  Human Rights Watch’s own European media director summed it up sarcastically in a tweet, “EU leaders agree to try to abuse human rights more systematically by bribing a rights-abusing neighbour.”

The final EU-Turkey refugee agreement mandates that refugees – those that manage to land in Greece – will receive asylum hearings on the Greek islands, that Syrians and Iraqis in general will be considered refugees and allowed to enter Europe, maybe, but Afghans have been declared economic migrants, those who don’t pass will be returned to Turkey, and (this part is as yet unclear) failed asylum-seekers around Europe will be deported back to Turkey, and for each one deported back, one Syrian refugee in Turkey will be resettled in Europe, up to a ceiling of 72,000 people. All of this is somewhat confusing even to educated observers, since the deal changed in the last days to allow some asylum hearings on the Greek islands rather than in Turkey.  For refugees operating on limited information, it’s very unclear: Can you still go from Turkey to Greece by boat?  Will you be sent back or intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard before you get there?  Some of the problems are more obvious than others.  For example, given that there are 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey now, the 72,000 resettled (about 3-4 times the number of refugees annually resettled in Europe as it is now, by the way) are going to be a drop in the bucket. (Even assuming a zero population growth, and no new refugees, at that rate it will take 19 years to resettle even half.)  Other known problems are that Turkey is not a safe country and deports people back to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in violation of international law, and the Turkish Coast Guard have been filmed dangerously interfering with refugee boats in the Aegean – so we know that innocent people are going to die. (More people are going to try to enter through the Libya-Italy route, which is also far more perilous, or possibly the Black Sea route in Bulgaria.)  Then there’s this fiction of convenience that Afghanistan is now safe, which alone will doom thousands of refugees to forced deportation.

The asylum courts don’t yet exist on the islands, makeshift detention camps are being set up by Greece while volunteers and NGOs are being expelled, nor is there the legal infrastructure in place so that refugees get due process and the ability to present evidence (supposedly Great Britain has offered to help, but since they are now deporting Afghans, we know the Cameron administration’s goal is to send back as many people as possible). Greece had the lowest asylum acceptance rate in Europe during the height of the Afghan refugee influx (ca. 2002-2012), and lawyers’ caseloads were inhuman.  In 2009 there were some 45,000 open asylum cases and 9 lawyers assigned to represent all these claimants. Nor is there adequate housing in Greece.  UNHCR maps posted yesterday show there are some 47,000 known refugees in Greek encampments, and maximum capacity of 34,000.  And, also as I have written before, several European countries have said they are going to deny valid asylum claims because they are imposing a cap on refugee admissions and they want to encourage other European countries to take in their fair share.

The irony that underlies all this is that the European countries wrote the very laws and covenants that created refugee protection as we know it in the first place, after the worst refugee and displacement crisis of the modern era.  The first Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was written after the Second World War, largely by European countries and other early members of the United Nations, for the purpose of protecting European refugees displaced during the war. It is really important to remember the scale of the problem at that time: before and during the War there were some 60 million refugees in Europe, and one million of those – roughly the same number as there are refugees in Europe today – still unsettled as of 1951 when the Convention was written.  The population of Europe was approximately 4/7 of what it is now, meaning the impact of a million people was far greater then.  And, even more, the economy and infrastructure were just recovering from seven years of war, so even the settled population was not as prosperous as today.  Significantly the first refugee Convention only pertained to European refugees.  Protection was not expanded worldwide until the 1967 Protocol.  So in typical fashion, even from the beginning the European governments were looking out only for Europeans, although they always claimed to universalize the notion of human rights.

After two World Wars, Europeans were familiar with refugees from their own continent and had inscribed humanitarian and legal protection into international law so that refugees would be protected in future conflicts. I don’t know if it was actually a lack of foresight – that one day there might be another refugee crisis in Europe that would actually be severe – but one can hope that the sentiment, the aspiration to become our higher selves, was at one time genuine. For some people, even today, no doubt it is. But it does seem kind of pointless that the protections were put in place for the next crisis, but when that crisis finally came, Europe’s current cadre of mediocre bureaucratic leaders would conveniently forget, ignore, and even violate laws that for many people had represented the pinnacle of human rights protection after hundreds of years.

There are other ironies.  For one, you would think that governments, who swear to uphold the law, would hold to their legal agreement even when local people on the ground were not so welcoming. In fact the opposite has taken place. We often (not always) see local people on the ground, even in countries struggling economically like Greece and Italy, doing extraordinary things to help refugees even as their own governments display varying shades of indifference and repression. By all reports, and my own limited experiences on the islands of Kos and Samos, there have been people all over the Greek islands rescuing refugees at sea, providing food and water and other humanitarian assistance at great personal expense.  Conversely, when local people deny help or even hinder refugees, then governments are called to respect and enforce their own laws, providing if not protection then at the very least due process in the legal system.  Even international human rights organizations, and to its credit, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, have been providing support to refugees even when governments not only fail to live up to their legal and moral obligations but actively obstruct and deny them.  I’m no international lawyer, but what good are laws that are only enforced when the government feels like it or, more accurately in this case, that can be abandoned when they are inconvenient?  They are international laws, after all, not international suggestions.

You wouldn’t know it from the bellyaching on the part of European leaders, especially those who espouse free market and other right-wing economic policies.  Poland’s Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, have both spoken as if this is the only alternative open to a Europe that is under tremendous economic and social strain from the refugee influx.  In fact, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, used exactly those words, saying “There is no alternative” to the agreement.  And – clearly demonstrating that he knows nothing about how and why human migration actually occurs – he added, “We expect that that would stop the crossings within three, four weeks.”  Again, that’s a choice between paying for the infrastructure that enables integration or, the more expensive option, paying for militarization and the infrastructure of enforcement. Yet another inexperienced and mediocre leader, 29-year-old Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz, member of a minority right-wing party within the ruling coalition, said Austria now wants to close the sea route to migrants going from Greece to Italy. I guess after getting Macedonia to close its border with Greece, which is nowhere near Austria, landlocked Austria now thinks of itself as a naval power that can block shipping routes in the Mediterranean, or that is has the right to close off sea traffic that has nothing to do with its own national interests.  Global citizens indeed.

From a global perspective, the vast majority of refugees end up staying in poorer countries adjacent to those they are fleeing from.  This fact alone perpetuates economic inequality. Not only is Europe far wealthier than Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon – which together house 85% of the Syrian refugees (in fact Lebanon alone holds more Syrian refugees than all of Europe) – and Iran and Pakistan which hold over two million Afghans, but these supposedly educated leaders ignore the fact (under right-wing, nationalist pressure from within) that migrants add to the local economy, even with the temporary increase in social service spending.  And they also – especially the Eastern Europeans – have incredibly short memories about the numbers of their own citizens who left as economic migrants (or political refugees) and came to America and other countries when they could not sustain themselves economically.  Typical European hypocrisy: refugees and migrants are only worthy of assistance when they are European (unless they are Albanian, Muslim, Roma, or some other despised minority).

So as a starting point for rebuttal, here’s what international law says about the protection of refugees.  It’s not a hidden document, just not one that is well-known or often read outside of legal and humanitarian circles:

Article 31 – Refugees unlawfully in the country of refuge

1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

2. The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country. The Contracting States shall allow such refugees a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to obtain admission into another country.

Article 32 – Expulsion

1. The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.

2. The expulsion of such a refugee shall be only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with due process of law. Except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, the refugee shall be allowed to submit evidence to clear himself, and to appeal to and be represented for the purpose before competent authority or a person or persons specially designated by the competent authority.

3. The Contracting States shall allow such a refugee a reasonable period within which to seek legal admission into another country. The Contracting States reserve the right to apply during that period such internal measures as they may deem necessary.

Article 33 – Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)

1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

And one more article which I will refer back to later, in my next post:

Article 21 – Housing

As regards housing, the Contracting States, in so far as the matter is regulated by laws or regulations or is subject to the control of public authorities, shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances.

There are additional social and legal provisions in the Convention and Protocol but for simplicity’s sake here, let’s just refer to these – this alone will be sufficient to demonstrate that international law is being violated at almost every stop and border crossing along the way.

When the agreement was signed, Tusk tweeted – twice! – that the new agreement is fully compliant with international law.  Maybe he thinks that by asserting it, that makes it so.  (I tweeted back he should read Articles 31-33 again.) These U.N. articles are pretty clear that refugees who arrive and present themselves to the authorities should be free from penalty, allowed to pursue their cases in court, and if they need to should be allowed to make arrangements to move on to another country.  And people are not to be rounded up, nor deported en masse to countries where their lives are in danger, like Syria and Afghanistan, or even to countries like Turkey that cannot guarantee their protection from deportation.  (For a fuller and more detailed analysis by real law professors, see this excellent blog by Steve Peers, or this guest post by Thomas Spijkerboer.)

And, of course, there are alternatives, if Europe was serious about living up to its moral, legal, and humanitarian obligations.  The Council of Europe’s own human rights commissioner, the American-born Latvian Nils Muiznieks, writing in The New York Times, and British writer Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, publishing in Time.com, have both provided excellent alternative scenarios that guarantee the rights of refugees and provide humanitarian relief to those fleeing the world’s most savage conflicts.  Major human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and Oxfam, continue to develop and promote alternatives and ways to take action.  Even the ordinarily cautious U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which has no enforcement authority and which is circumscribed by its dependence on its (funding) member states, has been outspoken that this deal does not have the interests of the refugees themselves at heart – and that really is the top priority, is it not?

This agreement must be denounced because of its abdication of legal, moral, and human responsibility.  But worse, its justification must also be denounced for what it is based on.  It is built on a framework of untruths – that, among other things, this agreement is compliant with international law; Afghanistan is safe; refugees have alternative and safe places to stay outside of Europe; legal due process can and will be established for all claimants; Europe has no alternatives because of its own economic situation; there is adequate and safe housing for refugees; the military and police can provide adequate social services for refugees; smuggling rings can be shut down and when they are refugees will not look for other routes or means of entry; Turkey is both safe and adequately prepared to house, feed, and educate millions of refugees for the foreseeable future; and – we must say it – that none of these decisions are based in the least on bias, prejudice, or racism against non-Europeans.  It would be too facile or speculative to say which of these are deliberate lies, which are delusions, which are ignorance of law, current events, or human behavior, which are bigotry, which are public relations spin, especially because all those who signed off on these agreements were motivated by their own reasons.

The reality of the wars in the Middle East and Africa, the tremendous toll – both personal and economic – on civilians, and the length of the time frame that this is going to be an ongoing crisis must be acknowledged.  We may not like what we find, but only then will we be able to live up to the promise of international law, human rights, empathy for others, and the search for peace that we all claim we would like to see in our lifetimes.

 

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The New Europe: Expulsion, Eradication, and Blockade – 1

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.

*   *   *

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.)

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Macedonia’s Illegal Fictions

Just as I expected a few days ago, the government of Macedonia has caved in to Austria’s demands and closed their Greek border to Afghan refugees. In order to do this, they declared that Afghans are “economic migrants” and not refugees, thus unable to apply for asylum.  Now Afghans will effectively be trapped in Greece, or have to find another border to cross – perhaps Bulgaria, Albania, or the old route, getting themselves smuggled under trucks on ferries going to Italy.  Apparently this policy, if you can call it that, went into effect at the border but none of the Afghans knew, so they traveled all the way to the Greek-Macedonian border only to find it not letting any Afghans across.

All this, of course, is less than 25 years since refugees from the former Yugoslavia fanned out across Europe.  I guess they think some wars are wars, when it happens to them, while other wars are just economic disturbances.

A legal fiction, for those who don’t know the term, is something that is considered to be legally true, or that can be deemed true under some legal system, even if not actually, demonstrably, or empirically true.  So for example there’s the legal fiction that the main building on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and their visitors are legally in New York, even though all one needs to do is look on the map to see they are, actually, clearly well within New Jersey territorial waters.

So in order to skirt international law, the Macedonian government has just created its own legal fiction, by making its own legal determination, not only absent evidence but ignoring the evidence on the ground, that all Afghans coming to Europe are coming for economic reasons and that the country is a perfectly safe place to live with no persecution on religious, political, or ethnic grounds. In fact, a Macedonian minister interviewed on the BBC said that refugees “fleeing conflict” were being permitted to move on, so it’s not even that they claim all Afghans don’t face persecution, but they are pretending there is no armed conflict in Afghanistan. As the BBC pointed out, 90% of those arriving in Greece come from three countries with active armed conflict: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Now, to be fair, various European countries have been deporting asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan for years, especially the U.K., but also Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and others, with the claim that Afghanistan is now safe for them.  And Greece has sent Afghans back to Turkey and from there they have gone back to Afghanistan, under the same way of thinking.  They claim that in these specific cases, the migrants have not established they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution, the legal standard.  And also, to be fair, not all Afghans are fleeing individual persecution, but a combination of violence, conflict, the danger of ethnic and insurgent violence, and an infrastructure and economy that are struggling to rebuild after 35 years of invasion and war, going back to the Soviets. Then again, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees were resettled worldwide back in the 1980s after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and there was no danger of continued genocide.  So the precedent is there, and the Afghanistan conflict remains much hotter now than Cambodia was then, and there is both Taliban and ISIS activity ongoing.

But the arbitrariness of Macedonia’s declaration, which comes both at the behest of another country, Austria, and which effectively dams up tens of thousands of migrants in Greece, is both a humanitarian and a policy disaster.  Having no legal authority to block refugees under international law, they just create what I am calling an “illegal fiction” and simply declare that Afghans are economic migrants not refugees, as if they know or are even qualified to judge.

One has to wonder where the policy logic is in any of this.  Greece is arguably the least well-equipped developed European country to handle tens of thousands of Afghan migrants over a longterm period, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and others arriving at this time.  There is high unemployment and the government can barely afford services to their own people who are still living under austerity plans they rejected, leaders of the anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi party are on trial for coordinated violence while other members still sit in Parliament, and there is neither the space, the money, nor the political will to construct and staff massive concentration camps on the islands or the mainland, even if that were an option anyone could get behind.  The only possible logic can be that this is supposed to be some kind of deterrent that is going to keep refugees from entering Central and Western Europe.  To be more speculative and diabolical, this could also be another way of destabilizing, and hence bringing down, the ruling Greek leftist government (which has also been slow to respond to refugee needs in general).  This is not such a farfetched idea because Greece is being excluded from Austrian-led meetings of ten Eastern/Balkan/Central European countries to develop an immigration policy. There must be some reason why the country receiving the biggest frontline refugee influx would be excluded from policy talks.  And to be even more cynical, the desperate conditions in Greece will only cause more refugees to turn to crime to survive, which will further contribute to negative views people hold about them and about immigrants to Europe in general (as if they already didn’t espouse anti-immigrant sentiment), a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts which will also predictably play further into nativist hands.

In other words, instead of trying to find a response that is moral, humanitarian, and legal as well as practical, this creates a fiction that is convenient for Western European governments and their xenophobic backers, with little or no thought to the outcomes of the ensuing chaos or misery.

More broadly, we are living at a time, perhaps, and not just in Europe, where even democratically elected governments and competing political parties simply make things up when the evidence doesn’t suit their agendas.  Historically, we are used to that from dictatorships and some royalty as well, but I can’t think of a time  at least in the last 40 years, when so many parties and so many governments simply ignored empirical reality when it suited them.  (OK, maybe during justifications for colonial regimes.)  But democracies are supposed to stand for something more transparent; as they say publicly, the best defense against a bad idea is a better argument, especially one that is based on empirical reality rather than one based solely on wishful thinking.

It’s not just a question of a “fact-checking” the way we sometimes see after debates and interviews in the U.S, usually over three or four small points, because that’s all there is time for on the broadcast.  But rather it’s become a matter of bending reality to suit one’s political ambitions.  We have seen this in war reporting, for example, since at least as far back as Vietnam.  So if it’s too inconvenient, costly, or time-consuming to guarantee people can exercise their human rights and their right to speak the truth about what they went through, and if big brother countries like Austria are providing incentives for you to follow their directives, then just change the status of refugees to migrants and you don’t have to worry about any of their rights at all.

Which is to say, if you can’t round them up at sea, or block them between Turkey and Greece with the help of NATO, or you can’t make them just disappear, you do the next best thing and just declare unilaterally: You’re not refugees, you’re economic migrants. Never mind that the government of Macedonia doesn’t have the standing (or the knowledge) to make decisions like this that supersede the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the Geneva Convenion on Refugees, or even EU regulations on asylum.  This simple declaration forces the refugees to lose a whole bunch of rights and protections that they had been afforded in the first place under international law.

What’s the most efficient way to circumvent international human rights and make it look legal?  This is.  When the truth doesn’t suit your needs, make it up.

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The Aegean: Military Responses Cannot Solve Humanitarian Crises

There are some times in refugee policy and crises when the world’s nations reveal their true colors.  The problem is it’s happening with such frequency these days it’s hard to keep up.  Granted, I wrote about Denmark two weeks ago and should have followed up with a post about Sweden’s new policies in the interim, but haven’t had the time.  But when it comes to hypocrisy, Greece and Turkey abhor a vacuum., and now both are taking steps to make the humanitarian refugee crisis in the eastern Aegean go from bad to worse.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, that celebrated humanitarian organization, NATO, is now getting involved to patrol for refugees fleeing to Europe via Turkey, or as the Times headline puts it, to “deter human trafficking.”  First of all, before we even get to the moral arguments, just on the facts this is all wrong.  What is happening in the Aegean is not “human trafficking”; by definition, “trafficking” is the coerced movement of people by smugglers for the purpose of labor or other exploitation.  While “smuggling” refers to all movement of people by agents across borders without proper documents or inspection, “trafficking” specifically means there is an element of coercion, and usually exploitation involved.  (And in fact, traffickers can also sometimes move people across borders legally, because people can enter a country with a work visa only to find out that the job they were promised bears no resemblance to the job in which they (usually she) find themselves caught – sex work, domestic work, indentured servitude, farm labor.)  That is not what is going on between Turkey and Greece.  The vast majority of migrants passing from Turkey to Greece are from Syria and Afghanistan and are fleeing war, and while there are also political refugees and economic migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries, the numbers of people being involuntarily or coercively “trafficked” is quite small.  Calling it “trafficking” wrongly categorizes the migration as labor exploitation when in fact, as we well know, in most cases it’s about escape from war and persecution.

So just on its face, this is not a mission that calls for a police or military solution.  That said, the mission as described is going to have three objectives.  One is to interdict the refugees at sea.  What will be done with them is as yet unspecified, but since they will not yet set foot on European soil, it’s unlikely NATO will kindly usher them to land where they acquire the legal rights they are seeking. They will probably be the big losers in this, and will, in order to avoid capture by NATO, engage in riskier crossings and maneuvers.  More refugees are going to die in the process of the crossing.

Second, the mission is to break up the smugglers’ networks and to put them out of business.  But then what?  The fantasy depiction of the situation that the major governments would have us believe is that the smugglers are taking advantage of the refugees – and they are, but only because other, legal options are simply not available.  If you are stuck in a refugee camp in Turkey, or in Jordan, Lebanon, still inside Syria, or in Iran or Pakistan in the case of Afghans, it’s not like there’s a place you can fill out an application to get to Europe.  If you need to flee, your choice is a refugee camp – for five or ten years or even longer – or trying to get somewhere better so you and your children can have a future.  Even if you have relatives already in Europe, countries are now lengthening family reunion times, even though that is directly contravened under the Geneva Convention.  Refugees turn to smugglers not because they are coerced, but because smugglers are their last, and sometimes only, resort.  Arrest them and put them out of business, and then what?  People who are desperate to survive are going to find a way, a way that will likely be even more dangerous.  NATO nations’ belief that putting smugglers out of business is going to solve the problem is fatuous.  Smugglers will become more devious, more dangerous and violent (this is what has happened in Mexico), more expensive, and the routes will become riskier and more roundabout.

This new policy then is another example of disingenuousness on the part of the major world powers, who identify the smugglers and their networks as the main problem, preying on refugees.  And to be sure, there is nothing lower than someone who knowingly makes and sells defective life-jackets to refugees or who sexually abuses migrants.  But more important is to focus on the fact that the smugglers don’t create the refugee “problem”; smugglers exist and profit because there are no legal alternatives in response to at least two of the greatest human catastrophes of the past 75 years.  That’s what no world leader (outside of the U.N., like Antonio Guterres) is going to admit: the problem is there are millions of displaced civilians trying to survive, either in their own country (Syria, where they are subject to hunger as well as bombardment and possible persecution), or in neighboring countries (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where they may live in camps but will likely face a decade or more of enforced poverty and a precarious and unproductive future).  The only “legal” channel for moving to a country where they can integrate and be economically productive is resettlement, which typically takes at least five years, and even then for a tiny percentage of refugees at most.  (Last year only 100,000 were resettled out of a worldwide population of over 18 million recognized refugees.)  Smuggling is the symptom, because there are no realistic or safe alternatives within the legal system.  Arresting a few smugglers, even a few hundred, is not going to mend the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, nor is it going to address the real issue which is providing not only safe but decent places for people to settle and get on with their lives or to return to their postwar homes.  These fictions – that the smugglers are the problem, and that, as the mayor of  Lesbos told France24 in an interview, the need is to get Turkey to stop “sending” refugees to Greece – are convenient for finger-pointing purposes but are small diversions from the central problem.  Our political leaders know this.  Millions of people have been displaced by fighting and there are no practical avenues to help them survive in dignified and safe living conditions where they can continue their productive lives in careers or as parents, or where they can provide sufficient nutrition or education for their children.

Third, then, if you read the Times article  further, is that the ultimate objective is to disrupt the flow of refugees to Europe, which is what this is really about.  Europe, which is only receiving about 15% of the refugees (85% of whom remain in the Middle East), wants to protect their wealth and their illusion of homogeneity, in short, their privilege as European nation-states, even colonizing ones.  The big fear is that the refugees dislodged by civil war and European and American invasion (even the centrist Thomas L. Friedman as much as admits this, but more on him later), are going to bring the problems they face back to Europe, on a grand scale.  Keep the refugees out and it’s not really your problem, even if you then magnanimously donate funds to their humanitarian relief in tent cities and camps.  It’s really just an act of glorified xenophobia, with the phony and transparent veneer of claiming it’s about protecting refugees from dangerous and unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers.

To paraphrase Archbishop Oscar Romero, it is as if our neighbors’ house is on fire and instead of rescuing people, we are effectively slamming the door, by sending in NATO to make it more difficult for people to escape by dismantling illegally-built fire escapes because they are not up to code.

A more appropriate and effective – even cost-effective – and dare I say humanitarian response would be to give the same funding to the U.N., UNICEF, or even NGO’s to set up refugee welcome centers where basic food, clothing, services and registration can be provided on the Greek islands, where rescue patrols can go out to sea and help refugees (many of whom are children) make the crossing safely, and then help them get on their way, even consulting with those refugees who don’t have family in Europe and encouraging them to go to countries with fewer refugees and more vacant housing and job opportunities.  That would be a response Europe could be proud of one day.  Right now, if you follow the news or any number of video reports on YouTube coming out of Lesbos, Kos, and elsewhere, there are still no decent registration centers or housing options for refugees, even after the ordeal they have gone through (escaping from our mutual enemies, I might add).  Refugees have to wait weeks, without housing, food, or clothing, just to get registered by the Greek authorities, while a massive response from an international humanitarian team could make things move much more smoothly, quickly, and with less disruption for the locals.  And after all that, they then have to go from Athens to points north and west, usually on foot, seeking safety in whatever country will accept them.  We could do this if we had the will.

It’s important to point out here yet again that this is cost-effective in the long run, because the faster that refugees are integrated into their new countries and get back to work, the quicker they will be paying taxes back into the economy, creating businesses and jobs, and contributing economically into the system (and even providing humanitarian relief for their relatives back home).  I may have cited this before, but the evidence is already showing that refugees in Europe, even in this crisis, are already a net gain to the economy by the European Commission’s own estimates.

It is deeply disappointing (though perhaps not surprising) that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as knowledgeable as she is and thus ought to no better, even in last night’s debate showed her support for NATO’s actions to break up the smugglers’ networks and stop the flow of refugees into Europe, as if the flow into Europe is a worse problem than the displacement of millions of refugees or the unsustainability of life in the refugee camps in the first place.  Then she repeats the known, and dangerous, misconception that the refugee “crisis” is an economic drain on Europe, even though she would have access to all the sociological data that show that in the long run, and with proper investments, refugees like all immigrants grow the economy.  (It’s also self-defeating, because if she then turns around and wants to accept more refugees for resettlement in the U.S., as she claims, she then has to argue against her own economic argument spewed back by opposing governors, when in fact the economic data, especially in the U.S., would support greater resettlement numbers.  She’d be better off embracing the economic data from the beginning and adopting the platform that refugees are a net gain, and not only economically but also in the ingenuity and experience they bring to their new country.)

In sum, if this really were about humanitarian protection, then NATO and a military response would be the wrong way to go.  No, this is really about national security and about appeasing nationalist, xenophobic parties, about keeping the people out of Europe they don’t want.  Otherwise, they have to explain why a military response, whether by NATO or Frontex, is preferred over a humanitarian one and why they need to make the process more dangerous as a deterrent.

Finally, a special word on Thomas L. Friedman, who makes the claim in the same article that Germany, one of the largest and wealthiest nations in Europe, cannot handle an influx of refugees.  He writes, “it was also reckless of [Angela Merkel] to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans.”  The scale is so disproportionate here that any comparison with East Germany is absurd.  In 1990, the year of German reunification, the West German population was about 63 million and the East German was about 16 million – meaning in the new, united Germany, one in five citizens had been an East German.  Currently, the German population is over 83 million and the number of new refugees to be absorbed is one million.  So even if that number were to double, we’d be talking about a ratio of one in forty, or maybe as low as one in eighty, needing to be integrated.  One in five — of course that could take two decades.  But the current “crisis” is nothing of that scale, not to mention the fact that many of these refugees are already well-educated and ready for the labor force, even as they learn German.

But we keep the misconceptions flowing in order to shirk our humanitarian responsibilities, and resort to trumped-up military responses to justify our unwillingness to share the world’s resources or embrace the common humanity we will need in order to survive.

 

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