Leaders Urged to Resist Fear-Based Call to Build 'Fortress Europe' as Response to Paris Attacks
Fences do not deter those fleeing war, but merely force them to take dangerous voyages by sea, rights campaigners note
By erecting fences, sealing off external borders, and withholding aid in the wake of Friday's massacre in Paris, the European Union would be embracing death—or the threat of such a fate—as a deterrent to those seeking refuge, rights organizations are warning.
"Giving in to fear in the wake of the atrocious attacks on Paris will not protect anyone," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International, in a statement accompanying a report released Tuesday by the humanitarian organization.
"The numbers fleeing persecution and conflict have not gone away, nor has their entitlement to protection," Dalhuisen continued. "In the wake of this tragedy, the failure to extend solidarity to people seeking shelter in Europe, often after fleeing the very same kind of violence, would be a cowardly abdication of responsibility and a tragic victory for terror over humanity.
The report comes as European heads of state threaten to impose further restrictions on their borders, and far right political parties across the continent ratchet up their Islamophobic and racist rhetoric, in response to the worst crisis of global displacement since World War II.
Even before the massacre last Friday in Paris, "Fortress Europe" was cracking down on people from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere fleeing poverty and wars fueled, in part, by the West.
Amnesty found that member states have collectively spent more than €175 million ($186 million) to construct over 146 miles of fences at the European Union's external borders—from the Hungary-Serbia border to the one between Greece and Turkey.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, European heads of state appear to be ratcheting up xenophobic and racist rhetoric. "Giving in to fear in the wake of the atrocious attacks on Paris will not protect anyone," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International, in a statement accompanying the report.
"The numbers fleeing persecution and conflict have not gone away, nor has their entitlement to protection," Dalhuisen continued. "In the wake of this tragedy, the failure to extend solidarity to people seeking shelter in Europe, often after fleeing the very same kind of violence, would be a cowardly abdication of responsibility and a tragic victory for terror over humanity."
Newly-erected fences and "tougher" border restrictions, Amnesty finds, are not stopping people from seeking safety, but rather forcing them over other land routes or even more dangerous sea journeys. This point has been made by many refugees and immigrants, including Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, who wrote in 2013 that "no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land... no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark."
At least 792,883 people reached the EU by sea in November, compared to 280,000 recorded arrivals by land and sea in 2014.
Many do not survive. According to the report, at least 3,500 people have already drowned this year in the Mediterranean—512 of them in the Aegean Sea between the mainlands of Greece and Turkey.
Crossing by land is not safe either.
"People who attempted to cross the Greek, Bulgarian and Spanish land borders told Amnesty International how they were pushed back by border authorities without access to asylum procedures or a chance to appeal their return, in direct breach of international law," the organization's report states. "Push-backs are often accompanied by violence and put people’s lives in danger."
"They took us to the river bank and told us to get on our knees," said one unnamed 31-year-old Syrian refugee, speaking of an experience at the Greece-Turkey land border in April. "It was dark by this time, about 8.30pm. There were other people there who were being sent back to Turkey."
"One of the police hit me on my back... he hit me on my legs and on my head with a wooden stick," the person told Amnesty researchers. "They took us closer to the river and told us to be quiet and not to move. They took me away from the group and started beating us with their fists and kicking us on the floor. They held me by my hair and pushed me towards the river."
What's more, a proposed joint EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan also presents considerable dangers, given that Turkey has been "detaining intercepted migrants and asylum-seekers without access to lawyers and forcibly returning refugees to Syria and Iraq, in clear violation of international law," the report states.
"Drowning at sea or freezing in a Balkan field can never be acceptable forms of border control," said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, which released a separate report on Monday.
However, in the wake of the Paris attacks, there are signs that the plight of refugees, once they reach the European continent, has worsened. Authorities on the Slovenia-Austria border over the weekend reportedly strip-searched refugees and migrants seeking to move westward. Meanwhile, reports are emerging of racist and Islamophobic threats and assaults, from the U.S. to Canada to France, as over half of American governors threaten to slam the door on Syrian refugees.
"We are in pitiless times," wrote Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, in an article published earlier this week. "A week of horrible carnage—bomb blasts in Beirut and Baghdad and then the cold-blooded shootings in Paris. Each of these acts of terror left dead bodies and wounded lives. There is nothing good that comes of them—only the pain of the victim and then more pain as powerful people take refuge in clichéd policies that once again turn the wheel of violence."