Yet Another Betrayal of Humanitarianism: EU Policies at the Greece-Turkey Border

A child looks on as migrants take shelter inside a abandoned building as they gather in city center waiting to resume their efforts to enter Europe in Edirne, northwestern Turkey on March 5, 2020. The EU has scrambled to respond to the surge of migrants at the Greek border, where authorities say some 24,000 were stopped from entering between February 29 - March 2, 2020. (Photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet Another Betrayal of Humanitarianism: EU Policies at the Greece-Turkey Border

If fascism now comes wrapped in an American flag, it is accompanied and conjured by historical amnesia in Europe.

EU State flouts norms

In the light of the events of the last days, the European Union's high-minded talk about human rights can only be perceived as unbearably cynical and hypocritical. An estimated 13,000 migrants are stuck on the Turkey-Greece border are being denied entry into Greek territory, and are stuck in a no man's land at the border between Greece and Bulgaria. The Greek authorities are making an example of these stranded people. They are showing that it is in fact possible for an EU country to suspend the internationally-sanctioned right to claim asylum by preventing migrants from reaching locations where their cases could be processed. Trump has done so at the US-Mexican border, now Greece is doing it on mainland Europe.

But the Greek authorities are not alone--even residents of the border areas are stopping migrants from entering, with some reportedly using physical violence, while the authorities fire teargas cannisters. On social media one video shows what appears to be a Greek coast guard boat intimidating a dinghy full of migrants by passing by at high speed[i], while another video shows the coastguard pushing away a dinghy with poles as well as using a gun to open fire into water.[ii] A child has died and another has been hospitalized after a makeshift boat capsized. Another migrant was reportedly fatally wounded after Greek security forces opened fire as migrants at the border, though Greek authorities denied this incident actually took place.

What this transgression means and why it is a cause for reflection

The images from the borderland are heart-wrenching, disturbing images and seem to represent a new escalation in violence against migrants by an EU member-state. Though such incidents had taken place in the past, the EU has mostly outsourced such abuses, most prominently to the Libyan coast guard, whose agents--consisting partly of militia members--collects migrants in the Mediterranean to detain them in abhorrent, dangerous conditions in which hunger, torture and rape have been widely reported. Now the violence is on our doorstep and it is harder for EU governments to feign ignorance.

The wave of migration towards the Greek border has come as the result of the decision of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to open its borders so that migrants stranded in Turkey can move northwards, towards Europe. Erdogan turned down a European offer of 1 billion Euros to assist with the refugee crisis because he claims that Ankara had already spent $40 billion to settle refugees. In the past, the autocrat Erdogan had promised to host Syrian refugees and contain them in Turkey in exchange for money from the EU.

How Western countries are backing authoritarian regimes to get rid of migrants

The EU has made similar deals with Libya, Sudan, Niger and Rwanda, all of which are nations known for committing grave human rights abuses. As part of these deals, the EU helps fund and build the policing and surveillance capabilities of these unstable or autocratic states. To crack down on migration, the EU has also suspended its own Mediterranean sea rescue operation, while its member states Malta and Italy criminalized the sea rescues undertaken by private citizens and aid-organization.

European negligence

The west's and EU's failures, or negligence, in the region have been manifold. Contrary to the common perception, the EU countries did not carry the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis, which is the 21st century's most severe one: 90 percent of Syrian refugees live in urban areas in the immediate neighboring countries, often in makeshift camps.

What's worse about the EU conduct is that it did not even provide the sufficient funds so that countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which alone hosts 3.6 million "registered" refugees, could have a fighting chance to provide for the displaced newcomers while not disrupting the lives of their citizens. Erdogan has played a role in escalating the war in Syria while cynically exploiting the desperation and vulnerability of displaced people. While there is no way to defend his record, he draws on the legitimate feeling by Turks that they have been abandoned to fend for themselves as immense number of displaced people enter country.

The Syrian war transformed the demographics of the Middle East, yet the budget of UNHCR--the agency tasked with providing assistance to forcefully displaced people--pales when taking into account how much is needed to assist refugees in developing countries, where 84 per cent of refugees live. Based on its calculations for 2018, only 55 per cent of the $8.2 billion that would be needed was forthcoming. This funding shortfall has very tangible implications for displaced people, who have to live with health facilities and schools that are overcrowded, housing that is decrepit and soaring malnutrition.

Contrary to humanitarianism, the EU's commitment to militarism seems unabated. If what the UN needs to assist refugees sounds like a large sum, consider what the EU annually spends on its military: In large parts due to pressure by the Trump administration, European defense spending will surpass $300 billion per year by 2021, more than four times of what UNHCR needs.

While putting migrants in danger, the Turkish army and its Sunni proxies are escalating the violence that causes new displacement: Currently the army and its Sunni allies battle with forces of the (to make an understatement) vicious Syrian regime surrounding the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib. While the Syrian regime--which is already responsible for the vast majority of deaths in a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands--is backed by Russia, Turkey has been equipped by its NATO allies, which are, aside from the US and Canada, all European. Civilians in Idlib flee to avoid being trapped between the Syrian regime and the bombing campaign of the advancing Turkish forces, which use German Leopard 2 tank, US F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers, and take coordinates from a European-built spy satellite. The flared-up violence, which is fueled by complex power constellations between different proxies and sponsors, has already displaced another million Syrians, who are migrating towards Turkey.

What is on display in the region goes beyond humanitarian failures. As Alexander de Waal, a chief expert on humanitarian disasters, argues in his epitome "Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine," so-called "counter-humanitarian ideologies" complicate current relief work. These are not criticisms of shortcoming or overreaches of the humanitarian aid sector, but an outright rejection of the norms that underlie it. Europe is as much caught up in these inimical ideologies as the US and the countries of the Middle East.

How it is a case of history repeating itself

If fascism now comes wrapped in an American flag, it is accompanied and conjured by historical amnesia in Europe. Since historical lessons have in large part been unlearned on the continent, a historically familiar specter--rightwing nationalism, which has caused unparalleled destruction in the last century--is again haunting Europe. Its chief propagators--be they Orban of Hungary, Salvini of Italy or Kaczynski of Poland--have run on political platforms that, to say the least, othered.

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