On Oct. 29, another boat packed with people fleeing various countries sank near the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving many dead, with doctors struggling to revive children. But the level of the debate in Europe about the best way to handle the biggest mass migration since World War II has been discouraging. European leaders are discussing how to help a few hundred thousands Syrians while sending those not fleeing war back to where they came from.
As dozens of Afghans camp on the streets of downtown Athens, a young policewoman is overheard complaining that “These aren’t refugees, they’re not Syrian.” Callous as that sounds, in the eyes of the law and increasingly in mainstream discourse, these people are in fact not “refugees,” but “economic migrants.”
This might sound like a silly, bureaucratic and meaningless distinction, but for those crossing from Turkey to Greece and making their way up through Europe, it can mean the difference between life and death — or at least between a plane ticket straight back to Afghanistan and a chance at a decent life in northern Europe.
On Lesbos, this reality has been visible for some time. The situation in Moria, the immigration facility on the island that looks more and more like a detention facility, has been deteriorating.
“The line for non Syrian refugees is endless. 2.5km. They wait in the mud. Everyone needs water. Many want a doctor,” the journalist Natasha Tsangarides reported on Twitter a few days ago. Many people claim to be Syrians even when they obviously aren’t.
The drama of the Syrian people is not to be underestimated. The civil war that has been raging for years and has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives shows no sign of abating. But it’s no excuse to downplay what is happening in Eritrea, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and so many other countries.
A few weeks ago, The Guardian published a report on the story of two Afghan brothers who were sent back to their country from Germany. The younger brother, 16, disappeared, likely murdered by the Taliban, while the older one fled Afghanistan again for Iran, perhaps to make his way back to Europe.
Repression, poverty, disease and famine are all perfectly legitimate reasons to seek out a better life. Western countries, while responsible for many of the problems that impel people to flee, have failed to properly understand what’s happening in the “far away” places they come from.
Instead, the Western media has focused almost entirely on what’s happening in Syria. We feel sympathy for these people, as we should, but the narrative all but omits the similarly dire situation in parts of Africa and Asia. Moreover, the Syrians entering Europe are largely middle-class, whereas millions of less fortunate Syrians are stuck in camps in Turkey and Lebanon with no means to reach Europe, a trip that can cost tens of thousands of euros for a family. Even if they could, they would face a backlash on arrival.
Recent weeks have witnessed a rise in xenophobic sentiment and attacks. In Germany, signs proclaiming “refugees welcome” are being replaced with “nein, danke.” Attacks on temporary housing for refugees are on the rise. A pan-European far-right movement is emerging.
In Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, two hooded youths recently threw Molotov cocktails at a parking lot where refugees were sleeping, injuring two. On the island of Kos, the far right Golden Dawn party has dispatched activists to “train the locals” in anti-refugee activism and rhetoric. Despite hopes that this resurgence would subside, it seems to be growing stronger.
In fact, a document leaked to the German media clearly spells out that the government’s asylum policy could lead to a violent backlash, threatening asylum-seekers, volunteers and politicians.
After the latest meeting between European Union leaders, the situation is looking hopeless. Greece will now have to create facilities to hold 50,000 people on its territory and to put in place procedures to return those not fleeing war back to their countries. For perspective, that’s roughly how many people arrived on Lesbos in the past 10 days.
Europe’s leaders have gone as far as to suggest it could be easier for Turkey to join the EU down the line if they help stop people from making the journey. In other words, Europe is willing to turn a blind eye to a country that routinely jails, attacks and censors journalists, one that shows tremendous disregard for human rights at every turn, just to keep people from ever reaching the continent.
Like the financial crisis before it, the refugee crisis is revealing the unbelievable lack of solidarity that exists between EU members. The United Kingdom refuses to share the burden, suggesting instead that people should be stopped from ever making the trip.
Central European countries such as Hungary are using the crisis to encourage nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments and myths of a “Christian Europe under threat” in the words of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — even though these countries are mostly used for transit to wealthier countries further West, rather than as destinations.
The political divisions between the EU’s richer and poorer members are also growing. Treaties are being thrown out the window, as country after country is building walls and reinstating passport controls even for EU citizens. Activists took to the streets last weekend near Greece’s land border with Turkey, demanding to open the fence that was built there three years ago. They were met with riot police and tear gas. Opening the border is not a decision the Greek government can make alone; if they do so unilaterally, it’s almost certain every border north of Greece will be sealed. Greece would become a purgatory for hundreds of thousands of people who don’t want to be there. There is virtually zero chance European leaders will ever allow for this safe pathway to open.
As with the battle over austerity, the refugee crisis has turned into a class issue and a cultural divide. In northern Europe, the scorn facing “refugees” and “economic migrants” mirrors that facing “lazy, profligate southerners” in countries such as Greece and Spain.
As trust among states has completely broken down, there is little room for optimism. The situation on Europe’s periphery is becoming worse and worse, and suspicion guides every leader’s moves. Europe has been down this path before, and it leads to disaster.