Libya Tribune

By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Though the global spotlight is on Greece’s restrictive treatment of refugees seeking a safe haven from conflict, Europe as a whole has sought to block their arrivals, leading to much unnecessary human suffering.

Horrific scenes of Greek authorities blocking desperate refugees at its border, along with xenophobic displays within Greece itself including the setting ablaze of a refugee center in Lesbos island, has attracted much global attention.

It also serves as a stark reminder of the challenges Syrians and others fleeing conflict face when seeking a safe haven.

Though Greece’s actions are reprehensible, particularly after Syria had welcomed Greek refugees from the Second World War, Athens is far from alone in adding to the despair of displaced people as they flee from one dangerous environment to another.

Many other European states have habitually imposed harsh restrictions on those entries into Europe, earning the title “Fortress Europe.”

Europe often views the Middle East and North Africa through the lens of perceived “security threats” it needs to contain, while diminishing the impact of regional crises on its own borders.

Europe often views the Middle East and North Africa through the lens of perceived “security threats” it needs to contain, while diminishing the impact of regional crises on its own borders.

This explains its focus on Syria and Libya, even though its foreign policy actions in these countries have been limited and ineffective. Stemming the flow of refugees and asylum seekers has therefore been its primary aim.

European leaders currently seek to revive the stringent 2016 EU-Turkey deal, which entailed returning one person to Turkey for every one that has landed on Greek islands, effectively using the country as a “buffer” zone, as Europe already hosts around 4 million Syrians.

This came after Turkey threatened to open its borders further, to encourage Europe to take its fair share of refugees, amid Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s ongoing offensive on Idlib, which is generating a greater crisis.

Greece currently hosts around 50,000 refugees, most of whom live in reception camps.

Though the previous Syriza government led by former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras initially declared solidarity with migrants after its election victory in 2015, the country has since taken a harder stance, joining other European leaders in calling to close the borders.

Refugees are still harassed and blocked from entering the island of Lesbos. Greek boats were filmed trying to terrorize dangerously made rafts full of refugees, with officials even firing into the sea near them.

Police forces have also fired tear gas on protesters, including blinding a man called Mahmoud in one of his eyes.

As Europe has used Greece as a barrier for refugees entering the country, Greece, on behalf of Europe, has effectively sent a message to refugees that they are not welcome.

As Europe has used Greece as a barrier for refugees entering the country, Greece, on behalf of Europe, has effectively sent a message to refugees that they are not welcome. Austria’s right-wing government even thanked Greece for “protecting” Europe’s borders.

However, the European Union’s (EU) own laws made this possible, particularly the Dublin Regulation which entails that the first country in which refugee and asylum seekers land should host them. Indeed, on March 12, the EU urged Greece to uphold the right to asylum for refugees, despite its own complicity in impeding peoples’ freedom of movement.

The European Union now also seeks to provide refugees on Greek islands with €2,000 (approximately $2,250) to leave and rebuild in their home countries – an insufficient gesture considering the turmoil from which many have fled and would return to. Furthermore, most refugees in Greece are left stranded in overcrowded and under-equipped facilities in Greek islands—another outcome of Europe’s policies.

Though Greece’s response has increased awareness of Europe’s recent indifference towards refugees’ misery, the EU’s past actions show this has been a long-standing element of its policies.

The handling of people reaching Italy – a landing point for asylum seekers fleeing severe economic hardship in sub-Saharan Africa after journeying across the perilous Mediterranean Sea – reflects Europe’s past neglect.

Italy has long sought to contain the flow of asylum seekers, striking a deal with former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to stop them from leaving Libya.

More recently the far-right North League-Five Star Movement coalition government hardened Italy’s anti-migrant stance and worked with the Libyan Government of National Accord’s coastguard to further limit arrivals into the country.

And the EU has gone so far as to support the Libyan coastguard in detaining refugees in deplorable centers, where they have been tortured and sold into slavery.

Though Italy, like Greece, has been harsh on migrants, Europe as a whole has played a role in this humanitarian crisis.

Many central and northern European states, which are tightening their borders, do not have to take their fair share, using the Dublin Regulation to their advantage.

They are therefore happy to leave Italy and Greece alone in receiving people entering the continent.

Though anti-migrant propaganda has portrayed Europe’s borders as a causal factor of free-flowing refugees, European states are highly divided and have not taken steps to alleviate migrant pain.

Though anti-migrant propaganda has portrayed Europe’s supposedly lax borders as a causal factor of free-flowing refugees, European states are highly divided and have not taken steps to alleviate migrant pain or address the issues at the source.

Governments still have enough sovereignty to regulate how many people enter their countries.

Europe’s policies have already resulted in around 20,000 migrant deaths in the last seven years, as they were put in place to prevent aid boats from assisting people crossing.

Aid workers have faced strict controls in what they can do for asylum seekers.

Furthermore, not only are Europe’s restrictive actions not helpful for containing refugees; they worsen the misfortune of those who manage to enter the continent, after they had faced catastrophic challenges.

Once the refugees and asylum seekers arrive in Europe, they are met with xenophobia and racism not only in Greece and Italy, but elsewhere in the continent.

Anti-migrant protests in Poland, Austria, and Germany have soared, along with deep hostility and resentment – even though some of these countries have taken in minimal numbers. As a result, many migrants are unable to assimilate, and have waited long periods to obtain asylum status.

Despite Berlin’s commendable “open-arms” policy and Germany taking in over 1 million refugees during the Syrian civil war, much of Europe has instead acted selfishly.

Despite Berlin’s commendable “open-arms” policy and Germany taking in over 1 million refugees during the Syrian civil war, much of Europe has instead acted selfishly, exposing EU’s failure to act as an organized bloc.

Donald Trump’s own ascension to the White House has signaled to nationalist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban – who has built an anti-migrant wall on the country’s border – that xenophobia and fascism are acceptable.

Meanwhile, as Britain is engulfed in its post-Brexit populist bubble with Boris Johnson at the helm, it has pushed for draconian limits on anyone entering the country – including refugees.

Finally, though Europe has condemned Donald Trump’s move to ban European travel to the United States to contain the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Europe’s own constraining policies play a role in refugee and asylum seekers’ suffering.

Unless European nations collectively work to assist human beings fleeing death and misery and find more humane ways to contain the flow, it is a farce for Europe to suggest it really cares for human rights.

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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa region. He has been published in Carnegie Endowment, Middle East Eye, the New Arab, TRT World and many others.

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