EU-Turkey refugee 'pact of shame' stirs outrage, solidarity

A protest in support of refugees in Dresden, Germany, last September.

It is very hard to find words that can even begin to describe how progressive people all over Europe are viewing the “pact of shame” over refugees reached between the European Union and Turkey on March 18.

For €6 billion, the promise of accelerated EU access and a conditional end to Turkish citizens requiring visas to enter the EU, the agreement makes the repressive Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan the main cop controlling the flow of refugees towards Europe.

According to the EU fact sheet on the agreement, Turkey will in return take back all “irregular migrants” still on the Greek Aegean islands after March 20; “prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration opening from Turkey to the EU”; and release one Syrian refugee for resettlement in the EU for every Syrian returned from Greek territory.

On what criteria Syrian refugees now in Turkey will be chosen to fulfil this one-for-one swap deal remains to be explained. At the same time, while the cases of the 47,500 asylum-seekers now trapped in Greece will be treated individually, they will be held in “closed reception centres” during this process.

In order to provide legal cover for the EU hiring Turkey as its main bouncer of refugees, that country is to be decreed under EU law — and against international human rights laws and conventions — as a “safe third country” or “first country of asylum”.

At the same time, a stronger military response to the “refugee problem” will be adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. NATO is maintaining a heightened naval presence in the eastern Aegean Sea, composed of a flotilla of between 15 and 20 ships, including Greek, Turkish, Italian, German and Canadian frigates.

This presence will also serve to restrain Greek-Turkish tensions at a time when the EU-Turkey deal requires the two countries to collaborate more closely in expelling refugees to Turkey.

There are now 600,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as hundreds of thousands from other war-torn countries (like Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea).

There is no mention in the EU-Turkey deal of what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who will be left in Turkey once the “one-for-one” swap arrangement with the EU is completed. There is also no mention of what approach will be taken to non-Syrian refugees.

If the record to date of the 28 richest countries is anything to go by, any action is likely to remain atrociously inadequate. In a March 30 Oxfam media release on the occasion of a campaign by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to get the rich countries to resettle just 10% (481,000) of Syrian refugees, it is revealed that to date they have pledged to resettle only 130,000 (2.7% of the total).

Winners

Who did best from this rotten deal? A March 4 article by Barbara Spinelli, Italian MP to the European parliament, foreshadowed that the Erdogan regime would gain most: “In the leaked minutes of the negotiation meetings held by the Turkish Government and the European counterpart [European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk] … Erdogan has been highly explicit about his demands.

“He threatened to inundate the member states with refugees, if Ankara does not obtain from the Union everything it asks: money, Europe's silence on the massacre of Kurds that is currently being perpetrated in the south-east of the country, as well as Europe's silence on the Turkish bombardments carried out against the Syrian Kurds in the Rojavan Republic.”

On March 19, Gaby Zimmer, president of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left group in the European parliament, said: “With this proposal, the European Union is declaring its own moral bankruptcy and helping Erdogan in his mission to move Turkey further towards becoming an authoritarian state.”

Other winners include the Balkan countries Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, whose successive border closures culminated in the sealing-off of the Greek-Macedonian border, as well as the overtly racist governments of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

These far-right governments have forced the EU to compel Greece to stop letting refugees pass through its territories. They are also under no obligation to participate in accepting any refugees for resettlement under the latest plan.

As for the Greek SYRIZA government, it is aiming for some relaxation of the draconian conditions applied to the third “bailout” memorandum it signed with the EU last year. However, this will come at the cost of having to turn the country into a prison yard — re-opening the hated migrant detention centres that it closed on coming to office in January 2015.

The deal also places a huge administrative load on Greece's asylum service, which has only 250 workers and has been overwhelmed by refugee numbers.

The biggest winner remains Turkey. Apart from proving that it is an indispensable ally for European imperialism, the deal does not give the Erdogan government any incentive to try too hard to stop boats of refugees from leaving for Greece. The Turkish state could continue to use its control over refugee departures to force the EU to take more Syrians off its hands.

Outrage

So rotten is the EU-Turkey pact that mainstream refugee groups have refused to take part. For example, the UNHCR will now only maintain a monitoring presence on Lesbos to make sure that “refugee and human rights standards are upheld, and to provide information on the rights and procedures to seek asylum”.

A spokesperson quoted in the March 20 Financial Times said: “UNHCR has till now been supporting the authorities on the so-called hotspots on the Greek islands, where refugees were received, assisted and registered. Under the new provisions, these sites have now become detention facilities.

“Accordingly, and in line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centres on the islands.”

The spokesperson added: “At present Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.”

A March 30 Oxfam statement said: “Resettlement cannot be used as a bargaining chip in political deals. It is about providing a home to vulnerable refugees, not a method for managing migration or justifying harsh asylum policies.”

Left and green parties across Europe have all condemned the pact, with the French Communist Party saying: “Little by little, Europe is becoming a bunker, deaf and blind to the distress of the refugees.

“Worse still, with the help of Turkey the EU is organising their deportation, their expulsion, denying them the right to choose a country of reception where they can make their claim for asylum, and with Greece faced, despite the extraordinary spirit of solidarity of its people, with the impossible job of taking them in.”

Solidarity

The spirit of solidarity that ordinary Greek people have been showing to the refugees has been replicated across Europe. The contrast between the inertia and sabotage of governments and the generosity of community organisations, NGOs and progressive local governments has been stark.

One small example comes from Catalonia, where on March 19 15,000 marched in capital Barcelona against the EU-Turkey pact.

In the town of Cerdanyola del Valles, a small community organisation called Solidarity Pantry set itself the goal of filling a 12-tonne truck with clothing to be sent to the refugee camp of Idomeni on the Greece-Macedonia border. In a couple of days, the people of the town donated enough clothes to fill more than four 12-tonne trucks.

Similar community groups in other towns in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Aragon and Andalusia have had the same experience. They have not had enough people to sort and pack all the clothing that has been donated. However, this task was solved with an appeal for volunteers, as was the job of driving the convoy of trucks the 4000-kilometre return journey to Greece.

On March 30, a joint meeting of the Catalan government ministers, Barcelona Council and pro-refugee groups repeated their offer to the Spanish government to take 4500 Syrian refugees over the next couple of years (1800 immediately). The Spanish government, which is supposed to take 16,000 (and has managed to place only 600 to date), has so far refused to grant the Catalan and Barcelona authorities permission to act on their own initiative.

Partly as a result, Barcelona Council and Mayor Ada Colau are continuing to pressure the European Union's immigration commissioner to deal directly with all those European cities (including Amsterdam and Stockholm) that are cooperating in their own refugee settlement networks.

The struggle between the two Europes — the one that wants people to see refugees as a threat and the one that sees them as fellow human beings — gets sharper with every passing week.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He will be speaking at the May 13-15 Socialism for the 21st Century: Moving Beyond Capitalism conference in Sydney on the explosive political situation in Spain.]

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