Horror and hope for refugees in Europe

September 13, 2015
Austrian police look at refugees arriving from Hungary at a reception centre in Nickelsdorf, Austria.

It is the single image that has crystallised the horror of the refugee crisis in Europe: On September 2, a photographer took a picture of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, lying face-down on a Turkish beach.

The toddler was one of at least 12 refugees — including his five-year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rihan — who drowned during a desperate bid to reach the Greek island of Kos, joining more than 2500 refugees who have perished in the Mediterranean this year.

Their deaths were entirely preventable. They are the result of civil war, Western imperialism, crushing poverty and closed borders. More children like Aylan will die unless European governments are pressured to open the gates to those begging for entry and provide the resources they so desperately need.

Best and worst

The steady tide of refugees from the Middle East and portions of Africa — fleeing violence and war — has elicited the worst and best of responses.

The worst is seen in the violence from police and security forces under orders to control the borders at all costs. It is seen in the callous indifference of mainstream politicians who will not acknowledge their share of responsibility for the refugees' plight, nor their humanitarian responsibility to provide relief.

It is seen in the vile bigotry of the far right, eager to scapegoat refugees and migrants to further their agenda.

But the best has also been on display in Europe. There has been an outpouring of solidarity and generosity among ordinary people organising to declare that immigrants are welcome in Europe — and to push their governments to open the borders.

In the past several months, tens of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere across the Middle East and portions of Africa have tried to get to Europe, hoping to gain entry into countries where they and their families will have a chance at a life free from war and poverty.

In the past few weeks, the influx has escalated dramatically, becoming what officials now call the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects a 40% rise this year in the number of people fleeing to Europe by boat. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says about 350,000 people have already crossed the Mediterranean this year, and at least 2535 people have died making the crossing.

Makeshift refugee centres in Greece, Italy and elsewhere have been filled to bursting point for months. Yet more people arrive each day, hoping for asylum in other parts of Europe.

Refugees are often at the mercy of ruthless profiteers. UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told CNN that in some cases refugees making the Mediterranean crossing are charged money by smugglers to come out of the ship's hold to breathe fresh air.

The cost to hire a dinghy for the two-mile trip from Turkey across to Greece — like that on which Aylan Kurdi and his family perished — reportedly costs as much as €1000 per person.

In Austria, the bodies of 71 Syrian refugees, including at least three children, were found abandoned in a truck alongside a highway. They had suffocated to death while being trafficked from Hungary.

Denying legal rights

International law mandates that refugees have the right to asylum when they flee. But many European countries continue to refuse to allow refugees timely entry.

Last month, widely viewed footage showed Macedonian police attacking refugees, including families with small children, as they gathered at the border.

Such scenes are being revealed frequently. On September 1, hundreds of refugees with paid-for train tickets were expelled from a train station in Budapest, Hungary, as police tried to stop the flow of refugees to Germany.

The crowds of refugees, many fleeing the Syrian violence, chanted: “We are human. We are human.” About 2000 migrants have taken to living in the open air around the station in what the New York Times termed a “squalid” migrant city-within-a-city. Some said they had gone days without food or water.

“In Europe, they're treating us like ISIS did, beating us up,” said Ahmad Saadoun, who came from Fallujah, Iraq. Saadoun told the reporter: “Either take me to Germany or just send me back. I don't care anymore.”

Such scenes are becoming common across parts of Europe.

Such punishment and repression is justified by political leaders with the claim that wealthy Western nations in Europe are being “swarmed” by migrants — as British Prime Minister David Cameron said.


But this is not true. The IOM's Eugenio Ambrosi said: “While there is a crisis in humanitarian terms and in terms of people losing their lives, IOM does not view this as a crisis in terms of numbers, because France, the UK and the EU as a whole have the size, resources and capacity to deal with these relatively low numbers of migrants and asylum seekers.”

Vastly more refugees have fled to other countries in the Middle East. The IOM reported: “When put into context, the number of Syrians reaching Europe is minimal in comparison to the 4 million refugees in Syria's neighbouring states, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.”

Patrick Kingsley wrote in the August 11 Guardian: “There are countries with social infrastructure at breaking point because of the refugee crisis - but they aren't in Europe. The most obvious example is Lebanon, which houses 1.2 million Syrian refugees within a total population of roughly 4.5 million.

“To put that in context, a country that is more than 100 times smaller than the EU has already taken in more than 50 times as many refugees as the EU will even consider resettling in the future.

“Lebanon has a refugee crisis. Europe — and, in particular, Britain — does not.”

That has not stopped European leaders from refusing to respond to the crisis — or engage in racist scapegoating.

In Hungary, where the right-wing government's main rival is a far-right party with ties to neo-Nazis, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on September 3 that the migration crisis was a “German problem” — and that Europe had a moral duty to block migrants from coming.

In her response to Orban, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Germany is doing what is morally and legally obliged. Not more, and not less.”

Merkel has only reluctantly signalled her country's willingness to take refugees. In late August, she waited days before finally speaking out against racist anti-immigrant riots led by neo-Nazis and the right in the city of Heidenau.

Merkel has pushed for the refugees to be distributed more evenly among various European countries or processed in refugee centres at their points of entry.

But why should the wealthiest Western governments — whose political and economic policies and support for wars in the Middle East are driving the refugee crisis — not provide for those who are suffering?

In Britain, data released by the government in late August revealed that only 216 Syrian refugees — out of some 4 million total Syrian refugees — have qualified for the government's official relocation program. A further 5000 received asylum after travelling to Britain on their own.

British political leaders and the media routinely characterise migrants and refugees as scroungers seeking to take advantage of a supposedly generous welfare state. British Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond claimed in August that Europe “can't protect itself” from African migrants.


But there is another story: The determination of the refugees to fight for their rights — and the solidarity from many ordinary Europeans who are declaring that immigrants and refugees are welcome.

Their example shows the potential for an alternative to Fortress Europe.

While German leaders have suggested they can't “handle” the influx of refugees, the German population decided otherwise. A recent poll by the German public broadcaster ZDF found that 60% of people said the country — Europe's biggest economy — is capable of hosting asylum-seekers.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, whose independently-run rescue boats in the Mediterranean have saved more than 10,000 people, said it received a 15-fold rise in donations in the 24 hours after the pictures of Aylan Kurdi were published. Other charities and aid groups are likewise reporting a huge influx of donations.

In the German city of Munich, after officials announced that 590 refugees had arrived and tweeted “Anyone who wants to help is welcome”, the outpouring of toys, food and other donations was so great that within hours, police were overwhelmed with too many items.

Large numbers are urging their governments to do more. A petition demanding the British government “accept more asylum-seekers and increase support for refugee migrants” got 280,000 signatures in just a few days.

In Iceland, after the government announced it would give asylum to just 50 Syrian refugees, more than 12,000 people said they would offer their own homes.

People are taking to the streets. In Dresden - the main base of support for Germany's Islamophobic PEGIDA movement – about 5000 people turned out August 29 for a rally in defence of immigrant rights called by the Anti-Nazi Alliance.

On September 1, about 20,000 marched in Vienna, Austria, in a “welcome” rally for refugees. Their signs read: “I don't want Europe to be a mass grave.” The demonstrators cheered as trains carrying refugees arrived in the city.

A European day of action for refugees was held on September 12, with tens of thousands across the continent marching under the banner “Refugees welcome”.

The solution to the refugee crisis lies in these examples of solidarity.

[Abridged from Socialist Worker (US).]

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