Refugees in Europe: Mediterranean councils fight for a humane response

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau.

In the face of the brutal and immoral reaction of the European Union to the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into Europe from wars and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa, Barcelona council has taken the initiative to set up a network of Mediterranean city councils prepared to welcome and house asylum seekers.

Barcelona is already part of a broader network of European cities welcoming refugees.

On March 15, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, Mayor of the Italian island of Lampedusa Giuseppina Nicoli, and Mayor of the Greek island of Lesbos Spyros Galinos launched the statement, published below, in support of welcoming refugees. Lampedusa and Lesbos have been in the front line of receiving the inflow of refugees from North Africa and Turkey.

On March 16, Colau and Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis agreed to a pilot program of collaboration between their respective councils. Under the program, Barcelona is offering to immediately house an initial 100 refugee families presently in Athens.

Colau has asked the acting Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to allow this cross-border city-to-city resettlement to take place. Barcelona council has already prepared 1200 lodgings for refugees.

Catalonia's pro-independence government has also asked that the Spanish government transfer to it the power to receive refugees. It will coordinate their resettlement with local councils willing to follow Barcelona's example: its initial program is to resettle 5000 refugees in the next two years.

The city-to-city initiative is aimed at countering the racist obstructionism of the EU member states and at increasing the pressure for a change in EU refugee policy — starting with rejecting the EU's obscene refugee removal-for-cash deal with Turkey. The Turkish government recently asked the EU for another €3 billion in addition to the €3 billion promised last November.

Such has been the outrage across the Spanish state at the EU agreement with Turkey that Rajoy, who first called it “a legal way to stop the movement of these people who are asking for asylum in Europe”, was calling it “a mad idea” by March 16.

Other signs of outrage are the dozens of councils across the Spanish state refusing to fly the European flag on their town halls. Also, 100,000 signatures were collected in a single day on an internet petition demanding Spain reject the deal.

In a comment on Twitter that has been retweeted widely, international relations analyst Sergio Maydeu Olivares said: “25 European countries has 'relocated and settled' 937 refugees in six months. Canada has 'welcomed' 26,176 refugees in four-and-a-half months.”

One of the reasons the feeling of solidarity with refugees is very strong in the Spanish state is the memory that, after the defeat of the republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), “we were the refugees”.

Below is the March 15 statement released by the mayors of Barcelona, Lampedusa and Lesbos (translated by the Dick Nichols).

***

Don't make us ashamed to be European

About 2500 years ago, the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean were the cradle of science, the arts and democracy. Today, they are where the survival of Europe is at stake.

We face a stark choice: we either accept our universal responsibility and strengthen the basic principles of the European project or we allow it to sink irrecoverably.

There are grounds for hope. During these months, we have seen thousands of citizens, volunteers and aid workers working to save lives by helping those fleeing war. We have seen how municipalities with virtually no powers have been performing Herculean welcoming tasks, committing the resources that the states have denied.

However, we have also noted with sadness both the failure of European states to offer a decent solution to the humanitarian crisis and the choking off of transit routes; from increased control and repression at border crossings to the outrageous deal with Turkey, which violates all international law on asylum and on basic rights.

The lack of feeling shown by the European states contrasts with local initiatives. While governments haggle over quotas, we in the cities are implementing contingency and awareness-raising plans that show that, given adequate resources, we can create more reception capacity than previously recognised.

Where the states can only agree on repressive measures, we in the municipalities are networking to create agreements, such as that between Lesbos, Lampedusa and Barcelona, that allows for the exchange of know-how, resources and solidarity.

While governments are unable to think beyond their national frameworks, the city councils of Barcelona and Athens will work together to pressure the states to comply with their moral and legal obligations.

We Mediterranean cities urgently appeal to other European cities to stop the inhuman policies practiced by the states and force them to change course in the face of the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

The families that they have seen lose their homes will not stop in their search for a place to live in peace, no matter how many obstacles are put in their way. Each new obstacle brings added risk to their lives and a further incentive to the networks that profit from trafficking in human beings.

We demand that the agreement with Turkey, contrary to international law and basic human rights, not be ratified. Human lives cannot be converted into currency for economic and trade deals. The right to asylum is a basic human right that cannot be object of haggling and discount offers.

We likewise demand an end to the criminalisation of refugees and of the aid workers and volunteers who collaborate in receiving them. Their work should be a matter of pride and be supported and encouraged by the institutions.

The events witnessed these days on the border of the Macedonia, the xenophobic demonstrations that have taken place in different European countries and their subsequent use in electoral contests are an indignity for which we should be ashamed as European citizens and as human beings.

Given all this, let's force the European Union to act to develop a common asylum policy, overcoming the narrowness of vision of the member states and acting in agreement with the cities that have demonstrated their willingness and ability to provide a welcome, equipping them with resources.

To this end, the states should assume their responsibilities and implement agreements on the placement and resettlement of refugees. In turn, safe routes for the refugee population in transit must be guaranteed so that they can move without putting their lives or safety in danger.

Thousands of people, many of them children or elderly, are adrift on the roads of Europe. They have names, histories and life stories. They need care, assistance and protection. They need us to act.

The founding values of Europe are at stake and the decisions taken now will shape the future of the Union. We therefore ask the states not to take any decision on our behalf that will be a motive for shame and that they support the networking of the cities in their task of making the Mediterranean once again a bridge of civilization, democracy and hope.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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