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EU's historic shame: sending back refugees Open in fullscreen

Joseph Willits

EU's historic shame: sending back refugees

Syria witnessed the largest displacement of people since the Second World War [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 April, 2016

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The deportation of hundreds of people and the European Union's dehumanising trade of refugees and migrants with Turkey, is the latest shameful display of this crisis, writes Joseph Willits.

So far in 2016, 711 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. In 2015 the figure was 3,771, and in 2014 3,500 died.

Many of their bodies will never have been recovered, and many others now lie in unmarked graves like this one in Izmir on Turkey’s western coast. The others that 'made it', despite the people traffickers, the worn out dinghies, and the fake life threatening life jackets, those deemed the ‘lucky ones’, now find themselves in a Europe where the mantra is fast becoming, ‘you’re not welcome here’.

The deportation of 202 people from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios on 4 April, a further 124 from Lesbos on 8 April, and the EU's dehumanising trade of refugees and migrants with Turkey - pawns rather than people - is the latest shameful display of this crisis.


Over 1 million people arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, and this year the figure is 171,130 (152,152 in Greece). Up to 86% of arrivals are from the world’s top 10 refugee producing countries; 85% are from Syria (46%), Afghanistan (24%) and Iraq (15%) combined (figures as of 7 April).

In a UNHCR case study of Syrian arrivals in February 2016, 96% said that conflict or violence was the main reason for them making such a perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Of them, 64% had come directly from Syria. In an equivalent case study of Afghan refugees, 80% said that conflict or violence was their main reason. 

To many people these are just numbers. They are abstract figures that are not there to be related to. But worse still, to some the 711 dead people this year and 3,771 last year, brought about their own deaths (and those of their children) in the Mediterranean.

In a sense, there is a view that such people have a certain amount of control over their mortality, and that their washed up bodies or unmarked graves are a direct result of their actions and the choice they made. They are not considered to be people who escaped conflict in fear, or who desired to come to Europe for what they believed would be a better life. They are not like ‘us’.

There is a view that such people have a certain amount of control over their mortality, that their washed up bodies or unmarked graves are a direct result of their actions and the choice they made

Whilst the dead don’t have to bear witness to the increasing animosity and scapegoating of refugees and migrants in Europe - from our publics and our governments - those that have reached the EU do. They too are not like ‘us’.

Sadly, the default position of refugees (namely Syrian) as terrorist, terror suspect or lascivious sex pest, is gaining momentum. Once upon a time the focus would be on refugees and migrants as opportunists, scroungers and chancers, and whilst this view still exists, the explicit discussion about their perceived motives for crossing the sea to Europe has evolved into something far more sinister. 

Once upon a time, the focus would be on refugees and migrants as opportunists, scroungers and chancers but now the discussion about their perceived motives has evolved into something far more sinister

Of course, we should not forget that the dehumanisation of refugees and migrants is something that the British government has actively participated in with its language.

‘Swarm’ was the phrase British Prime Minister David Cameron used, and ‘marauding’ said the UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner accused Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May of “scaling up alarmist rhetoric” and intensifying the idea that migrants are a “threat to UK society”.

Such a dehumanisation of people, scapegoating and scaremongering is not entirely reserved for the obsessions of newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and extremist parties such as UKIP.

The EU’s deal with Turkey and the beginning of deportations is a depressing development in this crisis, with attacks in Paris and Brussels, fears and hatred of ‘the other’ across Europe, playing a huge role in the formation of policy.

Rather than doing the right thing when it comes to refugees and migrants, Europe is succumbing to and engaging with the scapegoating, and being held to ransom by a Turkish government whose democratic credentials are rapidly on the decline .The message that we don’t want you in Europe is far stronger than our willingness to solve conflicts that are prompting people to leave their homes in the first place. 

The message that we are willing to barter the Syrian refugees who have fled the barrel bombs of Assad, is one that should shame us all as Europeans, and these ‘values’ our politicians speak of. Our memorials to those who have died in terrorist attacks in Europe, to the dead of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to those killed in blasts across Turkey and Pakistan, should not be those that dehumanise people further and bolsters yet more extremism and displacement.

The symbolic start of the deportation of people from Greece to Turkey has been widely condemned. The International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s Greece country director Panos Navrozidi described the deportation and whole EU deal with Turkey as “illogical and unethical”, and one that “focuses on borders, not people”. 

“By and large the people who have made this journey to Europe are fleeing war. They need to be assured due process. They need to have a rigorous and thorough hearing of their claims," he added.

Rather than doing the right thing when it comes to refugees and migrants, Europe is succumbing to and engaging with the scapegoating

There are already reports that 13 people – from Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – were deported by mistake, before being allowed to formally register their asylum claims. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erodgan has also threatened the EU that the deal would not be implemented if they failed to meet their side of the bargain. The deal would mean that for every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey from Greece, another would be resettled in the EU with numbers capped at 72,000.

The Turkish Government says it is hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees, although these figures have been disputed. Only Syrians will have some degree of assurance that they are allowed to stay in Turkey once they have been deported.

Others from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan are likely to be sent back via camps. The majority of those 202 people that were deported from Greece to Turkey were from Pakistan (130) followed by Afghanistan (42).

A day after the deportations began, Greece temporarily suspended them, with reports going around that asylum requests had surged. However, they resumed on 8 April.

The concerns about people being deported to Turkey are increasing. On 1 April, Amnesty International said that since January, Turkish authorities had been expelling groups of around 100 Syrian men, women and children on a daily basis.

Amnesty accused EU leaders of “wilfully ignoring the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day”. There are also reports of Syrian refugees being shot dead whilst trying to reach safety in Turkey.

Amnesty International accused EU leaders of 'wilfully ignoring the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day'

France’s President François Hollande described the attacks in Brussels as an “act of war”, and the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, “we are at war.” In the same way that the murderous actions of ISIS are termed an existential threat, so is Europe’s refugee crisis.

In the haste to barter Syrian refugees with Turkey, it appears that EU is beginning to see the refugee crisis and refugees and migrants as the whole problem, rather than a symptom of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This latest deal is still a sticking plaster approach, but one that has now become  a policy which is about shutting the front door, locking the back door, and cementing all the other entrances, to prevent refugees and migrants from entering.

Issues of human rights and safety are seemingly being thrown out of the window, because this is not an issue about their protection or wellbeing. Some of the comparisons with war are entirely valid; this is after all the largest displacement of people since the Second World War.

However we risk going down a path that is in accordance with the views of the likes of UKIP leader Nigel Farage who has said that Germany taking in refugees was “the worst policy decision by any European leader since 1945” rather than following the examples of the Kindertransport scheme that saved 10,000 children from Nazi Germany.

Neither people nor Europe should be left to die in the Mediterranean.


Joseph Willits works at Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding). At Caabu, Joseph has led cross-party Parliamentary delegations to Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, and has spoken to schools about Islamophobia, Arab and Muslim stereotypes, multiculturalism and the situation in Syria, as part of Caabu’s education programme. Follow him on Twitter: @josephwillits

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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