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Zoe Gardner

World Refugee Day - the buck must stop here

The UK needs a complete re-evaluation of its approach to refugees, says Zoe Gardner [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 June, 2016

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Comment: Zoe Gardner of Asylum Aid UK, says that we stand at a key moment in history. It is time to stop passing the buck and rise to the challenge.

The purpose of any charity must be, fundamentally, to render itself obsolete. Everybody working at Asylum Aid and in the refugee sector looks forward to a time when there are no more people forced to flee their countries and seek protection abroad.

But in a world of escalating conflict and inequality, where new threats to human survival including climate change loom, while the ongoing threat of war and repression worldwide show no signs of easing, we are not naive in our outlook.

The forced displacement of human beings will not end in the foreseeable future. The men, women and children currently in Turkey, Greece and Calais are not going to disappear. We stand at a key moment in history in deciding how we are going to respond to these challenges, and so far we are burying our heads in the sand.

2015 was the year that European populations were confronted, for the first time since the Balkan wars, with their version of a "refugee crisis". While last World Refugee Day it was difficult to garner press coverage of the issue, a year later our resources are stretched in our efforts to keep up with the new-found attention on our cause.

To mark World Refugee Day this year, UNHCR released its Global Trends report, showing that 2015 - unsurprisingly - was another year of rising global displacement, with more people than ever forced to flee their homes. What is striking, however, about the latest figures is frankly how little they affect our European lives, and how utterly unrealistic, disproportionate and inhumane our response has been.

Of the record 65.3 million men women and children who had been forced to escape war and human rights violations in 2015, 40.8 million never even left their own country. Of those who did cross a border to escape, 86% are accommodated in developing countries.

Rather than address the problems in peripheral EU member states' asylum systems, EU countries prioritised "responsibility shifting" away from Southern Europe to the Middle East, North Africa and beyond

It is the smallest proportion of globally displaced people who actually come to Europe, and fewer still proportionately come to the UK. The chaotic mismanagement of the influx we have seen has convinced many that the problem is insurmountable, that the EU is at "breaking point" and that the walls must go up.

But this could not be further from the truth.

While numbers of refugees entering the EU have been relatively low in recent years, it was possible to pass European-level legislation regarding basic standards for the qualification, reception and procedures governing refugee protection. It was also possible, in the large part, to ignore the issue entirely, and to ignore the repeated warnings of NGOs that common standards for well-functioning asylum systems across Europe were not being met in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy.

Rather than address the problems in peripheral EU member states' asylum systems, EU countries prioritised "responsibility shifting" away from Southern Europe to the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

The EU has pursued migration management agreements at vast expense with an ever-growing list of non-EU countries aimed at "passing the buck" back to them, aiming to prevent refugees from making onward journeys to Europe and thus from ever becoming our problem.

We leverage our power and money as Europeans to impose the responsibility for taking care of refugees on poorer countries

The EU-Turkey deal is just the latest in a long line of similar agreements. We leverage our power and money as Europeans to impose the responsibility for taking care of refugees on poorer countries.

As the Syrian war has raged on, displacement has increased, and the EU was completely unprepared for the unprecedented increase in arrivals on Greece's shores that we have seen over the past several months. What is truly shameful, has been the stubborn refusal of other European countries to share responsibility, preferring to keep "passing the buck".

Turkey, the latest country to strike a lucrative deal with the EU to contain its refugee population, has been accused just this week of shooting and killing Syrian children attempting to cross to safety.

Some will argue that it is more humanitarian to trap refugees in such a situation on the other side of a dangerous stretch of water, than to allow them to attempt to cross it and potentially drown. Those people have no answer to the fact that 2016 has so far been more deadly for refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean than 2015, despite our deterrence measures.

This "buck passing" relies on the unending compliance of developing countries to take on the responsibilities that we shirk. Until now, this has seemed reasonable, but with growing numbers and an utter lack of political will to develop long-term solutions to displacement, it is no longer the case.

Not only has Turkey been pursuing its own migration understandings with Iraq and Iran in order to pass people back again to those dangerous and repressive countries once they've been handed back by us; but Kenya, host to the world's largest refugee camp - Dabaab, with a population of 300,000 refugees - recently announced plans to expatriate all the refugees on its territory.

What is truly shameful, has been the stubborn refusal of other European countries to share responsibility, preferring to keep 'passing the buck'

Should there be any doubt as to our "buck" passing further down the line, the Kenyan government's statement explicitly refers to the EU's refusal to provide sanctuary to Syrians. And, if we refuse to do so, why should Kenya continue to shoulder its own refugee burden?

Arguably the most frustrating element of the European and especially the UK's reluctance to pull our weight is the comparatively minimal strain that such a task would truly represent.

Studies have repeatedly shown how immigrants make positive cultural and economic contributions to host societies. A recent study argued that for every Euro Germany invests now into integration of refugees, it will receive 2 Euros in increased economic productivity. Our ageing European populations could rely on comparatively younger, and highly motivated refugees if only they were given the chance to enter the workforce and start to make a contribution.

Instead, our asylum system is inefficient and wasteful, both of public money and human potential. In the UK we force asylum seekers to be inactive during their often long wait to be recognised as refugees and get papers. We don't allow them to work but force them to subsist in poverty.

Furthermore our procedures re-traumatise people who have already experienced unthinkable hardship. Women in particular are frequently disbelieved when they explain that they are fleeing ‘honour violence’, rape, domestic abuse or FGM. We do not guarantee to provide women asylum seekers with female interviewers and interpreters, nor childcare, nor counselling, nor decent information about the fact that their experiences of gender-based violence may be important to their claim.

Migration is not going away, and we can neither Brexit, nor bully our way out of our responsibilities by passing the buck on to other countries

In addition, we do not adequately train our asylum decision makers on the effects of trauma on memory, and yet we have a system where over a third of refusals of protection are overturned on appeal. The appeals process is costly, and represents yet another barrier for refugees with a genuine need for protection to begin new lives and contribute to this country.

The UK needs a complete re-evaluation of its approach to refugees. Until now we have been both completely lacking in compassion, and myopic in the extreme. We hope to wish away a global issue that will continue to knock at our door.

Migration is not going away, and we can neither Brexit, nor bully our way out of our responsibilities by passing the buck on to other countries, be they Greece or Gambia. We need to take pride in our ability to do better for our fellow humans, and focus on improving the efficiency of our systems to allow them to unlock the human potential of refugees that could do our country so much good. The buck must stop here.

Zoe Gardner is Communications Officer at Asylum Aid, a charity providing legal representation to the most vulnerable refugees in the UK. She is a passionate campaigner for refugee and migrants’ rights with a particular interest in feminism and the needs of women on the move.

Follow her on Twitter: @ZoeJardiniere

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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