Report (1): The Second Syrian Refugee Crisis 2015-2019: Continuity and Change
By Hedwig Giusto
The unprecedented health emergency that hit Europe in the first half of 2020, and is still, at the time of writing, plaguing large parts of the American, Asian and African continents, accompanied with a widespread socioeconomic downturn, has overshadowed another crisis: one triggered by rising tensions in North-West Syria between the end of February and the beginning of March. It is also one that is exerting pressure on the already tormented Greek- Turkish border.
While this latter crisis has been, once again, simplistically labelled a “refugee or migration crisis”, this definition does not adequately explain the true nature of the crisis as the term implies migrants and asylum seekers are bearers of problem, rather than victims. They thus form scapegoats of much larger actors and interests. This assertion doesn't take away from the enormity of the plight facing migrants and refugees, but rather it points toward decision- making and actions by the European Union (EU), EU member states and Turkey, that have created the conditions for the crisis, that is, rather than it being a result of people's mobility.
Whatever we call the crisis, its occurrence is unsurprising, as the premise for it was already there, integral to the March 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey. The EU failed to make use of the time it supposedly bought with this deal, apparent in its statement that it would “grasp the nettle”, to overcome its political divisions and move on with long-due reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and the infamous Dublin regulation. At the same time, the Syrian civil war, which has directly impacted Europe, continues, almost reaching its tenth anniversary, exposing the EU’s impotence with regards to external influence.
It has failed to help Greece relocate tens of thousands of people stuck in overcrowded, degrading and appalling conditions on the Aegean islands (one of the by-products of the deal with Turkey), and end a blatant violation of human rights and the rule of law on European soil. It even failed to meet all its obligations towards Ankara i.e., the conditions it agreed to in exchange for Turkey committing to seal its borders with Europe and prevent migrants’ trespassing to the EU.
While caught in a highly polarised political landscape, the EU has put aside the challenging and divisive task of devising a broad and efficient European migration policy.
Hence, there are few innocent actors regarding the current crisis, except those misled into trying to reach Europe, only to be welcomed into closed borders on the Greek island – “Europe’s shield”, as declared by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to the Greek-Turkish borders at the beginning of March 2020.
The ongoing pandemic and economic crisis have meanwhile triggered a debate across Europe, highlighting solidarity as the only viable solution to global challenges, which could hopefully be the beginning of a radical transformation of the European bloc. That transformation should not be exclusionary, particularly of the most vulnerable, such as people on the move. The
European Commission is expected to soon deliver its long-promised New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Despite its position as a hot button issue among member states, the hope is the Pact will be a turning point from the security-centric and externalisation-oriented approach of the EU's migration policy to date, in favour of a more people-centred approach.
At the same time, however, overwhelming health and economic crisis can offer another excuse to avoid an uncomfortable topic. However, migration, migrants, and asylum seekers are not going to disappear. People have always moved and will keep doing so. Continuing movements during the pandemic have indeed shown that motivations to leave home can be much stronger than the fear of a very contagious disease.
Shedding light on unhumanitarian situations, testifying and denouncing human rights violations and infringements of international law, and investigating and exposing contentious political dynamics are essential instruments for preventing future crises, such as those on the Greek-Turkish border and Greek islands. Neglecting them could exacerbate existing harm, turning a temporary solution into permanent captivity.
These tools speak to why the International UN Watch's publication, displaying images of the conditions migrants face in reaching safe shelter and containing analyses of Greek and Turkish approaches (and of Europe’s stance) to the refugee crisis by Konstantinos Tsitselikis and LülüferKörükmez, is essential and timely.
The following findings are a result of the EU’s outsourcing of a crisis: its entrusting of third countries to manage migration flows on its behalf – Turkey as well as Libya (a country not within the remit of this publication but notable in this context). These are countries that cannot be controlled and cannot make up for the EU's inability to overcome its internal political deadlock.
To read full report, click here.