At midnight on Saturday, March 19, the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees came into effect. Refugee processing hotspots on the Greek island were emptied, aid agencies and volunteers expelled, and the open migrant centres became closed detention facilities where refugees will be prepared for deportation to Turkey. This is a shameful agreement, quite possibly in violation of international law, which reveals the extreme callousness of the racist, capitalist European Union. To cap it all, while the Middle-East remains in turmoil, these reactionary measures will do little to stem the flow of migrants.
The agreement, the details of which remain unknown, was announced in an EU statement outlining its main points. Basically, the EU is going to pay 6bn euro to Turkey (in two installments by the end of 2018), so that “all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”
Because of the protests of some EU countries, the statement says that “migrants arriving in the Greek islands will be duly registered and any application for asylum will be processed individually” and “thus excluding any kind of collective expulsion”. This is a legal fig leaf, because otherwise the deal would have broken international humanitarian obligations of the EU.
This point was cynically raised by the Spanish government of Rajoy, a government which already has a policy of collective expulsion of migrants crossing the border in Ceuta and Melilla. The real reason Rajoy raised this objection was in an attempt to stave off the anger of the Spanish masses, who are quite rightly disgusted by this shameful agreement. The EU has no problems in deporting planeloads of “illegal migrants” back to “safe countries”, as it has been doing for years now.
In exchange for accepting the forced deportation of refugees arriving in Greece, Turkey got a vague promise of lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens travelling to Europe by July 2016 and, an even vaguer promise to “re-energise the accession process” for Turkey into the EU.
There is also a provision in the deal which says that “for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled to the EU” up to a maximum of 72,000. This is very unlikely to happen in any degree. If we look at the previous agreements by EU countries regarding the resettlement of refugees, we not only see that EU member states are never very generous in their promises, but that they are even unwilling to implement them.
Everyone remembers the EU Relocation Agreement signed by the EU last summer at the time of the previous peak of the “refugee crisis”. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, at that time “European countries agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers, including 66,400 out of Greece and 39,600 out of Italy. As of 21 March 2016, 22 countries had made 7015 places available for asylum seekers to be relocated under the programme, and a total of 953 asylum seekers had been relocated (384 out of Italy and 569 out of Greece).” Let’s state this again, out of 160,000 asylum seekers which were supposed to be relocated, only 7,000 places have been made available and only 950 have actually been relocated!! And none of the EU governments actually care!
Furthermore, the first two days of the implementation of the deal show what it means in reality, once it transfers from EU headed paperwork into the harsh reality of a Greek island. On Sunday March 20 refugees in Lesvos were forcefully transferred out, without anyone really knowing where they were going. Aid agencies and refugee solidarity volunteers were removed from the Moria camp which became a “closed detention facility”, in other words, a prison.
At this point, aid agencies decided to stop cooperating with the new regime. In a sharply worded statement, Doctors Without Borders said: “We took the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane.” And added: “We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.”
The same was the case with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees which said: “these sites have now become detention facilities. Accordingly, and in line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centres on the islands”.
This is a commendable principled stance, but it also meant that refugees arriving on the shores of Lesvos, many of them suffering from hypothermia, no longer had anywhere to go, as aid agencies had suspended transportation to the Moria camp (now a prison).
In the island of Chios, hundreds of newly arrived refugees were interned in the Vial detention centre, without access to enough food and water, sleeping on pallets covered in cardboard and with no possibility of buying SIM cards to contact their families and friends. Not only are they imprisoned, they are also isolated. This video by Benjamin Julian gives voice to the inmates. A full report can be read here and it makes your blood boil.
Worst of all, the police guarding the detention centres have no idea how to process the refugees and no facilities (translators, lawyers, etc) to do so. “All migrants will be protected in accordance with the relevant international standards and in respect of the principle of non-refoulement” says the deal. The reality is much harsher. “It will be a temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order,” adds the text of the EU statement on the deal. The hypocrisy is nauseating! “Public order” is the only thing they care about, not “human suffering”. And you know that when the capitalist EU talk of public order, it comes with razor wire, tear gas, electrical fences, inhuman detention centres and armed coastguards.
It is clear that a country like Greece, in the middle of a 7 year long deep recession, its public finances raided by the troika’s bloodsucking vampires, cannot cope with this situation and doesn’t have the means to individually process thousands of refugees who will continue to arrive on a daily basis (even if we were to accept that this was a humane procedure). In fact, the weight of the refugee crisis, which the EU is dumping onto its weakest link, might be the last straw which propels Greece into defaulting on its debt. Adding insult to injury, some EU politicians are suggesting that rather than transferring funds to Greece to allow it to implement the terms of the deal, that money should be discounted from Greek debt repayments!
Let’s remember that these are human beings, men, women and children, the elderly as well as babies, some of them sick and injured, who have risked the treacherous sea crossing between Turkey and Greece in boats that can barely float. They are fleeing war, terrorism and violence. Many of them are the second wave of refugees attempting to reunite with the members of their family who have already made the journey and settled in Germany, Sweden and other countries. They have now arrived in Europe, where they hope to find safety. Instead, they are met with detention centres and forced deportation. This is what is meant when the EU talks of “ending human suffering”.
One of the most disgusting aspects of the deal is the way in which it turns Turkey into a “safe third country” where refugees can be deported. This is a country whose government has a horrible track record of violating human rights, freedom of expression, and where refugees are kept in camps in conditions of utter squalor. Just to give but one example, a recent report by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey details how over 200 civilians were killed during government imposed curfews affecting 1.6 million people in the Kurdish areas between August 2015 and March 2016 alone. This is a country whose coastguards have been filmed attacking inflatable boats full of refugees. Of course they do so on instructions from the EU! The Greek coastguard has done the same before, and NATO has sent warships to the Aegean to do the same thing.
Of course, none of this bothers the EU governments, as long as Turkey takes the refugees in exchange for money. This is the same EU which paid Gaddafi in Libya to keep Sub-Saharan immigrants in detention centres on behalf of the EU. In effect, the EU is subcontracting its borders to neighbouring authoritarian regimes. Refugees are treated like commodities to be sold and bought in the market place.
Meanwhile, 12,000 refugees, half of them children are stranded at Idomeni “camp” in the border with Macedonia, which is now being closed, surrounded by a fence patrolled by the Army. Thousands of people have been living in a mud pool after heavy rain fell on the precarious tents and structures in the camp (see video below and above), and three refugees died when they attempted to cross the river further down the border in a desperate attempt to continue their journey to safety.
“The situation here is the definition of a humanitarian crisis,” said Greek Health Minister Andreas Xanthos. Also here aid agencies have withdrawn, partly as a rejection of the deal of shame, partly fearing for the safety of their own staff, as refugees are increasingly pushed to fight for ever scarcer resources available. “There are people who have been here for more than a month and are now exhausted and the medical needs are huge,” said Aspasia Kakari, an MSF representative. There have already been protests at this and other camps in Greece and the situation is extremely volatile.
This shameful deal in any case is likely to collapse sooner than later. People who are desperately fleeing war will not be stopped by the threat of deportation. They will find new routes, probably more dangerous ones. Far from destroying the “people smuggling business”, this will make it more profitable.
The overwhelming majority of these people come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them countries plunged into civil wars that Western imperialism is responsible for. Hundreds of thousands, millions of them have fled their countries, the majority into refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, etc. It was Angela Merkel who last summer said that any Syrian refugees arriving in Germany would be welcomed, and of course hundreds of thousands got on the move. That was the final nail in the coffin for the Schengen treaty, for the Dublin directives on asylum and for the free movement of people in Europe, as country after country took measures to prevent refugees from crossing their borders. The whole of the European policy is in disarray as different capitalist governments squabble to see who is going to foot the bill, financially and politically.
Feeling the breath of the far right anti-immigrant AfD on her neck, now Merkel needs to appear as being “tough on migrants”. It is not by chance that she was in a hurry to conclude the deal with Turkey ahead of the German regional elections. In the end it made no difference, but it underlines the cynical calculations of bourgeois politicians for whom human suffering is just so much loose change.
What a contrast with the reaction of ordinary working people across Europe. In Greece itself, there has been a massive outpouring of solidarity. According to a recent opinion poll, 85% said that refugees should be helped and 55% said they had personally made a contribution. Greek workers have suffered a massive cut in their living standards in terms of wages, pensions, etc, of about 30 to 40%, as a result of the brutal austerity policies imposed by the troika. Still, they provide help and solidarity for fellow human beings. An old couple of pensioners living near Idomeni camp went out of their way to provide clean water and washing facilities for refugees attempting to cross the border. What a contrast to the capitalist politicians of the rotten EU!
In fact the so-called “refugee crisis” is only a problem from a capitalist point of view. Of course, at a time when European capitalism is in crisis and governments everywhere are implementing harsh austerity measures to make workers pay for it, it is Utopian to think that capitalists will find it in their heart to foot the bill for housing, feeding and clothing hundreds of thousands of human beings. On the contrary, they will be prepared to spend billions of euros erecting fences, patrolling the seas, subcontracting its borders to third countries as well as making political capital out of blaming “illegal migrants” for the disastrous state of public services whose budgets they’ve mercilessly slashed.
The European-wide movement in solidarity with the refugees which already exists needs to go beyond the practical tasks of aid and become a powerful political movement which challenges the roots of the issue: by opposing the imperialist wars and imperialist plunder which ravages the countries refugees are fleeing from, as well as pointing out that there are enough resources in society to provide the necessary help for refugees and that these are to be found in the bank accounts of the big corporations and banks.
The shameful EU-Turkey deal should be opposed with all might. If anyone had any illusion in the foundational myths of the EU (peace, cooperation, solidarity, free movement of people), this deal should serve to dispel them. The European Union is and always was a capitalist club, one which is run in the interests of capitalists and bankers and which is dominated by the most powerful ones. This deal exposes what this means in practice for refugees.
Refugees are welcome here, make the bosses pay.
Down with imperialist war and plunder.
Down with the rotten capitalist EU.
Down with capitalism which is the root cause of war and suffering for millions.