The EU and refugees: Looking the other way

Johanna Mitscherlich
Refugees approaching the Serbia-Croatia border, photographed in October 2015

Last week the EU praised their migrant deal with Turkey for breaking the business model of the people smugglers and decreasing the number of migrants travelling to Europe. The total number of migrants arriving in the Greek islands in the past three weeks was 5,847. Over the three weeks prior to the deal, 26,878 people arrived.

It is important to state clearly, however, that this does not mean that there are fewer refugees. They are simply elsewhere.

Turkey, with a population of 80 million, is supposed to take responsibility for refugees that Europe, a continent of 500 million people, does not want. Turkey is already hosting more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees. In neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq, up to five million Syrians have been living as refugees for up to five years.

Support for these countries was massively underfunded over the past years. Refugees are mostly not allowed to work, many are reduced to living in run-down shelters or tents, and less than half of school-aged children from refugee families are attending school. In Lebanon, where every fourth inhabitant is now a refugee, food assistance was cut by 50 percent due to shortages in funding. In Iraq, cases of cholera have been reported.

These countries that are home to the lion’s share of refugees are mostly poor themselves.

Without further assistance for these countries, without legal and safe pathways to Europe and without long-term political solutions for war-ravaged countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, the situation of the people will not improve.

Short-term solutions of deterrence are only exacerbating the human suffering and destitution. Refugees are already taking longer, more dangerous routes and paying even more money to smugglers.

For many years the world did not pay sufficient attention to the situation in and around Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Now that the ‘refugee crisis’ has reached Europe and the continent is trying to externalise the problem, it is looking the other way.

A volunteer helping a refugee family
Volunteers from CARE's partner organisation Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre give hot drinks to new arrivals at the Serbian-Croatia border in October 2015

With all eyes now on the agreement between Greece and Turkey, and with the border to Macedonia basically closing off the Balkan route, 46,000 people are holding out under difficult conditions on mainland Greece. Most of them are women and children.

The EU relocation scheme called for completing at least 20,000 relocations by mid-May. To date, only 860 people have been relocated. Similarly, the planned resettlement of 160,000 Syrian refugees from countries neighbouring Syria to wealthier states with more resources, is making little progress. So we can hardly speak of a clear sign to refugees that legal pathways to Europe exist, and that they should make use of them instead of turning to people-smuggling networks.

In the coming days I will speak to refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, who are trapped in Athens and in the north of Greece.

People, who are living in overcrowded camps without sufficient sanitary facilities, and little protection and privacy for mothers and their children.

People, whose lives have come to a halt and who do not know when and where to go next.

People, who have become a bargaining chip and for whom the problems from which they were fleeing are far from being resolved.

People, who are hoping that the asylum systems will not forget about them and who had thought that they had left the worst behind.

I will meet Greek and other volunteers who have been working tirelessly to uphold humanity and solidarity. I will take part in the first distributions of relief items by CARE and its partner organisation Solidarity Now to support people who have lost everything.

We cannot cease to tell the stories of these people and must ensure that their sorrows are being heard. It is these people who are most affected by this ‘refugee crisis’.

First and foremost this is a crisis and a catastrophe for the refugees, not an EU crisis about the refugees.

Fundamentally this ‘refugee crisis’ is a crisis of humanity, and a test of the values Europe stands for.

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Johanna Mitscherlich's picture

Johanna Mitscherlich is Media and Communications Officer for CARE Germany-Luxembourg.