A betrayal of human rights responsibilities - 1st Winner in the European Solidarity Essay Prize

29th Oct 2020 | Greece By Max Bla

RECENTLY, a striking cartoon has been doing the rounds on Twitter. Two men are sat at a table. One is a white builder, with a single cookie on a plate in front of him, and the second man - a black man - sits opposite him, with no cookie and no plate. In between the two men sits an older white man resembling Rupert Murdoch, his plate stacked with cookies. Murdoch is pointing at the black man as he addresses the builder: “careful mate...that foreigner wants your cookie!”

Herein lies the essence of the Western world’s relationship with refugees. ‘Fortress Europe’, as our continent has (once again) come to be nicknamed in recent years, is the promised land for many of the world’s poorest people, yet itself knows vast levels of inequality - a lucky few hold the cookies, so to speak, while the rest of the population has to make do with a great deal less. Still, the thing about being the richest continent on Earth is that you’re the first port of call for those in need. Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, more than six million people have been made refugees. Many set their sights, pinned their last hope of survival, on Fortress Europe - but instead of opening our gates further, an increasing number of voices within the EU clamoured for them to close altogether. Here, in the refugee boats, was a convenient party to take on the role of the scapegoat. ​ Careful, Europeans; they’re coming for your cookies.

First, let us be clear, and not forget that in actual fact, increased immigration in the EU has had little to no effect on the economic welfare of most of the population. The 2008 financial crash did, however, and rather than world leaders blaming the true culprit behind the crisis (namely the financial sector), immigrants were given a large share of the blame for stagnant wages and rising unemployment. In turn, countries such as Poland and Hungary refuse to open their doors to refugees, despite pressure from the EU to do so, and in 2016, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán declared migrants “a poison” to his country. Britain, another nation with a government proudly opposed to immigration, even chose to leave the EU - with supporters of this decision citing high levels of immigration as a key factor. Economic hardship is the mother of division.

It’s easy to blame the right-wing populists for Europe’s diminishing level of solidarity with refugees. But populists don’t rise to power out of nowhere. They aim to represent the losers in society, to give a voice to the voiceless; and, with the rise of neoliberalism and rapid globalisation in recent decades, society counts more voiceless people than ever before, scared, angry, and looking for someone to blame for their troubles. Granted, Orbán points the finger of blame in the wrong direction - at the crowded refugee boats approaching from North Africa - but it’s unlikely his rhetoric would have been as popular, had rampant economic growth not carelessly left behind larges swathes of the population.

Of course, you may argue, the extreme Orbán-esque view does not represent the majority of Europeans. This is true. But Europe is bowing to it. In 2019, the EU introduced a new role in overseeing migration and security; a commissioner would be assigned the job of “Protecting our European Way of Life”. This announcement garnered criticism from many different sides, with some saying the job title tapped into right-wing, even fascist, rhetoric - why should we see outsiders as a threat to our way of living? Supporters of the new role, at the very heart of the EU, claimed that the European way of life values

solidarity, namely with those seeking safety in our continent. Solidarity with the six million Syrians making their way to Europe’s borders, for instance.

But there’s a burning problem with this view.

At Europe’s borders, those seeking refuge are met with rubber bullets and tear gas. At Europe’s borders, people who have nothing are turned away by the boatful, or ships manned by border officials are sent out to meet them and beat them with sticks until they admit defeat. At Europe’s borders, refugee camps house those who were lucky enough to make it to land - camps with a shockingly high level of violence, and often a medieval standard of hygiene, too. In fact, two years ago, the European Council vowed to exert “more effective control” of the EU’s borders, “in line with [its] principles and values”; respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. What happened to those values is anyone’s guess, but two years on, in March 2020, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen praised Greece’s role as Europe’s ​ aspida ​ , “shield”, against refugees - while Amnesty International condemned the Greek authorities’ treatment of incoming refugees as “a betrayal of human rights responsibilities”.

Yet still, the overwhelming sentiment in Europe seems to be that the EU is being charitable by letting any refugees enter at all - granted, we’re not treating them very well upon arrival, and the asylum application is by all accounts a nightmare, but it could be worse. In this sense, Orbán and the moderates have something in common; Europe displays sympathy with those who come to it seeking help. The only real difference between them in this respect, is that Orbán would rather it didn’t. But hang on: what if Europe’s prosperity and the chaos that some war-torn countries find themselves in are linked somehow? What if Europe’s acceptance of refugees is not generosity, but duty?

Let’s talk briefly about history. It doesn’t take a historian to realize that the way the world is today is a direct consequence of yesterday’s actions - but this is something we Europeans seem to forget all too easily. Wealth is not inherent to Europe. We weren’t born with it, we didn’t earn it or find it on the street; we stole it.

Violence and greed runs through Europe’s history like words through a stick of rock. We traveled, we conquered, and we enslaved. Some things have changed since those days, rapidly so, but the world order is never so quick to alter - it remains now as it was then, and today, European ex-colonies in Africa spend more money on debt repayment, owed to the largely European-controlled IMF, than they do on domestic healthcare. Here we have evidence that history is not an abstract thing, but the foundation on which today’s world is built.

And it’s not just colonialism that haunts us. The major European powers, the UK included, seem to leave a trail of devastation in their wake as they travel across the world to occupy and intervene. Palestine, Sierra Leone, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, along with many others; and that’s just the UK’s legacy, never mind France, Spain, or - my native country - The Netherlands. Consider this: despite having claimed not to be involved in the Yemeni war at all, it transpired in 2016 that five different types of British missiles and bombs have been used by Saudi Arabia to target Yemeni civilians. What’s more, over three million

people have been made refugees as a result of this British-enabled war in Yemen. Does the EU show solidarity with them?

One man who knows the answer to this question all too well, is 24-year-old Waleed al-Shaibani. A student in Yemen when the war broke out, he spent thousands of dollars trying to make his way to safety in Europe, where he hoped to continue his studies without fear of death. The events that followed, as reported by ​ Al Jazeera ​ at the time, were nothing short of a nightmare.

Initially, Waleed had hoped to reach family in France, but gave up after waiting weeks to cross the Macedonian border to no avail. He returned to a refugee camp in Athens, where the UNHCR advised him to apply for relocation to another EU country.

This relocation scheme was introduced by the EU in 2015 to lift the heavy burden off countries like Greece and Italy, and distribute incoming refugees across the continent. However, by May 2016 only 1,441 refugees had been part of this scheme, out of a planned 160,000, and besides - as Waleed would discover - Yemenis were not eligible for relocation, leaving Waleed stranded in a refugee camp in Greece.

The way EU law works, is that a refugee is only eligible for relocation if people of that nationality generally have an asylum application success rate of 75% or higher. Since more than a quarter of Yemenis are being denied access to Europe upon arrival, less than 75% are accepted, and therefore nobody from Yemen is eligible for relocation; leaving people like Waleed in purgatory at whatever refugee camp they happen to end up in first.

The Greek asylum service offered Waleed a binary choice: claim asylum in Greece, or go home. But Waleed could do neither. Job and housing prospects in Greece were low at best, practically non-existent, and returning to Yemen was prohibited as, ironically, it was considered too risky. “Our country is too dangerous for them to send us back, but not dangerous enough for them to accept us,” Waleed explained to ​ Al Jazeera ​ , before adding: “They just want us to go back to our countries; they don't care if we die there.”

This story is a perfect example of how the transition from human to refugee at Europe’s borders is a humiliating one. The price asylum seekers must pay to be considered for entry into the EU is to, quite bluntly, be stripped of their humanity, and to be converted into figures on a spreadsheet for immigration officers to deal with. An administrative issue. Even in this piece, I frequently refer to refugees by citing statistics, and this in itself is part of the problem. Numbers don’t show, at least not in the way that individual stories do, that the plight of any refugee could have belonged to you or me.

As climate change worsens, natural disasters will become increasingly devastating in the developing world, displacing more people than ever before - be it directly, when communities are destroyed, or indirectly, when climate change feeds economic or political instability to such an extent that people must seek refuge elsewhere. The truth is, of course, that these so-called ​ climate refugees ​ already exist. Soon, however, there will be more than ever before. A 2009 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation states that, globally, one in ten people risks forced displacement due to climate change before 2050.


As we know, developing countries are disproportionately hit by the effects of global warming. Some of their populations will inevitably be forced into rickety lifeboats set for Fortress Europe’s golden gates - and we will have the power to open those gates out of our duty as human beings, or to close them because we​

​ fear for our own​

​ prosperity. Whatever happens, always remember that this power is ours because of our position in the world order, the global hierarchy, which we ourselves created through centuries of brutality and oppression. We are no more entitled to a life of comfort than anybody else.

Is solidarity under threat at Europe’s borders? Ask Waleed al-Shaibani, ask all the refugees who lost their lives at sea if you could, and I imagine they’d reply something along the lines of: ​ what solidarity ​ ? This issue is not as complicated as some may have you believe. This is not about Europe’s finances, or its capacity to house refugees. It’s about our attitude towards them. Don’t believe for a second that we can’t offer refugees basic human dignity because we can’t afford it. And don’t believe for a second that we lack the capacity to stop committing human rights violations in our refugee camps. Europe, with its wealth and prosperity, holds the power - refugees are our responsibility. It’s about time we started showing the victims of the world’s evil the respect they deserve.



Winners announced for Action For Education’s 1st European Solidarity Essay Prize


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