28th Oct 2020 | Greece By Angelika Etherington-Smith
To some extent solidarity is certainly under threat at Europe’s borders. For the last decade the relationship between the countries on the European Continent, borders and refugees has been complicated, to say the least. Then in 2020 Coronavirus hit, and worsened both the humanitarian crises that various countries in Europe face in areas of refuge as well as the European solidarity at Europe’s borders.
First, it's necessary to define what solidarity is. According to Agne-Marie Hancock and Sally Scholz, among other political science authors, solidarity is what binds people together-especially in times of crisis. It is agreed in high international political circles that intersectionality simply must be a part of solidarity, with our ever changing, developing and diverse world. Solidarity is also often talked about in relation to Europe, as it is a core concept in Christian democratic political ideology.
To a large extent, many people within Europe and outside of it are now commenting that European solidarity is under threat, especially at the borders for several reasons. One of them is the humanitarian crisis-the poor conditions and overcrowding that refugees of all ages have to face on the Aegean islands, especially with the recent COVID-19 outbreak. The other is the logistical and political one: following the EU-Turkey statement after Turkey has opened its borders to thousands of refugees allowing immigration into the EU through Turkey, much to the disgruntlement of the EU.
Both issues stem from previous policies, decisions and agreements signed within the last decade. To put things simply, the war with Syria created many refugees who started fleeing to Europe. Many countries quickly got overwhelmed with the flow and amount of refugees and started to enforce policies limiting the numbers so they are able to process the refugees as well as keep their own economy going. In 2016 the EU signed an agreement with Turkey that the latter would take a large chunk of refugees for an undetermined amount of time, and the EU will give Turkey money to support them. Since 2016 Turkey has become a home for over 3.7 million Syrian refugees and over a million refugees fleeing from war zones in their countries. In return, the EU committed to paying Turkey 6 billion euros. According to trtworld.com , “Farouk Kaymakci, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister for European Union Affairs, confirmed late last year that hosting the refugees cost Turkey above 40 billion dollars. That said, the European Union has yet to allocate more than 5.6 of 6 billion euros, with only 3.5 billion of which were delivered, while disbursements did not exceed 2.4 billion as of last October.” Early March 2020 Turkey announced that it is opening its borders to allow the refugees entry into other parts of the EU. Some Turkish officials cited that the burden of keeping so many refugees took too high of a toll on the Turkish economy. This action broke the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement. This is one of the points of friction, where one can argue that solidarity is under attack at Europe’s borders.
There’s much discussion and division among the EU member states on who is right and how this refugee policy conflict will develop. Some countries empathise with Turkey and their reasons for opening their borders, calling the EU “inhumane” and “unfair”, going as far as to say that the EU’s actions are a breach of international law, for not letting the refugees exercise their Article 14 of the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights (The right to seek and receive asylum). Others argue that Turkey is the one at fault, causing an international incident. This is because the border that Turkey opened is the one that borders Greece and the EU. And Greece is already struggling with the refugees it has on the Aegean islands, and is trying to prevent more from entering the mainland.
Asylum seekers are arguably the most vulnerable demographic in the times of Coronavirus. The European Parliament cites that they are a group very vulnerable to the spread of the virus for the following reasons:
· Population density
· Difficulty in accessing vital services, especially healthcare; limited medical care, available in camps for patients with acute symptoms
· Lack of information, misinformation, mistrust towards the authorities
· Humanitarian workers and volunteers may decrease or cut contact with asylum seekers in fear of contracting and spreading the virus
· The threat that insufficient funds needed to respond and address the ongoing humanitarian crises, will be cut even further due to rising COVID 19 outbreak
The aforementioned Aegean Islands are experiencing the devastating effect of these factors that make accommodating refugees hard, and now are under even more pressure to keep them healthy and safe, trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to the UNHCR’s official website, the Greek Islands of Chios, Kos, Lesbos, Leros and Samos have received 1200 refugees on 1-2 March alone, much higher than the recent daily rate. As of mid-May 2020, over 36,000 asylum seekers, 6 times the total capacity of the camps, lived in the Reception and Identification Centres on the Greek islands. Many international media outlets condemned Greece for not doing enough to decongest the islands. Meanwhile, Greece is trying to prevent the refugee relocation to the mainland for the same reason it is trying to prevent refugees from Turkey getting past their border: allowing relocation to happen would endanger millions of Greeks and possibly increase the loss of life from Coronavirus. However, keeping the camps overcrowded isn’t safe either. Greece is stuck in a Catch 22: it cannot decongest the camps without endangering the Greeks, and it cannot just tell the refugees to follow the COVID-19 guidelines like social distancing due to the overcrowding of the camps. It is an impossible situation and no country is volunteering to take the pressure off. This is yet another argument to support the idea of European solidarity being at threat when it comes to Europe’s borders.
In April 2020 European Union’s home affairs commissioner announced that part of the EU's €350 million financial assistance package for Greece would cover temporary accommodation for migrants and asylum seekers on the Aegean islands. In response, the Greek authorities developed a plan to decongest the island camps following “triage” of the migrants and asylum seekers, giving transfer priority to people over 60, those with “specific medical conditions,” and their immediate family members. The plan will shield some people most at risk from the virus, but as Ministry of Migrations stated in April the number transferred will only be 2,380. That same week Luxembourg became the first country to welcome unaccompanied migrant children from Greece, saying that if the plan works, at least 1600 lives could be changed. Human Rights Watch said that these measures are simply not enough to solve the overcrowding issue. They also noted that the plan does not address the continued gaps in water, sanitation, hygiene products, and health care – nor the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities – in the camps and adjacent overspill sites for those who will remain. Human Rights Watch interviewed people who are currently living in the refugee camps, and reported that they don't have adequate or regular access to clean water for drinking or hygiene, there are severe shortages of disinfectant, and that due to low funding, poor electricity and security young girls and women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
So while it started looking that the EU was starting to exhibit solidarity towards Greece, in reality that looks more and more like a backhanded publicity stunt that doesn't solve any real issues that exist, only further threatening solidarity at Europe’s borders.
These facts are quite troubling. Some optimists might still be clinging to the idea that solidarity is not an abandoned concept for the EU. And they would be right to say so. Solidarity is not completely lost. This is shown by Italian lives being saved in hospitals of Saxony, Berlin and Cologne. This is shown by some refugees with medical background, being allowed to practice their skill and save lives on the frontline of the country they entered, both legal and illegal immigrants are given that chance in some member states. This is shown by the people still getting fresh, safe food despite the closed borders. This is most exhibited by the international cooperation as research teams are researching and testing possible vaccines, creating solutions to the Coronavirus pandemic. The overly enthusiastic optimists might even say that solidarity is not under threat at all, in fact it is stronger than ever.
To that I have two responses. First is that solidarity in political, financial and academic sense does not equate to solidarity at the borders. To make a grotesque oversimplification, is it like saying that a bald man cannot call himself hairless if he has hairy arms. Solidarity being practiced in other areas of life in European countries cannot dismiss the challenges it faces when it comes to the issues with the borders and refugees. Second is a quote by William A. Ward : “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails”.
The realists might be thinking of how to solve these problems. The issue with the Turkish and Greek border. The issue with the overcrowding and already inhumane conditions in the Greek camps becoming even worse. The humanitarian crises that the refugees face, cornered between the threat of death and war and suffering in the camps, dreading coronavirus or terrified to sleep at night, because the March nights on the Turkey-Greece border are cold, and that their child might not survive the night. These issues are overwhelming and terrifying and exhausting. They all threaten solidarity at Europe’s borders to a great extent. Not just the solidarity between the countries of the EU, but also the solidarity between politics, empathy and humanity.
Fortunately, some mechanisms already exist to help manage these issues.
The EU needs to take decisive action if it wants to revive and secure solidarity at its borders. The EU needs to make firm decisions among the Member States that will help improve the economic and financial stability of the Union long term, while focusing on healthcare in these trying times, taking care of their citizens as well as the refugees.
Their first step forward should be the reform of the 2013 Dublin III regulation. Reform and amendments are necessary to help redistribute the refugees among countries in the European Union. An amendment must be made, because Hungary, Slovakia and Poland refused to accept refugees since 2015. This damaged European solidarity greatly 5 years ago. It is clear that all member states have benefits and responsibilities that they must exercise as a part of the Union. It should be their civil duty to help each other and the refugees who need it, especially in the context of a global pandemic.
In conclusion, I believe that solidarity is under threat at Europe’s borders to a greater extent than ever before. But there is still hope. We simply must adjust the sails while waiting for the wind to change.