Last week’s controversial EU-Turkey migrant summit resolved to send back all migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey without documents. Is this a humanitarian solution?
Over 1,012,100 migrants set sail for Europe from Turkey last year. Most of them arrived carrying little more than coughing toddlers and cheaply made life vests. Nearly 3,800 of them didn’t arrive at all.
Each leaky dinghy beached in Lesbos is full of people who have risked everything to sink their feet into the damp Greek sand. Now, in exchange from some EU cash and a visa waiver, Europe is baiting Turkey into towing these passengers back.
The controversial EU-Turkey migrant summit resolved to send back all migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey without documents. Each rejected asylum seeker will then be exchanged for a Syrian refugee already in Turkey.
Already, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International are distressed over the plan’s disregard for migrant rights. Sending back migrants is a flagrant violation of international human rights law and should be condemned no matter what the context. A “one-for-one” agreement with Turkey is a Euro-centric and cowardly solution to a global crisis. What kind of message does this approach send about the priorities of the West?
Europe must stop seeking to protect itself. Instead, it needs to take responsibility for lives beyond its borders by introducing efficient external processing centres in other host countries. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have been overburdened for far longer than deer-caught-in-headlights Europe.
If we invest enough money to make the centres organized and effective, and make it clear that those applying from new external hotspots will be given priority, Europe will gain the ability to screen asylum seekers before they seek to penetrate its borders. Refugees will have confidence that their applications will be processed without excessive delay. Tens of thousands could be deterred from throwing their lives away into the sea.
Those who do arrive in Europe overland or by boat can stay, but new arrivals should understand that their application is about to slot into the end of a slow-moving queue — one that would stretch to 460 kilometres long if everyone in it stood shoulder-to-shoulder.
At present, asylum centres in Germany and Sweden are experiencing an unprecedented backlog. Migrants are vanishing. (Germany recently reported the disappearance of 130,000 asylum seekers.) Prioritizing external applicants would cut European asylum centre waiting lists and ensure more migrants can be properly identified.
Critics of external processing will argue that it raises risk of violating the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution, a statute enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The human rights records of many host countries are questionable, thus putting refugees at the mercy of potentially brutal guardians. There isn’t enough information on the ground to see if these centres would be safe.
True. But is Europe doing any better? Bitter divisions over migrant quotas are ripping the continent apart at the seams. Last week, Macedonian police halted nearly 13, 000 migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border, forcing them to camp indefinitely with entire families sleeping in the rain at -10°C. In Hungary, migrants have been tear-gassed and pelted with rubber bullets; in France, bulldozers have made pancakes of their makeshift homes; in Bulgaria, they’ve been robbed, beaten, attacked by police dogs – even killed.
Threatening to tow them back to Turkey is an additional assault on their most basic rights to liberty and dignity. External processing is a Band-Aid solution to a haemorrhaging problem – but sometimes the best option is an imperfect one.
Another concern is that external hotspots will attract more migrants into the host countries, thereby increasing their economic and social burden. If the experiences of 2015 have taught us anything, it is that conflicts in the Middle East are so dire that migrants will come regardless. As it is, the EU should be giving more to overwhelmed host countries. A deal that exchanges cash for refugees’ right-to-work in host countries would be a win-win for all parties.
Of course, this is all easier said than done: such a project would require massive co-operation between EU members and third-party states, not to mention meticulous consultation, design, and evaluation. However, Europe has a responsibility to step up rather than to step aside. If Syria continues to burn, migrants will heed Europe’s siren call no matter what the complications. Offering them a safer route is a valid option. Exchanging human lives tit-for-tat with Turkey is not.
Isabela Vera is a freelance writer, Master of International Affairs candidate at the Hertie School of Governance, and former editor at alive magazine. She holds an Honours B.A in Sociology and Journalism from the University of Victoria.