Disaster waiting to happen
Eddie Ford finds the EU-Turkey deal on migrants both inhuman and unworkable
Communists start with the basic proposition that workers should be allowed to live and work anywhere they choose, even if most people naturally want to stay close to their family and friends. Capitalism is an exploitative global system, and arguably always has been - with capital freely able to whizz around the world at the touch of a button except for this or that freakish corner of the planet. An inescapable fact is that we live under a ‘dog eat dog’ imperialist system in which some countries will come out better than others.
As we see with the refugees washed up onto the shores of Lesbos and elsewhere, some countries come out a lot worse: getting torn to pieces by a grim cocktail of imperialist intervention, proxy wars, corrosive civil wars and general economic meltdown. Under such conditions, you would expect nothing less than to feel immediate and instinctive solidarity with those who have become casualties of a system beyond their control.
Needless to say, the bourgeoisie and their agents feel nothing of the sort - rather, they increasingly regard refugees/migrants as a threat to political stability. This could not be made clearer by the wretched European Union-Turkey deal on migrants, which epitomises the inhumanity of the bourgeoisie as a class and was the fruit of five months of intense diplomacy. Under this agreement, which took effect from March 20, at least on paper, any “irregular” or “illegal” migrants who arrive in Greece from Turkey and cannot prove that they are ‘genuine’ asylum-seekers will be forcibly shipped back to Turkey unless they can somehow prove that doing so would put them in harm’s way. Theoretically, this measure would close down the Aegean ‘smuggling route’, through which nearly one million people arrived in Europe via Turkey and then Greece last year.
In return, the EU has promised Ankara €6 billion to help the estimated 2.7 million Syrians now languishing in Turkey - and by as early as June will make it easier for Turkish citizens to get short-term visa-free travel to countries in the Schengen area. EU leaders have also agreed a ‘people swap’: for each Syrian returned to Turkey, Europe has promised to accept another Syrian living in a Turkish camp. However, the EU has set a cap of 72,000 people who will be given asylum: way short of the 108,000 a year recommended by international aid agencies if Europe is to do its ‘fair share’. Additionally, for what it’s worth - which is not much - Turkey can expect “re-energised” talks on possible EU membership.
Quite monstrously, the EU is turning its back on refugees in what the Financial Times (March 18) calls the “harshest collective response” to migration since the end of World War II. Turkey is hardly a safe haven or a promised land. It has regularly flouted international law by sending back refugees to Syria and, despite new labour legislation, does not offer most Syrians access to legal work - as a result, many Syrians send their children to work to make ends meet.
Apart from being vile in principle, the EU-Turkey deal is obviously unworkable on just about any level you care to mention - logistically, legally, diplomatically and politically. For instance, somewhat madly, debt-stricken Greece is supposed to have in place by April 4 a ‘fast-track’ process for assessing asylum claims, which will require a mini-army of some 4,000 staff, including judges, interpreters, border guards, police and others to manage each case individually (those not claiming asylum are expected to be returned even sooner).
True, about 2,500 of the total staff are to come from other EU countries - but they will not start to arrive until March 28, meaning that the country is more or less expected to construct a fully-fledged asylum system on the Greek islands within a few days. The ‘hot spot’ reception areas, which have been set up over the last few months, will have to be turned into detention centres and Turkish police officers will have to cooperate with the Greek police after many decades of simmering tensions - not exactly a recipe for success.
A despairing Greek interior ministry official said last week that it will “take several weeks to get going, even with help from EU partners” - with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Council, admitting it was a “Herculean challenge” for Greece and the “biggest task the EC has ever faced”.
Meanwhile, the refugees continue to flow in. On March 20 alone some 1,600 arrived in a flotilla of flimsy dinghies - they “react with disbelief” when told they will be deported back to Turkey, according to an aid worker. More than 50,000 refugees and migrants are trapped in squalid conditions, with over 13,000 effectively imprisoned in the appalling Idomeni camp on the sealed Greek-Macedonian border. Some of those may try to move onwards through the Balkans - via Albania, maybe, and perhaps by sea to Italy. Historical migration patterns consistently show that when one route closes another one opens.
Politically the deal already seems to be falling apart. Representing a major setback for Brussels, Turkish government sources on March 21 said they would not change their domestic law to grant Afghans and Iraqis refugee status in Turkey - currently, only Syrians are recognised as potential refugees, while others can be deported back to war zones. But 24% of those landing in Greece are Afghans, and 15% are Iraqis, with a high proportion eligible for asylum - meaning that, as the deal currently stands, they may escape being shipped back to Turkey. Unhappy EU officials said a change in Turkish law was essential to make the deal “compliant” with international law, claiming they received “verbal assurances” from the Turkish delegation that they would do so. However, a Turkish diplomat insisted that his country “does not need to pass further legislation” on this issue.
Further adding to the confusion, an official at the European Asylum Support Office (an EU agency that will advise migrants on their claims) said that people with “immediate family” in Europe could avoid deportation and win the right to re-join their loved ones - the proportion of women and children has surged to six in ten this spring as families attempt to follow menfolk who successfully made the trip to Germany and Sweden last summer. However, EASO’s contention contradicts those made by the EC, which argues that rules on family reunification do not “trump” the power to send people back to Turkey. Complicating things even more, it now seems that the one-for-one ‘people swap’ is “voluntary” - raising doubts about how many countries will actually offer places for Syrian refugees.
As mentioned above, the entire legal basis of the EU-Turkey deal stinks to high heaven - appearing to break both EU law and the United Nations refugee convention, which was created in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide and World War II. Apparently sacrosanct, the convention says signatories cannot expel or deport asylum-seekers/refugees without seriously examining their claims individually. Responding in a blatantly disingenuous manner, the EU implied that it would comply with this provision - but, given that it is simultaneously deeming Turkey a ‘safe country’ for refugees, in reality most people will still be sent back en masse in what amounts to a form of collective punishment.
Various international organisations are up in arms against the new scheme. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which has been unenviably tasked with supervising the deal, has stopped cooperating on the Greek islands. Objecting in principle to detention, it has suspended a bus service used to take migrants to the ‘closed reception centres’. A UNHCR spokesperson stated that the deal is being “implemented prematurely”, as the “necessary safeguards are not yet in place” - adding that Greece “does not yet have the capacity or staff to deal with this and the facilities are not up to standards that guarantee a dignified environment”. People claiming asylum need unfettered access to interpreters and the right of appeal, he said, both of which Greece - even on the most generous assessment - is “struggling” to implement.
Amnesty International delivered an even more damning verdict - this is a “dark day for the refugee convention, a dark day for Europe and a dark day for humanity”. Similarly, Mike Noyes of Action Aid correctly said that the deal would turn the Greek islands into “prison camps”, where “terrified people are held against their will”, before being deported back to Turkey. Contemptuously brushing off such criticism, a spokesman for Juncker declared, “We don’t have time for comments”, as “we have to make this work”. But the dinghies and boats keep coming, and Greece is fast becoming the moat, or outer perimeter, of the EU - no longer an integral part of Europe or the Schengen area.
EU leaders know full well that the Turkey deal will be challenged in the courts, and that they will almost certainly lose - publicity that will be accompanied by lots of harrowing pictures of people, including women and young children, being forcibly turned away. The whole thing is a complete nonsense, a disaster waiting to happen, so why are they doing it?
The only conclusion you can come to is that it is all about short-term news management: we must be seen to be doing something, even if it is completely inhuman and counterproductive. Germany has felt compelled to dump its humanitarian, refugee-friendly image and policies, following increased support for rightwing groups. However, by adopting their rhetoric, chancellor Angela Merkel is only strengthening the hand of Alternative for Germany, which in the recent state elections saw it gain a double-digit percentage of the vote - it finished second in Saxony-Anhalt on 24.2%. Regrettably, you can only expect it to do even better when the Turkey deal unravels.
Yes, this approach is extraordinarily short-termist, but is just what you expect from bourgeois politicians. David Cameron, as readers will recall, made the call for a referendum on EU membership purely in order to outflank the UK Independence Party - he did not appear to consider that he might actually be forced to keep his promise and risk not only losing the vote, but splitting his party down the middle. The same goes for his obvious nonsense about reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands” - something his advisors must have warned him against and was instantly mocked by anyone with half a brain.
All that matters is today’s problem and generating a few favourable, passing headlines in the more stupid end of the rightwing press. An outlook that characterises the present-day political class, totally devoid of any vision or programme.