A humanitarian crisis is currently unfolding on European soil.
In what some have interpreted as a bid by Turkey to pressure European states to assist its military operations in Syria and provide financial aid, on February 28, the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, suddenly opened its borders with Greece.
This inevitably spurred the hopes of many refugees in Turkey who want to reach Europe. They are now attempting in large numbers to enter Greece. Turkey is one of the world’s top refugee-receiving countries and currently hosts around 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians.
Greece responded by sending troops to prevent refugees from crossing its borders, violently pushing them away and suspending asylum applications. The right-wing New Democracy government has further promised to deport those migrants who do manage to enter the country.
All of these measures are illegal under international law. They stand in direct violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees refugees’ access to a fair asylum procedure and protects them from being returned to countries where they are at risk of persecution. All this was made clear by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which stated that refugee law does not provide Greece “any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications.”
As well as these measures, there has been sometimes violent repression of refugees’ movements. Clashes between migrants and border guards have resulted in a Syrian refugee being shot dead by Greek police; one boy drowned as a boat capsized off the coast of Lesvos. The Greek coast guard was also filmed using gunfire to force boats with refugees back toward Turkey. Several NGOs and volunteers operating on the island have been forced to suspend their activities after mobs of far-right groups started targeting aid workers and journalists.
European authorities, however, declared their solidarity with the Greek government. The EU this week pledged €700 million of financial help, along with “coastal patrol vessels, helicopters and vehicles” to make sure “that order is maintained at the Greek external border.” They are effectively supporting Greece’s border militarization efforts, bolstering measures described by Amnesty International as “inhumane” and an “appalling betrayal of [its] human rights responsibilities.”
The current crisis is a direct consequence of the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey. Here, European countries essentially gave Erdoğan the green light for his foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East, looser visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, and €6 billion in aid — all in exchange for Turkey tightening its borders with Greece and preventing refugees from reaching Europe.
Similar to the pact previously struck between Italy and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the 2016 deal also gave Erdoğan a powerful weapon to blackmail and destabilize Europe — with the threat that Istanbul would ease its grip and let refugees cross into Greece at will. The current crisis clearly shows this blackmail at work. Scholars and activists have rightly criticized the agreement as illegal under international law, as well as for the fact that it simply sweeps aside human rights considerations.
This kind of containment strategy is, however, consistent with the broader border externalization practices the EU has pursued in recent decades, indeed around the world. Border management has increasingly been outsourced to migrants’ countries of origin or transit, with the aim of creating buffer zones to intercept and push back refugees before they make it to Europe.
In this sense, it is simply laughable that German chancellor Angela Merkel calls on Erdoğan not to express his discontent “on the back of the refugees,” and that European Council president Charles Michel demands “respect for human dignity and . . . for international law.” The EU does not care and has never cared about the well-being of refugees. Instead, it has always considered them an annoying inconvenience and a burden. This is why it has made Europe a heavily guarded fortress, virtually inaccessible for poor people and refugees — and why it has shown no hesitation in bloodying its hands just to keep them at bay.
In reality, the German chancellor was herself at the forefront of the negotiations behind the infamous 2016 deal, and then in promoting this agreement. Back then, Erdoğan was apparently considered a respectable and trustworthy partner, and the refugees’ fate an issue of no concern.
Merkel was lauded in 2015 for welcoming a million refugees into Germany in response to the wave of public indignation that greeted the death of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi. Yet she and her European counterparts revealed their duplicity when, only months later, they signed a deal that condemned thousands of refugees to a life of uncertainty and misery in overcrowded Greek islands or the towns of Turkey.
Rather than expressing genuine concern for forcibly displaced communities, European governments’ humanity has proven highly malleable — essentially depending on what political advantages they can draw from lip-service statements or occasional acts of solidarity.
The current crisis has also brought a sudden spirit of comradeship among European leaders, united by the common objective of stopping refugees. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen praised Greece for serving as Europe’s “shield” while France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, offered “full solidarity” and help to protect Greece’s borders.
It is rather revealing of the EU’s priorities — and, indeed, its very nature — to see how eager European governments are to “solidarize” with Greece’s efforts to push back the refugees, even after ten years in which they imposed harsh austerity on this same country. Then, they were quite willing to humiliate Greece, dragging it into a vicious circle of crisis without the slightest hint of solidarity.
Turning a Blind Eye
Of course, Erdoğan’s use of refugees as bargaining chips to pursue Turkey’s political objectives is disgraceful. Yet European leaders’ shamelessly hypocritical fake humanitarianism is even worse. As long as refugees were trapped in Turkey, exploited in garment factories or begging in the streets of Istanbul, EU member states had no problem in turning a blind eye to the human costs of their dirty deal.
Today, as the victims of Europe’s global border regime knock on Greece’s door, the EU is responding with weapons, tear gas, and grenades. Let us not be fooled by European governments’ attempts to blame Erdoğan, traffickers, smugglers, or terrorists for the current chaos and crisis. The latter are above all the result of European states’ deliberate, reckless, inhumane policies to keep refugees away from the old continent at all costs — rejecting the human fallout of an unjust and morally bankrupt world order that the EU is fully committed to preserving.
The only decent, humane response to this emergency is to pressure governments to open the borders and let in the thousands of men, women, and children currently stuck at the 120-kilometer-long border between Turkey and Greece. These are human beings fleeing poverty, war, and persecution — and we ought to be providing them the decent living conditions we would ourselves expect. That solidarity, not the hypocritical hand-wringing of the European establishment, is the way to resist the mounting climate of xenophobia and racism.