Migrant arrivals to Greece rose sharply this week — one week since the European Union and Turkey brokered a deal to resettle people landing in Europe back across the Aegean Sea in Turkey. The uptick in arrivals, expected to continue as warmer weather spells an easier sea crossing, will test the feasibility of the EU-Turkey deal, which has been widely criticized by both human rights groups and implementing organizations including the United Nations.
In exchange for accepting the returned migrants, Turkey will receive financial assistance, easier visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Europe and expedited EU membership talks. The deal’s feasibility is only part of the equation, according to Barry Johnson, ActionAid’s head of advocacy. Whether it upholds international humanitarian law is another question.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation with Johnson, edited and condensed:
We’re now more than a week into the new EU-Turkey deal. What’s happening on the ground, and what are the earliest steps toward implementing the deal?
It’s chaos over there at the moment. We have a deal agreed at a high political level by Europe, and in first instance our view of the deal is that it’s a shoddy deal, it’s morally really questionable and perhaps even legally questionable.
I think what we’re seeing here is a reckless response to a humanitarian crisis. There was an international legal framework that Europe was responsible for drafting up in the wake of the World War II and it’s being totally ignored. That system provides all the necessary procedures and processes.
So at the moment on the ground in Lesbos, which is where ActionAid is operating, we’ve had no direct information from decision-makers on what the implementation of this deal will look like … What I think needs to be remembered at the very root of all this is that you have individuals who have fled for their lives from war, who are staying in tents and on beaches on islands off the coast of Turkey seeking safe haven and refuge, and we’re not able to tell them what tomorrow holds in terms of safety, current or future status, and that is a really profound failing on the part of European leaders.
What are the ambiguities in the deal? Where are the gaps to be filled and questions still to be answered?
I think it’s important to bring this back to the impact on women and children’s lives particularly. On the island of Lesbos, ActionAid runs something called Women and Children Safe Centers … For women and children and girls particularly, these are safe havens. Likely not for the last hundred miles, perhaps even years of their journey have they had a safe space like this.
We have one woman, Rojin, who came into that center, and on her journey from Syria she had been separated from her children. She will go through the asylum process, but she has a legal right, as her family does, to family reunification. But I think what Europe is now telling her is that if her family are further behind in the asylum process, if they’re on a boat on their way to Lesvos for example, we’re going to turn them back. We’re going to leave them in Turkey, and we’re not going to provide any assistance. And I don’t think in the 21st century — and not in the 20th century either — that’s a moral or humane way to treat people who are fleeing from some of the most horrific violence that we’ve known as a civilization.
What role did the U.K. play in this deal and how do you envision its involvement going forward?
The U.K. is the second largest bilateral donor and that’s to be welcomed and it’s important, but that doesn’t relieve them of their legal and moral obligations in responding to the refugee crisis. Even the largest number of refugees the U.K. has said it’s prepared to take would amount to less than six individual refugees per constituency per year for the next five years. When you look at a country like Lebanon, where one in four of its population are now refugees, there really isn’t any comparison in terms of the burden being shared.
Remember again, when Europe last dealt with a situation like this in the aftermath of World War II, it was political leaders in particular who stood up, said this was something that needed to be dealt with, and who brought together a legal system which they thought at that time would prevent this crisis from happening again and would give people the protection that they needed. And what we have at the moment, is their successors tearing that up.
What are the implications of the so-called one-for-one deal on the refugee situation in Turkey?
Ostensibly the argument is that this would break up trafficking. The rationale is supposedly that for trafficking services, even if you manage to get to Europe through trafficking, you’ll be returned, whereas if you sit and wait in a camp we might take you. But it’s important to notice also that it has a cap. Europe has said only up to 70,000 [refugees will be accepted], and obviously again that’s a drop in the ocean in terms of people.
You don’t get to pick and choose who you save, who you decide to offer protection to, international law is explicit on that. This idea that Europe will pick and choose the refugees it likes runs contrary to its legal obligations.
What happens now?
What we’re going to see unfortunately, is more drownings. We’re going to see more moments like the baby Aylan case [in which a deceased Syrian refugee infant was found on shore], because we’re coming to the summer now, and refugee flows will pick up again.
If we look at other regions, the vast majority of refugees and displaced people are in the developing world … If you look at places like Ethiopia and Southeast Asia, you have huge movements of people due to conflicts and disasters, and those countries are actually doing a better job, or at least they are not failing in the way that Europe is failing in terms of dealing with those crises.
For Europe to turn around and say we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the systems to deal with this, at a time when these issues are arguably far more challenging in other parts of the world, again reiterates just how poorly our political leaders are responding to this.
I think we in civil society need to be obviously stronger, and more critical, and also prepared to engage with the European public as well, to say, ‘Is this the kind of response you want happening in your name?’
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