As Europe dithers, refugees’ agony lingers

MaltaToday has asked two specialist activists whether solutions to the current impasse exist and what effect this is having on refugees. 

Refugees are seeking new routes into Europe as Hungary seals borders
Refugees are seeking new routes into Europe as Hungary seals borders

This week European leaders once again failed to reach an agreement on a common response to the humanitarian crisis which is seeing thousands of refugees seeking refuge in Europe. MaltaToday has asked two specialist activists whether solutions to the current impasse exist and what effect this is having on refugees. 

Maria Pisani - Integra Foundation director

Why has the EU immigration policy failed? 

EU immigration and asylum policy never worked! This is just accelerated implosion. It goes without saying that this is a complex and multifaceted issue, however, at a basic level it comes down to sovereignty, borders and who controls them, and this cannot be divorced from the historical context.

The founding principle of what we know today as the EU was essentially aimed to prevent the horrors of WWII from ever occurring again. The EU project of free flow of capital, workers and information within the region was a shift towards recognising this project, however the nation state borders remained, and once again we are witnessing disputes over who controls them, and who can cross them.

Ultimately we have 28 nation states looking out for their own interests – the CEAS never achieved what it set out to do – and now member states are also reinstating their borders, rather than working in solidarity, in the interests of all.

Now throw racism and Islamophobia into the mix and the results can be toxic – history has taught us a lot. 

Why has Europe never reacted the way it has reacted now to the plight of sub-Saharan asylum seekers who have been seeking refuge in Europe for years? 

Again, I think we need to take a step back. The principle of free movement within the EU came at the expense of strengthening the external borders. For more than a decade we have spoken about how existing EU policy (such as the Dublin) puts a disproportionate responsibility on the external border states – in essence, asylum seekers and refugees were forced to remain in the first country of arrival, and the principle of solidarity has never been realised.

Today we are witnessing the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation – the Syrian crisis has led to millions fleeing their homes – let’s make no mistake, the vast vast majority of them have remained in the region.

However, this summer we have seen a significant increase in arrivals to the EU – more than ever before. In the absence of legal and safe access to protection, refugees have been forced to turn to smuggling networks in their attempts to reach safety. We also need to understand how contemporary refugees are able to move within this globalised world – transnational networks, social media and so on, provide access to information and facilitate movements like never before – this goes some way to explaining the increase in numbers... the Common European Asylum System – that never was – simply imploded. 

What are the short-term solutions to the current humanitarian crisis, especially in regard to Syrian refugees? Is there a saturation point as some politicians maintain? 

The short-term solutions remain what we have always called for – access to protection and legal modes of migration from the region so that refugees and other forced migrants will not be forced to get on a boat in the first place; solidarity and cooperation between the members states.

Knee jerk reactions, the securitisation of borders, and building walls is not the answer – it never was. I don’t think it’s about reaching a saturation point – much of the chaos is simply down to political failure. The EU is the richest region in the world and there is ‘space’. It is not an issue of ‘numbers’ – and again, I do not want to simplify.

It is an issue of borders, of identity, of belonging, ‘race’ and ethnicity, and of living in a globalised world. As long as there are wars and conflicts, there will be refugees. As long as there is global inequality, people will search for a better life. History has taught us this, and as Maltese we know this...    

Karl Schembri - Regional media advisor Norwegian Refugee Council (Middle East Regional Office)

Is Europe the main destination for Syrian refugees? What is the situation in Jordan, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries? 

Five years into the Syria crisis, thousands of refugees have started reaching Europe, but the absolute majority of refugees are in countries neighbouring Syria. Earlier this year, the fourth million refugee to flee Syria made it through to Lebanon, another milestone of shame in this long protracted crisis.

In Lebanon alone there are more than one million refugees among a population of just over four million. One out of every four people living in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Turkey has 1.9 million refugees and Jordan is hosting almost 630,000. Iraq has 250,000 Syrian refugees and 3.2 million internally displaced people.

So why are they now heading to Europe? 

The living conditions for many of the Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis are deteriorating every day. So many of them have run out of their savings, leaving them entirely dependent on humanitarian aid.

Aid itself is drying up. Only a few days ago the World Food Programme struck off 229,000 refugees in Jordan alone from its food aid programme. They were simply told by SMS that their food aid will stop. Those still receiving aid are getting US$14 a month per person in food.

The situation is desperate. Many are unable to work: they either require expensive work permits that make it impossible or they work illegally, making very little income and at risk of being forcefully returned to Syria. We see a lot of child labour, millions of children missing out on school and doing dangerous jobs just to be able to buy some bread for their families.

The majority live outside refugee camps (Lebanon has no official camps) in very poor housing, in makeshift tents or abandoned buildings, and many are further displaced as they can’t keep up with the rent and are evicted by the landlords. I’ve heard it from so many refugees across the region that if only they could give a future to their children, they would do anything it takes, including taking the treacherous trip by boat that might kill them.

The countries neighbouring Syria have been very generous and have shouldered the immense pressure on their communities by themselves, but they are also now at breaking point and they have been forced to effectively close the borders for those fleeing from Syria.

Aid is not enough and that is why the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and other humanitarian agencies have been asking wealthy countries to take on their fair share of the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement from the region while supporting host countries financially.

Are Arab Gulf states doing enough? Is the rest of the world doing enough?

Gulf countries have contributed aid generously for refugees in the region and built camps for them but they are not granting asylum to refugees. Nor are other wealthy countries like Russia, Japan and South Korea. We have seen a very unequal burden sharing of this crisis on a global level, both in terms of funding and humanitarian protection. The UK, for example, has been one of the most generous in providing funding but humanitarian admissions have been extremely low. Germany, Norway and Sweden, on the other hand, have taken in the highest numbers of people in need of protection.

The crisis we’re facing is one of staggering proportions and the scale continues to deepen. Aid agencies are stretched to the limit, and so are host countries neighbouring Syria. In Syria, more than half the pre-war population of 23 million is in need of humanitarian aid and thousands are trapped in besieged areas where they are running out of food and dying of hunger. Clearly the world has been failing Syria on all levels: in reaching a peaceful solution to the conflict, stepping up aid to meet the extent of the needs, and in granting asylum to civilians seeking protection.

What aspirations do these refugees have?

Only three years ago, the majority of refugees I met in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq were adamant on wanting to go back home as soon as the fighting stopped. Their consistent message, irrespective of their economic background, was that they wanted to go back home and continue living their lives in peace.

Now that prospect is looking bleaker than ever and they are looking elsewhere. Since the crisis started their lives have been put on hold: millions of children have missed out on their education, families have been separated and the conditions of people requiring specialised treatment have worsened.

All they ask for is to be able to continue living their lives in safety and security. They don’t want aid, they want to live dignified lives, find work and be able to send their children to school.

What does Europe mean to them?

Europe is a haven of safety and security where people are protected, living full and dignified lives. Every Syrian I spoke to never imagined they would have to flee their country and become refugees. It was unthinkable until it happened, and now they look to Europe for help in this moment of desperation.

What can Europe do for them?

Solutions need to tackle the problem at its source: In the context of Syria, it’s the conflict that is forcing mass displacement of millions of civilians and influential governments need to stop fuelling the conflict and focus on political solutions. The permanent members of the UN Security Council have a moral obligation to focus on political solutions to end the fighting.

We call on European countries to share responsibility for all refugees in Europe no matter where they first entered the continent. The so-called Dublin Regulation specifies that the first country which asylum seekers reach is responsible for them, but it has exceptions, and Germany is using the exception.

Today a large majority of refugees go to Germany while some countries in Europe hardly receive any refugees at all, so there must be sharing of responsibility for the processing and hosting of refugees who need protection and all European countries need to participate.

Migrants who do not need international protection should be returned quickly and efficiently to their country of origin, but with dignity.

From our observations, we can say that the earlier the refugees are integrated into normal life in host countries, the better. This is particularly true when it comes to work, and that is why Germany is giving Syrian refugees temporary work permits immediately upon their arrival, as opposed to Norway where it can take up to two years.

Germany has set a very good example. Integration through work is one of the most effective ways to achieve social cohesion among refugees and the host communities. It is also the best way to learn a language and culture of the host community, as opposed to segregated, specialised language classes with little interaction. Language can be a huge barrier in the beginning and work can help overcome that in very practical ways.

The same goes for regular schooling for children: having refugee children in mainstream education is paramount to ensuring that children feel at home with each other.

All European countries should also increase their aid to Syria and in the region. NRC has proposed that Norway triples its aid to Syria. If all European countries did that we could have funded the entire UN appeal, but since not all European countries will do this we need more funding from other wealthy countries such as China and Russia and other large economies which are currently contributing very little and are also accepting no refugees.

Stories from Iraq (text and photos by Karl Schembri)

16-year-old Mahmoud Abdullah Bakr from Al Hasakah, Syria, suffers from Thalassemia, a life-threatening blood disorder. He had to flee his country after the hospitals had no more blood and is now living in an urban settlement in Mamzawa, Northern Iraq with his uncle´s family.

Photo: Karl Schembri/Norwegian Refugee Council
Photo: Karl Schembri/Norwegian Refugee Council

Mahmoud´s own parents are still living in Syria. He needs a bone marrow transplant. In photo, Mahmoud is holding up the doctors’ letter stating that the treatment he needs cannot be provided in Iraq and that he must be treated abroad.

“Hospitals in Syria are no longer functioning. I was given direct person to person blood transfusions. There’s no more blood left. I don’t want to leave Iraq, I just need treatment but it’s hard to get it here.”

When war broke out, 32-year-old Mediha (centre) had to flee her hometown of Kobani in the Aleppo Governorate in northern Syria, the same village three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the child whose image of him washed ashore in Turkey touched the world. After a long journey walking to Turkey, she and her family ended up in the urban area of Mamzawa in Erbil, Kurdish Region of Iraq. The young mother lives with her five children and husband in a rented poor shed. Even though Mediha tells us that the family don’t even have the money to buy their children clothes, they can’t return back to Syria:

Photo: Karl Schembri/Norwegian Refugee Council
Photo: Karl Schembri/Norwegian Refugee Council

“It’s better here for now... we’ll stay here. I can’t think of a future back in Syria for now”.

Ali, Mediha’s cousin (left), told me: “One day ISIS attacked our village and our houses. They destroyed our houses. We took our few belongings and children and left Kobani towards the Turkish border. From there we went to Erbil. It’s not just us, everyone had to flee from ISIS. They were taking children and women, killing them. All of our belongings were gone, even our cars. Before the coalition air strikes, we saw ISIS fighters coming in their cars. They started attacking us and shooting rockets. Then we got the air strikes and our houses were under attack from all directions. We were around 70 to 80 families together. A lot of us left but many also died. We carried only the clothes we were wearing, that’s it. Everything else stayed in Kobani.

About Aylan Kurdi: “When we saw those pictures we felt so sad for them. We cried. This is all inhuman. Having to leave by sea like that, seeing that child... we all cried for him, we were mortified. The picture of this child says more than all the thousands who fled by sea. So many fled towards Europe, Germany, but this picture touched all the world and the world mourned him. Our friends and neighbours went to Europe but we came here to Kurdistan. Some left by sea, others by land or by plane, I don’t know, but I know they left for Europe. We thought of leaving too but you need money to go and the sea route is life threatening. So we said it’s better to come to Kurdistan, we’d be among Kurds like us. It’s better for us. Why risk our lives to go to Europe?

“Our message to the people abroad, God help them, is to look after the refugees, to treat them well. May God stand with them for what they’re doing. My message to the politicians responsible is to solve this crisis, help refugees, help us in Syria and Iraq so that we can go back to our beautiful country. I ask all those responsible to urgently reach a resolution to the conflict so we can go back.”

In the photo: Ali Hajji Rashid (cousin of Mediha), Mediha’s children Ibrahim in green (10), Bashar, Rukhia (5). In the background Samira and mother Mediha.

Palestinian refugees Tamer Ibrahim and his wife Shedagh want to go to Europe with their five children due to a very difficult life in Iraq. Tamer was kidnapped by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, before he managed to escape and get to Baharka camp with his family in Erbil, Northern Iraq. He has siblings in Norway, Sweden and the US and wants to find a way to join his brother in Norway. Tamer worked in Mosul as a hairdresser, a profession that is now banned by the new rulers in control there.

He told us: “We want to give a future to our children, so they can study and live a life, a real life, unlike ours. We never had anything in our life. Since we were born we’ve only seen wars and hardships. It’s all about their future.

“One feels dead here. If God helps me cross by sea with my children we’ll have a life. If we’re meant to die then that’s it. We’re really dead here. One needs to have some hope in raising his children in Europe where people live full lives, cultured… I’d love that.