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European governments' treatment of refugees is doing long term damage to international law

Posted by Maya Mailer Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns

15th Jun 2016

A child in the Katsikas camp in the Epirus Region of north-west Greece, where Oxfam is working to improve camp conditions. Credit: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

OPINION:

The EU's stance towards migration sets a dangerous precedent argues Maya Mailer, Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns. Today, as Oxfam launches a new campaign calling on world leaders to stand as one with refugees, the right to seek protection in another country is under threat. 

I visited some of Europe's refugee camps recently. Oxfam was founded in 1942 to help civilians that were starving in Nazi-occupied Greece, and now, more than 70 years later, we are once again active on Greece. Oxfam is working in camps in Lesvos and the mainland, providing clean water and sanitation, food, and helping people who have fled conflict and hardship to understand their rights. 

Conditions were basic, in some instances squalid, and the air was thick with flies. In mainland Greece, there are around 45,000 people scattered across 40 different refugee camps that are run mainly by the country's military. In the two sites I visited, refugees were living in rows of flimsy tents on hard rocky ground. Conditions were basic, in some instances squalid, and the air was thick with flies. I saw people in obvious need of urgent medical assistance. Greece is experiencing a deep, traumatic economic recession that complicates its efforts to respond to refugee needs - still, I never expected to see such a scene in wealthy Europe.

I spoke to a man from Syria, whose wife and four children were in Germany. Earlier this year, his family had travelled from Turkey to Germany via a combination of train, bus and car - it had taken them around seven days. A few weeks later, he set out to follow them but by then the so-called 'Western Balkans route' had been shut. He has been in the camp in Greece for months now and with the borders closed and uncertainty around how to claim for asylum, he doesn't know when and how he will see his young children and wife again. The unilateral closure of borders in Europe has restricted the movement of people and it has left a thousand cruelties in its wake. Who gains when children are kept apart from their parents?

I walked on through the camp. A little girl ran to me, wanting to be hugged. She wouldn't let me put her down. A volunteer was taking care of her and her baby sister, while her mother tried to find a doctor. I learnt later that their mother is haunted by what happened to her in Syria: her home was pulverised by a bomb, killing her close relatives. She doesn't sleep at night.

Omar, From Hassaka, Syria, and his two-year-old son, in Moria camp Greece. Credit Oxfam/Pablo Tosco

In Syria, schools, hospitals and residential areas continue to be hit. Civilians are caught between the bombs from the sky and shells and motors from the ground. Yet, European governments concluded a deal with Turkey in March that is predicated on pushing people fleeing that conflict, and others like it, away from Europe and back to Turkey - a country which is now home to at least two million refugees, more than any other country in the world.

There is a fundamental contradiction here. European governments call on Syria's neighbours to keep their borders open, while they adopt policies of pushback. But Syria's neighbours are buckling under the strain - and the failure of European countries, as well as other rich countries, to adequately share responsibility for Syria's refugees removes any incentive Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey might have to open their borders to those Syrians who can escape the conflict.

By outsourcing its border controls to Turkey, European governments triggered a domino effect. Soon after the EU Turkey deal, Turkey introduced visa controls for Syrians seeking to enter via third countries by sea or air. Inside Syria, according to the UN, some 500,000 people live in besieged areas, where they are literally imprisoned in their neighbourhood; some are starving to death. But even those Syrians who can move are finding it increasingly hard to enter neighbouring countries, and internal camps are building up in insecure areas along the borders.

A core tenet of international law - the right to seek protection in another country - is under threat. And it threatens all asylum seekers. Syrians, at least, still benefit from some public sympathy and, when they are able to access a fair asylum processes, the recognition rate is around 90 per cent in most countries (see UNHCR statistical yearbook). Other nationalities, such as Afghans, are being pushed even further to the margins - they've been dubbed the 'The Refugees' Refugees'.

In May, Kenya announced the closure of the Dadaab camp for refugees, saying that if Europe could turn away Syrians, then Kenya could do the same for the Somalis. By trading refugees for political concessions, the EU Turkey deal is demolishing the spirit of the international law and setting a dangerous precedent. In May, Kenya announced the closure of the Dadaab camp for refugees, saying that if Europe could turn away Syrians, then Kenya could do the same for the Somalis. It is possible that Kenya would have pursued this policy either way, but Europe's current approach to migration is creating an environment where the chipping away of refugee rights can be more easily justified.

In a special report on migration, The Economist writes that 'legal responsibilities to refugees cannot be separated from politics'. Yes, of course, international law does not float in a vacuum. And in many countries, rich or poor, European, Middle Eastern or African, the politics of migration is complex and often divisive. But European governments seem to be charting a course where 'stopping' migration - an unattainable goal - is becoming the sole driver of foreign policy. As part of this, Europe is considering plans to work with repressive governments such as Sudan and Eritrea to prevent the movement of people to Europe. Europe risks compromising its values, and cutting deals with such governments must surely store up problems for the future.

But it's not all bleak. Around the world, there are countless acts of solidarity. In Greece, I saw teams of international and national volunteers working in the camps. Oxfam staffers told me about elderly Greek villagers inviting pregnant women into their homes when the women neared term to make sure they were in easy reach of hospital.

And The Economist, while calling for a response rooted in Europe's political realities, concedes that 'the policies of the next age of refugee management still depend on a spirit of compassion and humanitarianism'. In less than 100 days, two major summits on migration, one hosted by the UN and a separate summit hosted by President Obama, will take place in New York on 19 and 20 September. They are a chance for world leaders to show that spirit, put a halt to the race to the bottom and help the millions fleeing conflict, poverty and disaster.

Join Oxfam's petition calling on governments to find a global solution to tackle the refugee crisis at https://www.oxfam.org.uk/stand.

A boat with refugees lands on the Greek island of Lesvos. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Video interview with Maya Mailer of her reflections on the crisis:

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Blog post written by Maya Mailer

Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns

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Maya Mailer