Sunday, November 29, 2015

Slamming the doors shut

The BBC reports that clashes between riot police and migrants angry at being prevented from entering Macedonia from Greece have left up to 40 people injured. Macedonian soldiers raised a new fence on the southern border with Greece on Saturday to manage the migrants. Dozens of migrants, stuck in Greece after Balkan countries imposed tougher entry conditions, threw stones. Macedonian police briefly entered Greece and fired stun grenades on the rioters. Many of those refused entry to Macedonia from Greece are from Iran, Pakistan and Morocco. 

Refugee children are drowning between Turkey and the Greek islands, yet still no progress has been made on the introduction of safe and legal routes to Europe, such as humanitarian evacuation and visa programmes. As the winter weather intensifies, it seems likely that growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers will be trapped behind the borders of states that are determined to obstruct their arrival. Unable to move on and unwilling to return, what solutions can be found for these stranded populations?

Whatever hope was sparked for a formula to deal with the refugee crisis in a humane manner ended with the Paris terrorist attacks that engendered a hysteria against refugees. A consequence has been to reinforce the perception that there are ‘good refugees’ and ‘bad migrants’, and that a simple distinction can be made between these two groups on the basis of a simple and single criterion, namely country of origin. Germany, Sweden and Austria, have reinstituted border controls Denmark has reneged on its pledge to accept 1,000 Syrians. French Premier Valls has stated unequivocally that France has reached its limit in agreeing to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees. France has established checkpoints along major routes to Belgium and on some cross-border trains. France has also pushed for other member states to ramp up border controls and called for more security screening at the EU’s frontiers. In the political capitals of Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava and Prague assigned quotas are rejected outright with planned challenges in European Court of Justice.  Meanwhile, border fences are going up along the main refugee transit routes: in Austria, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The EU are failing to provide alternative solutions to the region’s refugee emergency. While Germany and Sweden have admitted a highly disproportionate number of the new arrivals, other countries have expressed very little interest in region-wide refugee resettlement and relocation programmes.

The fearful atmosphere created by the terrorist attacks of November 13 have all European governments “running scared.” Unrestricted movement within the EU for whomever has managed to gain entry is increasingly seen by national authorities as too risky in the current terror threat environment. Racist and xenophobic politicians and media feed those anxieties. Most European governments face what can be called “populist movements”, i.e. nationalist movements that demand more sovereignty for their own countries. The arrival of refugees could not come at a worst moment.

Passport checks. Visa controls. Border fences. Electronic and drone surveillance. Sanctions on airlines and shipping companies. And the interdiction and redirection of boats at sea. During the past three decades, the world’s more prosperous states have introduced a panoply of measures intended to prevent and deter the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants from other parts of the globe. Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia have adopted a new tactic in an effort to limit the number of people who are making their way through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans towards Austria and Germany. The policy allows entry to arrivals from the war-torn countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, while barring the admission of people from states such as Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, where levels of violence and human rights abuses appear to be lower. Any suggestion that none of these people has a valid claim to refugee status clearly cannot be sustained. In the second quarter of 2015, for example, the average EU recognition rate for Iranian asylum seekers was 67 percent, 58 percent for Sudanese and 28 percent for Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. The result has been to add a new degree of chaos to an already fraught situation. There is also a very significant risk that people whose lives and liberty are at risk in their country of origin will be denied the protection they need, and to which they are entitled under international refugee law. According to the latest statistics, just under a quarter of all the recent arrivals in Europe come from countries other than Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Unable to continue with their intended journey, asylum seekers not from the three designated countries have found themselves trapped in border areas, forced to sleep in the open in freezing temperatures or in makeshift camps. 

Tensions have inevitably erupted between the different refugee groups, with some of those whose onward passage has been barred resorting to demonstrations, hunger strikes and other forms of self-harm. At the same time, the closure of borders to certain nationalities has created more demand for the services of human smugglers, who have been able to increase the charges they impose on asylum seekers who are desperate to continue their journey. At the same time, growing numbers of asylum seekers are said to be making false representations about their nationality in an effort to ensure they are not trapped at the border of the Balkan states. As a result, the integrity of the international refugee protection system is unwittingly being undermined.

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