Over to the Commission

In the wake of the Moria fire, can Europe finally change its migration system for the better?

Two weeks ago, the Moria fire on Lesvos burned like a beacon across Europe, fixing for a moment the gazes of a continent on a calamity that most have, over the past five years, become entirely desensitized to.

Politicians at all levels of national and continental government expressed their shock and their sympathies. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, even visited the island, making a brief tour of the site in a Greek army helicopter. On Twitter, he assured us that he was “deeply moved by the difficult situation of those stranded on Lesvos.”

European Civil Society likewise mobilized in response to the disaster. Through the course of this past week, more than 39 demonstrations were held across the continent, both virtually and in the streets, to demand long-overdue solutions to what is now certainly Europe’s Great Shame of the past 30 years.

‘Evacuate the island,’ read their slogans, ‘Bring Them Here,’ ‘We Have Room.’ Local governments in Germany reinforced that message, offering independently of their Federal Government policy to host even more refugees – an offer the Federal Government swiftly revoked, suggesting such a move might be in contravention of European law.

And that is the story of the entire European Refugee Crisis in microcosm. Those oft-trumpeted ‘European Values’ proudly embodied by the people of Europe, flowing up from the grass-roots, from associations, mass movements, civil groups, flowing all the way to the halls of power, where they are politely rejected by those politicians who, despite they themselves being the foremost trumpeters of such values, nonetheless time and time again find legal, technical, procedural and diplomatic excuses to abdicate their humanity in favour of tokens and tweets.

Such tokens will surely fail to meet the expectations of their constituents. Ireland mustered up the generosity to offer to immediately resettle a grand total of four unaccompanied minors out of the 12,000 migrants on the island. Belgium did little better, offering to take 12, while the Netherlands managed to find room for a 100, but only after reportedly slashing that same number from its overseas intake for this year.

German Chancellor Merkel, as usual, managed to wrangle a little more compassion out of her own government, convincing them to fast track the reception of 1,500 of those who had already been pre-approved for transfer – that is to say, those that indisputably should have been evacuated a long time ago.

That decision was not the preference of her Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, who regardless was happy to congratulate himself and his government for what he called “a grand gesture of humanity,” and otherwise offer “tents, medicine and everything that they need urgently now.”

Other European countries are happy to follow that last idea, having sent all the most basic supplies to ensure the migrants are housed, fed and protected to a bare minimum standard, and in no way closer to leaving the island – despite that being, according to the refugees, really the thing they have been most urgently needing for the past five years.

But the hopes of those battered, broken, homeless 12,000 that this might finally be the catalyst for an actual ‘grand gesture of humanity,’ are looking to be going the same way as all other hopes on Lesvos have gone, at least in the near future.

Despite some organized resistance among the refugees in the aftermath of the fire, the Greek government has now succeeded in relocating them all to a new, rapidly constructed camp at Kara Tepe, a former military firing range which may or may not have unexploded ordinance buried in the ground.

The Government accomplished this task through a massive police operation rounding up those thousands camping on the roadside, threats not to process asylum claims, and effectively starving the refugees out by preventing them from buying food in local stores and finding NGOs who attempted to distribute food for free outside the camp. All this while preventing journalists from accessing the area under the pretence of an ‘ongoing military operation’ and distributing propaganda leaflets almost Orwellian in their doublespeak.

Refugees were resistant to the new camp for entirely justified reasons. First, they refused to be housed in conditions comparable to – or even worse than - those in which they had been these past years, as early reports of the new camp suggested. Secondly, they did not trust the claims of the government that the accommodation would truly be temporary. They feared to be transferred to what may well turn out to be their new prison for years to come, while the EU dithers on resolving the situation.

The first of these concerns has already been proven true. By all reports, the new camp is under-resourced, under-equipped, deficient in every way. There is no running water – two small bottles are distributed a day. Tents have been placed directly on the ground without palettes or flooring, leaving them vulnerable to mud or flooding from the rain or from the high swells of the nearby ocean, from which there is no protection.

Entrants are provided with a blanket but no other mattress or bedding, and there is currently a shortage of tents, forcing the latest comers to sleep outside on the ground. Besides this, there is a rapidly growing outbreak of Coronavirus. 250 people have tested positive within the camp after an initial outbreak was detected in Moria before the fire.

There is little to dispel the second fear – that this ‘temporary’ structure is simply the start of who-knows-how-many more years of imprisonment – either. Disregarding the already fathomless deficit of trust in the relationship between the government and migrants, there are the government’s own actions and statements to consider.

They have already made crystal-clear their intention to build a new, permanent, closed facility on the island. And despite the Immigration Minister’s assurance that the Kara Tepe camp will be closed by December 31, publicly available government contracts reveal the new lease on the site extends all the way through till 2025. Besides the usual platitudes, there is nothing at all to suggest that the Greek government has in any way changed its priorities in managing migrant flows.

Anyone left hoping for meaningful solutions from the European Union should temper their expectations. Today, Wednesday the 23rd of September, the European Commission is due to announce their proposals for reforms to the Common European Asylum System. But whatever grand vision might have been held back in August, when Germany took up the chair of the European Council, has given way to expediency.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, has been careful recently to moderate expectations, telling journalists that nobody will be satisfied with what is likely to be a painfully-arrived-at compromise between states with vastly different domestic political priorities.

The issue most crucial to remedying the current situation – mandatory relocation mechanisms that will formalize automatic processes to oblige all European countries to take in refugees that enter the EU – remains “extremely divisive.” Polish diplomats have already been working to prevent the creation of a mandatory resettlement mechanism. They, alongside Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are determined not to accept any refugees at all.

Instead, the focus of the reforms is likely to be on reinforcing the bloc’s defences against refugees, rather than its capacity to welcome them. A strengthened border protection agency, for example, and more effective deportation procedures for failed applicants, guaranteed by newly negotiated agreements with countries of origin.

Indeed, it seems that, unable to successfully find common ground within its own borders, the EU is instead turning more and more to countries outside the bloc to try and solve its problems. That means working with origin and transit countries to stem the flow of refugees before they become the EU’s problem. Such dealings, whether it be with the Libyan Coast Guard that is accused of human rights abuses, or with the authorities of the Niger whose activities, far from actually stemming the flow of migrants, merely increase the danger of their route as well as the profit that can be made by corrupt officials.

The announced intention to establish safe, legal pathways for migrants to reach Europe without having to resort to people-smugglers is, regardless, good news, though hope for its actual implementation is somewhat undercut by the fact that it was deliberate EU policy that, twenty years ago, robbed African and Asian migrants of those safe, legal pathways in the first place.

That, according to Giorgos Tsiakalos, Professor of Pedagogy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, is simply one reason why current EU migration policy is, to its very core, discriminatory and self-serving. In a wide-ranging interview with www.wearesolomon.com, he details the mechanism by which Europe has effectively outsourced the harshest of its border control and refoulement mechanisms to other countries, as well as the statistics that prove that, despite the oft-heard cry that migrants crossing into southern Europe are ‘overwhelming’ or ‘unmanageable,’ Europe, in fact, has both the capacity and the need to take in much larger numbers of migrants, as it has done with tens of thousands of Venezuelans and millions of Ukrainians over the past few years, with barely a whisper of protest from anti-migrant camps.

The interview with Professor Giorgos Tsiakalos should be read in its entirety to properly understand the underlying mechanisms and motivations of EU migration policy, and why he doesn’t expect any meaningful solutions from the commission proposals, “because European governments, while decisively participating in creating conditions that give rise to mass migration in the world, are trying to keep refugees [from Africa and Asia] away.” It can be found here.

It’s also important to read for the final thoughts shared by the professor who, as he says, “doesn’t share the pessimism of those who simply observe what they see in the media − the brutality that seems to prevail.

“I myself systematically monitor and record official policies and their barbaric effects.” He continues. “But I also systematically and closely monitor the actions of people, organizations and institutions that defend humanity and culture with words and deeds.”

“By comparing the dynamics of both ends of the conflict, my personal sense of optimism for the future emerges.”

The European Commissions proposals for migration reform were released as this article was going to print. You can view them here or read a summary article here.

This will be the final issue of Displaced for now. Thank you for your interest, I hope you continue to stay informed on European refugee affairs in the critical time to come.

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