As Aleppo is crushed under bombs

UE member states are calling on Turkey to control their borders

While residents of the Aleppo region are forced to flee under a shower of bombs, European governments’ primary concern is to confine them as far away as possible from their borders. For this purpose, they rely on Turkey, although it is already a party to the geopolitical battleground around Syria. While tens of thousands of refugees are stranded at the Turkish border, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is negotiating with desperate European leaders the recognition of Turkey as a "safe country" (which would allow Greece and other Member States to return anyone who transited through Turkey), billions in financial aid as well as the EU tacit assent of the bloody repression Erdogan is waging against its own political opposition, especially the Kurdish movement [1] .

Only a few months ago, in the face of the ordeal of Syrian refugees trying to gain access to their rights, the European Union was engaged in a “crocodile tears” strategy. But, immediately after the photos of Aylan Kurdi triggered a wave of emotion across the world in September, negotiations attempting to prevent Syrians from approaching European borders started again. Since then, hundreds of children and adults have died in total indifference in the Aegean Sea, a maritime passage controlled by smugglers who directly make profit from governments’ violations of the Geneva Convention and of the right to free movement of asylum seekers.

The only policy compass of the EU now is absolute cynicism.

In order to assess the scale on which rights are violated in the name of controlling the external borders of the European Union, we have to recall the devices established over the past few months in order to close “the Balkan road” to Syrian refugees as early as possible in their journeys:

  • The EU has pressured Turkey into closing its land borders with Syria and introducing visa requirements for Syrians arriving by plane,
  • The main European governments have asked that Turkey restrain the freedom of movement inside the country of the nearly three million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. The EU has advocated, and partly funded, refugee camps located in the south of Turkey, whilst accepting that the Turkish government confines refugees inside Syrian territory.
  • Travelling by land from Turkey to Bulgaria and Greece, which has been extremely difficult for a long time, has become yet harder because of the multiplication of controls. Syrians on their way to Europe are thus pushed towards the Aegean Sea, which is turning into a cemetery.
  • Syrians who have managed to get out of Turkey and to arrive in Greece are considered a burden for Europe. In order to “save the Schengen Area”, Greece might be put “in quarantine”, unless it agrees to set up registration and “accommodation” camps that will supposedly prevent refugees from moving further North [2].
  • The relocation mechanism for 160 000 people already in Greece and Italy and clearly in need of international protection, adopted by the EU in September 2015 in order to "ensure a fair sharing of responsibilities between Member States” before the large numbers of migrant arriving in both countries in fact resulted, five months later, in less than 500 asylum seekers being transferred [3].
  • Only today, NATO came to reinforce the “war against migrants” in the Aegean war with a patrol mission involving three military ships and supported by planes, led from Germany [4].

The latest developments in this policy of confinement of Syrian refugees must be placed in a general context where millions of people have arrived in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and where the “asylum visas”, which would allow them to travel to countries like the United Kingdom, are only attributed in dribs and drabs. People are materially prevented from travelling by air (because of visa requirements which include transit visas) and are confronted by the dramatic under-sizing of resettlement programs proposed under the auspices of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Under these conditions, what has being asked from Turkey in recent days by the United Nations and the European Commission is properly "surreal": Turkey is now summoned to open its borders to let Syrian refugees in. This measure is of course essential but, in this instance, it is part of a logic of outsourcing through which, for many years, the EU seeks to shift onto third countries the responsibilities to which it is bound by its international obligations. What is being asked will therefore only be credible and truly work for the protection of the rights of Syrian refugees if Member States accept opening up their own borders and implementing all the measures that would allow refugees to travel without putting their lives at risk.

February 12, 2016

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