Can Europe Make It?

Refugees are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea

And while the refugee crisis bleeds on, Europe's truly "rich and strong" make their own rules.

Phoebe Braithwaite
23 June 2016
Lifejackets, Lesvos, 2016. Santi Palacios/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Lifejackets, Lesvos, 2016. Santi Palacios/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Between October 2011 and March 2013, Aryan Paktin worked as an interpreter for the British Armed Forces. He took the exam at the British Camp Souter in Kabul, and the next day they asked him if he could travel to Helmand province. He said yes. His family is from Paktia province, in the east of Afghanistan. “A lot of Taliban used to be there… they were threatening my family because they knew I was working with the British forces,” he tells me. His parents and two sisters have now moved to Paktia’s capital, Gardez, for safety. But “Gardez is not that much safer,” Aryan says. 

“One night, my dad told me, look, if you go somewhere else to live it will be safer for us, and it will be safer for you as well. ‘You have to go,’ he said.” 

So far this year, despite the deterrence of the EU-Turkey deal, nearly 3000 people have died in the Mediterranean. In 2015, at least 3771 people died making the crossing. Aryan’s own journey from Afghanistan was typically grueling. “We were treated like animals… Maybe animals would have been treated better than humans there,” he says. “I was scared, but this was a chance… and in my old life they would catch me and they would kill me. So it was done.” 

Last year, the British home secretary Theresa May said we should be sending aid to the poorest, “not the ones who are strong and rich enough to come to Europe.” In October 2015, when the greatest number of refugees on record arrived by sea to Italy and Greece, May said, “there are millions of people in poorer countries who would love to live in Britain,” dressing up the martial resolve to keep refugees out as a form of compassion.

Are they poor or are they rich? By a characteristic doublethink, refugees and migrants are – all at once – tarred far too greedy to warrant compassion, scrounging their way to Europe to amass still more wealth, and too despicably poor and lazy to be trusted within Europe’s warm embrace. Under an economic system that subordinates all other imperatives to financial ones, simply being poor is increasingly criminalised, while, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future, “common sense” is rewritten to identify “welfare dependency rather than poverty itself as the central social problem.” The demonisation of poverty has intersected with Islamophobic racism to produce a particularly noxious contempt for refugee lives. 

We are poor people – but we can work everywhere... for everything, we need the language.

Afghan nationals are currently being denied entry to Europe under the EU-Turkey deal – despite constituting 20.9% of arrivals, having endured 13 years of western terror, and being far poorer than the average Syrian. There is no legal precedent for affording refuge on the basis of nationality, let alone for the willfully blind assumption that none of those reaching Europe need help. It’s worth acknowledging that Aryan, despite his ordeal, has been relatively lucky: he’s alive, he made it to Europe, found refuge, speaks English and has a family. He has been unable to enroll in German classes because he doesn’t have an ausweis – an ID card – and is frustrated by the hostility he meets when he uses English instead: “I can’t learn German in three and a half months.” He anticipates having to wait a year before being able to take classes and make a start on his new life. “We are poor people – but we can work everywhere. We can cook, we can clean… but for everything, we need the language.”

When Theresa May describes refugees like Aryan as “strong and rich”, she is demonstrating something other than concern about the poor they’ve left behind: it’s a barefaced attempt to stir up proprietary fear in the world’s fourth richest country per capita – a country which accepted no more than 166 Syrian refugees between June 2014 and June 2015. Here, under a thin veneer of humanitarian concern, beneath dollops of aid, lies a far more sinister directive: stay among your kind.

In the end, it’s not about the money

May’s rhetoric employs a fallacy of finite resources, the idea that we can only give so much, and that we can’t both afford refuge and deliver aid. But in the end, it’s not about the money. The EU-Turkey deal is costing €6 billion. This money is not ring-fenced for the welfare of refugees – it isn’t aid; it’s a means of bribing a brutal dictatorship, which systematically persecutes Kurds and journalists, to keep refugees out of Europe. People on Lesvos say that Turkish Kurds are now beginning to arrive as refugees themselves.

I spoke to Aurélie Ponthieu, humanitarian specialist on displacement for Médecins Sans Frontières: “what the EU states have failed to explain is why they cannot take these people – if Turkey can take them; if Europe has €6 billion to give, how come Europe can’t take them?” she says. “You have entire regions who can buy their responsibilities away.”

Developing nations lose three times more in tax avoidance than they receive in aid from wealthy nations.

On 25 April 2016, when 294 Conservative MPs voted not to allow 3000 unaccompanied children into Britain, prime minister David Cameron claimed “no country has done more than Britain to help when it comes to Syrian refugees.” Presumably he is referring to the £900 million directed from Britain’s foreign aid budget last year – money which, according to the UK’s legal commitments, has to be spent, and is supposed to go towards sustainable, poverty-reducing development, rather than crisis management.

The bulk of this money was spent on camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where the need for basics like water, food, shelter and medical care is constant – yet where refugees are denied the possibility of generating any semblance of stability. “People have other needs than being fed three times a day for years” on end, Ponthieu tells me. Almost 90% of all refugees live in developing countries. Half of them are children. The UNHCR is over $3 billion short of its $4.5 billion appeal for the Syria Regional Refugee Response. Failing aid mechanisms reflect a diseased relationship between rich and poor across the world.

Cameron spoke of needing to stick to “the idea that we invest in the refugee camps in the neighbouring countries.” Refugee camps aren’t an investment – they’re a sticking plaster. Though this aid is badly needed, it’s nothing more than a figleaf for leaders’ naked panic about safeguarding Britain’s demographic composition. Obsessive concerns about discouraging refugees by eliminating ‘pull factors’ means militarising entryways and closing borders. Refugees are wedged between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

Questioning the validity of foreign aid as a means of development is warranted, however, since it is so often used as a vehicle for advancing the geopolitical interests of the wealthy nations who provide it – as, for instance, with the UK’s 2015 provision of overseas development assistance, donated in the “national interest.” In this respect, aid serves a fundamental appetite of neoliberal ideology: to continue accumulating capital on a global scale through the creation of a universal economy based on free trade principles.

Developing nations lose three times more in tax avoidance than they receive in aid from wealthy nations, but are silenced by their dependence on this money. Today, aid is increasingly being used to secure asylum deals, paying nations to restrict refugees’ movement, and root them in poverty, regardless of how this relegates them to the status of criminals, violating their rights and the laws in place to protect them.

Vectors of contempt

Aryan’s journey from Afghanistan took 41 days. First he travelled to Nimruz in Pakistan, then to Baluchistan, a region that spans Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It was, he says, “a really bad experience. You can’t imagine how we came through these borders. Have you seen those Toyota cars? They didn’t have backseats. 35… maybe 40 people sitting in the back, they’re travelling 16, 20, 24 hours – I’ve experienced that. It’s not a road, you know, you’re travelling through mountains, desert… After that, we walked for about 36 hours, through the mountains, from one to another, till we crossed the border from Pakistan to Iran.” They continued in this way to Iran – to Tehran, then to Urmia and the border of Turkey. From here Aryan walked for 27 hours, without enough water. 

“I spent the money I had saved to bring my family to Kabul, I spent it in this way, giving it to the smugglers.” Aryan waited for ten days in Istanbul, not leaving one room. From here he went to Bodrum. After another difficult ten days, Aryan was told that he had to pay $400 more. He had already paid $500. To put that in context: in Afghanistan, in 2014, the average national income was around $680 a year. 

“I didn’t have the money, so they put me in a bathroom for three days. I had to tell the smuggler – ‘if I don’t call my family, then how can I get you the money?’ I don’t know where my Dad found $400. I had a small bit of bread and water two times a day.” Even after he was extorted, Aryan paid these smugglers much less than the $3000 most refugees pay, and many refugees – so ‘strong and rich’ – have to sell their homes in order to escape. 

You don’t remember – but when were refugees, we flew out!

“Well look, yes, it is the middle classes leaving, but they don’t have any legitimate avenues,” Oz Katerji, project coordinator on Lesvos for the organisation Help Refugees, tells me. “We need to find ways to allow people safe passage… placing NATO boats in the Aegean to try and push people back – it’s like kicking water upstream,” he says. “My father was a refugee, and the other day he was having an argument with his friend, who was saying, ‘ah, these people, how can they put their children on these boats and risk their lives? It’s a disgrace.’ And my father screamed at him, ‘you don’t remember – but when were refugees, we flew out! We were on planes.’”

Smugglers are everywhere touted as the lowest of the low, yet more than a million people in 2015 entrusted themselves to the waters. And while there can be no denying that smugglers routinely extort those most in need, necessity mothers invention where those with power do not act. Jeremy Harding, in Border Vigils, argues that “human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have come to see generosity as a vice.” Though smugglers profit from despair, they nevertheless, Harding argues, “provide a service for desperate people, to whom most other avenues have been closed.”

Harbouring illegal aliens

When Aryan at last arrived at the Greek island of Kos, his luck began to change. “I never imagined that I would be so welcomed by the volunteers,” he tells me. They should be called angels, he says, because they are “people who are doing something for nothing, and nobody does this… I really love those people.” Since Aryan speaks English, Pashto, Dari, and Urdu, he was able to spend a week volunteering alongside civilian activists. 

Often contrary to the wishes of local populations, volunteers have amassed in the Greek islands, providing the indispensible humanitarian aid governments continue to eschew. Philippa Kempson and her husband Eric have lived in Efthalou on Lesvos for 16 years, and have been providing support to refugees since arrivals surged in 2014: “We were just astounded that this could go on and there was no-one here to help. And they didn’t come, you know! We shouted and shouted, we got reporters, but we didn’t get help.”

“We’ve taken on an old hotel, with the intention of using it for emergency reception for refugees coming in. We’ve actually been told if we do that we will be charged with ten years in prison for each refugee, for harbouring illegal aliens. We’re five months into the project and we still have nobody in the building,” Kempson tells me. In late January, the Kempsons were called by the UN refugee agency who urgently needed accommodation for 110 refugees. “We put them in the host centre overnight, and the police came the next day” threatening to arrest them. While Philippa Kempson is threatened with legal action, who will redress the impunity of the European Union? 

On 26 January 2016, the Council of the European Union initiated plans to conflate the definitions of ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’. This potentially criminalises the activities of NGOs, volunteers and local activists by levying more serious penalties. The EU proposes to recognise them as “interlinked” and to apply legal penalties accordingly. Steven Peers, professor of law at the University of Essex, comments that, “any penalisation of people who save refugees' lives and give them basic help with food and shelter would arguably be a breach of the right to life and dignity set out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. EU legislation on smuggling of people should be changed as soon as possible to make this perfectly clear.”

“This challenge ­– at the scale of the European Union – is a very small challenge."

Oz Katerji, though, is keen to complicate the black-and-white depiction of volunteers: “I’ve seen activists and volunteers behave in absolutely appalling ways,” he says. Activists sometimes act like “arbiters, the saviours of these people”. Katerji recalls an incident in which a young volunteer physically assaulted a 68-year-old photo-journalist, presumably believing his documentary efforts were a kind of voyeurism. Independent aid worker Jennifer McLennan, who is based in the UK, and some of whose work is funded by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (which gets most of its money from zakat, a form of alms-giving within Islam) agrees: “the people that tend to be arrested tend to be the agent provocateurs… they put refugees on the frontline and there ends up being a massive backlash – they get gassed, they get injured.”

This gives some insight into the fraught atmosphere at so-called ‘hotspots’– an agglomeration of actors is struggling to pick up the slack for what can only, ultimately, be state obligations: “we’re filling the gap, but it’s still the states’ responsibility,” Aurélie Ponthieu of MSF tells me. MSF started performing search and rescue – which is well outside their remit – when they saw that far too little was being done. “We don’t deny that a sudden increase, a sudden displacement across European borders, of people arriving in irregular ways, is a challenge”, But “this challenge ­– at the scale of the European Union – is a very small challenge.” On an international plane, the power to protect refugees is not absent, but being withheld. More, this inaction is widely made to seem acceptable, while European plutocrats pursue ever more unbridled corporate interests.

“Trapped in an endless fight”

One of the primary manifestations of neoliberalism, along with the privatisation of public services, is the proliferation of non-governmental actors: neoliberal policies, emerging in the 1970s, have displaced formerly governmental responsibilities onto disparate and often transnational bodies, which don’t behave as a coherent system. This means the atomisation of the means by which indispensible services are delivered, and an increased capacity to relegate obligations to unaccountable, external bodies.

In order to receive funding, these organisations, whether tacitly or openly, have had to peddle the values of their funders. Civil society theorist Michael Edwards describes this trend when he tells me that we are increasingly witnessing the “representation of financial interests in civil society… so that those who are friendly and soft on government get overfunded, and those hostile get strangled both legally and financially.” This is corroborated by first-hand testimony, when McLennan says that for “the people who came to Europe – there was sort of an underlying punishment meted out to them for coming by illicit means. So the big charities were largely absent, and then there would be a backlash... it would be really, really inconsistent." 

Crucially, under this economic configuration, as George Monbiot describes, shrinking the state (all the while controlling services in insidious ways) reduces a population’s ability to change the their society by voting. This brings us closer to Edwards’ nightmare of a society “trapped in an endless fight,” without hope of progress. This is especially so since civil society, originally a place for exchanging ideas and mobilising for fuller democratic power, has been coopted by the neoliberal project as an alternative to big government and infiltrated to decimate spaces of resistance. Democracy and capitalism are often discussed hand-in-hand, but in truth they are unhappy bedfellows: neoliberal capitalism doesn’t just privilege financial interests, chase capital by freeing up the private sector, and undermine collective action; it cuts democracy off at the knees.

Democracy and capitalism are often discussed hand-in-hand, but in truth they are unhappy bedfellows.

MSF, which gets 90% of its funding from private donors and has recently decided to refuse any EU funding, pulled out of last month's World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, criticising the UN for “putting states on the same level as non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, which have no such powers or obligations.” This, they say, will minimise the responsibility of states and is inadequate since none of the commitments are binding. MSF hoped to use their position to provoke more revolutionary soul-searching in the aid community. “Humanitarian aid has been placed at the service of national security interests,” declares MSF’s amended briefing document to the WHS from 20 May, with which Ponthieu provided me.

Ewa Moncure, a spokesperson for Frontex, refutes the idea that Frontex’s roles to both guard and protect are in conflict. “Look, at sea, the primary responsibility is saving lives. This is the overriding principle for everybody, not [just] for Frontex… We are a border agency, we have to support national authorities with border control. But all this is suspended when there are lives at risk.” Though Moncure emphasises Frontex’s stepped-up presence in Italy and Greece, from 5 to 15 vessels, she also stresses that that it is the EU and its member states, not Frontex per se, at fault here. “Should there be more legal ways for people to come to Europe? Absolutely. We are an operational agency, we don’t form policy, but if you ask me – absolutely. But that is not for Frontex to decide. For that there needs to be a political will and consensus,” she says.

Watertight services and protocols are needed to save lives at sea. Not providing them is tantamount to consciously letting refugees die. Apart from the fact that the EU alone has sufficient resource and power to achieve this – ignoring for a moment any moral imperative – these responsibilities are enshrined as legal obligations. Still they are flouted; the WHS goes on as before; those with the power to effect any change, in full knowledge, are unmoved; and the gulf between echo chambers continues to expand.

“What kind of border control can you really do, in this context?” Ponthieu asks. Until April 2015, “it was politically incorrect to do search and rescue. It was considered a ‘pull factor,’” she says, “politicians in Europe were openly saying they were against it, and the EU refused to fund a Mare Nostrum base”. There is, Ponthieu says, a “blatant lack of respect for basic rules. There’s no respect for international humanitarian law. Nobody even considers that a problem any more.” While the crisis bleeds on, amid stark visions of power without responsibility, Europe’s truly “strong and rich” make their own rules. 

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