Darko Vojinovic / AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.The Pope's visit to Lesbos last Saturday has put the Greek islands in the spotlight yet again after the media exposure in the summer of 2015 when thousands of Syrian refugees reached its shores trying to build a new – and possibly safe – life in Europe.
These days you don't easily come across refugees in town. The Greek authorities, with the help of international NGOs and volunteers who are supported by an amazingly welcoming local population, have managed to move the refugees to facilities built on the island in the hope of relocating them to other EU countries on a quota-based system. This was before 20 March, when new procedures that were agreed upon in the recently signed deal between the EU and Turkey were set in motion.
People arriving in Greece after 20 March face an unknown fate – which includes a very likely return to Turkey – unless they are assessed to be legitimate asylum seekers. Herein lies the first problem with this agreement (and there are several): who is going to hold interviews and register asylum requests before assessing them and deciding who is to stay in Europe and sent back to Turkey? Is this a task that should be performed by Greece? Is the EU going to send skilled personnel – interpreters, lawyers, etc – to help out?
What I saw a few days ago in Lesbos were Greek organisations run by good-hearted people, helped by volunteer European youth and a few NGOs that agreed to stay and try to work after many of the others decided – quite rightly – to leave in protest against an outrageous agreement.
It is as if we have gone back a century to the similar attitudes of those to former colonies; the problem is passed onto others who have to clean it up. Yet in this case the one in charge of the dirty job is a non-European state – Turkey – which is not only a former coloniser (the Ottoman empire) in the eyes of the Syrians, it is also an authoritarian regime suppressing freedom of speech, people's dignity and human rights, i.e. exactly the same reasons why hundreds of thousands of Syrians are fleeing from home.
The unwillingness to deal with the refugee issue proactively and the blindness of looking at it as a mere security problem will paradoxically creating a security problem in the future.
In order to relieve our exhausted democracies, which are losing stability, social security and already mourning the welfare state, we did not hesitate to cover up and turn a blind eye to all these issues brought up when Turkey wanted to enter the 'Union'. Today, in the eyes of Europeans, Turkey is not deemed a repressive regime. On the contrary, it is considered a driving economy, perfectly integrated into our neoliberal system with breathtaking landscapes to offer worn-out middle class vacationers looking to find a couple of weeks of enjoyment and relief from too much work, or no-work, in a time of post-austerity measures.
European governments have buried these issues in the hope of finding a temporary solution to the refugee crisis, which risks taking extreme right-wing xenophobic parties to power as well as igniting feelings of frustration, anxiety, and instability amongst their populations. We have not considered the long-term consequences of this move.
Do we really think sending citizens who are fleeing one authoritarian regime to another authoritarian regime will not result in more extremism, anger, frustration, and hatred in the years to come? How might a Syrian citizen feel in a couple of years vis-à-vis this European Union that he had dreamed of as the land of human rights and dignity? Our EU politicians underestimate the long-term scenario and the threats to stability that could ensue after raising another generation on hatred.
I am pretty sure that EU politicians do not watch ISIS videos – at least not the ones in Arabic that do not feature beheadings and blood. Instead, they feature a crowd of second or third generation Europeans speaking Arabic with French, Flemish, German accents: the offspring of our 'progressive Europe' hating their own homeland because of a never-forgotten past of violent colonialism and an endless present of exclusion and racism. If our politicians watched these videos they would perhaps not be so confident in their approach to containing extremism and preventing terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Greeks are left alone with this crisis. Out of a serendipitous feeling of mutual understanding between Mediterraneans, those who have suffered the injustice of an authoritarian regime and those who are suffering the repressive yet “democratically” acceptable brutality of a neoliberal system, things are kind of working out.
Where does EU support lie? In the financial aid given to Turkey, and in the formal declarations that each member will take a certain number of refugees? And when is this supposed to happen, if in Greece now there aren’t enough skilled personnel to guarantee fair interviews, assessments, resettlement policies?
The absence of the EU signals not only the unwillingness to deal with the refugee issue proactively, but also the blindness of looking at it as a mere security problem, paradoxically creating a security problem in the future. It also betrays the wish to see Tsipras' government – which has not collapsed under financial pressure – fail on a humanitarian issue.
It is unfair, to say the least, for this Europe of 'human rights' to use the Syrian tragedy to bury both humanity and democracy in the name of short-sighted realpolitik.