I’ve turned off the BBC news alerts on my phone. Turns out that watching our nation’s stability and prosperity move along a slow conveyer belt into a grinding machine is, funnily enough, not to be the best way to wake up in the morning. Headlines such as “Brexit Britain is now the only argument on Earth for rising sea levels” really don’t seem too outrageous nowadays. With this in mind, the movement to return Britain into the safe hands of the EU is more than understandable.
For young people, this choice seems exceptionally clear. Our Future Our Choice parked it’s bright blue bus outside the Hawthorns a few weeks ago, blazoned with the sign “77 per cent of us don't want Brexit, please stand up for our future!” The campaign’s central message is that Brexit would ruin the future of young people in Britain; not only our economic circumstances, but the values that the EU has come to represent. Among these values, freedom of movement is featured highly as a principle that young people want to preserve and associate themselves with. To challenge it, is to associate with nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric which many young people want nothing to do with.
While the EU is commendable in so many respects, holding it up as a symbol of free movement is a mistake. To value this principle, it is impossible to ignore the EU’s treatment of refugees and migrants trying to reach the safety and solace of European shores. To romanticise and glorify it as a paragon of liberalism and human rights is an insult to them.
This week in March brings around the third anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal, the agreement which was meant to be the solution to the crisis. In brief, it’s purpose was to halt the flow of irregular migration into Europe by way of Turkey, in exchange for €6 billion in relief. The crux of the deal is a swapping mechanism - for every refugee resettled in Europe, another one would be returned to Turkey from the islands. This new plan, in the words of the European Council, was to offer “migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk”.
Why? In 2015, almost a million people fled across the Mediterranean Sea to European shores. The sheer weight of the tragedy, with almost 3,500 people losing their lives on the journey, propelled the issue to the forefront of the EU’s political agenda. The apocalyptic rhetoric followed on - Angela Merkel called it "the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor”, and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni wrote that the crisis challenged the “soul” of Europe. This is what prompted the EU to turn to Turkey in 2016 to solve this crisis.
Yet the only success of the agreement is statistical. The number of people attempting to make the crossing has dropped significantly since 2015 - around 134,000 arrived in 2018 compared to 856,723 in 2015. But, in every other sense, their suffering has not been alleviated.
What has meant to be the solution, has given way to inexcusable levels of human suffering across the Greek islands and on mainland Greece. It has turned long-term detention into the reality for most. Today, 12,000 live in overcrowded and underfunded camps on the Greek island ‘hotspots’, a direct result of the 2016 agreement. The conditions in camps are unsanitary, unsafe, and degrading, robbing vulnerable people of their health and dignity; in Samos, MSF reported that “people are living in summer tents or under plastic sheeting, surrounded by rubbish and human excrement, with little access to proper medical care”. It is in practice, a containment policy. It erodes the rights of refugees and migrants on these ‘island prisons’ by prolonging their legal, physical and psychological insecurity, and using this suffering in order to deter others. It is inhumane in every sense of the word. To use the risk and tragedy of drowning at sea to deter further asylum-seekers, is neither right nor reasonable.
The policy of deterrence and containing people, despite the clear and pervasive issues in Greece, is being replicated outside of Greece in Libya. There are around 5,700 people being detained in Libyan ‘reception’ centres according to the latest reports; 20 per cent are women and children. These people are trapped in a nightmare, deported back to Libya after being intercepted en route to Europe, by EU funded Libyan coastguards. The detention centres they are returned to, in the words of a former detainee, are “just like hell”. Abuse and torture are rife, as well detainees reporting the frequent food shortages, lack of clean water, and little to no medical care.
Yet, Italy and the European Union continue to broker deals with various Libyan forces to control migration, despite their involvement in severe human rights abuses and other criminal activities. They have donated ships, funded the Libyan search and rescue zone, as well as the construction of coordination stations using European taxpayers’ money. Last month, 50 major organisations, including Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders, wrote an open letter, saying: “EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes.” They are abdicating their basic responsibilities of upholding standards of human dignity, allowing human rights abuses in the name of protecting European borders.
In its appeal that it cannot accommodate all the world’s suffering, Europe is feeding the business of suffering and creating misery. Looking the other way serves no purpose. It is a policy which endangers lives, as well as denying the principles that movements such as Our Future Our Choice look to Europe to uphold, and it should live up to these. It is not a crisis of capacity, but a crisis of politics.
Read more about Bella’s experience visiting the Katsikas refugee camp in Greece here.
Photos: Isabelle Shirley
Title Photo: The Lifejacket Graveyard in Lesvos