Photo: Flickr / Stephen Michael Barnett Photo: Flickr / Stephen Michael Barnett

The EU is has a terrible record on it’s treatment of refugees, argues Shabbir Lakha

With the EU referendum looming, the EU’s record on refugees is something to be taken into consideration. Although advertised as an internationalist institution boasting freedom of movement and the breaking down of borders, how does the EU’s treatment of refugees fare to this claim?

To begin with, it should be noted that refugees and their rights are protected by international law. All members of the EU are signatories of the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and all people seeking refuge who enter the territory of any of the signatories are protected by the protocols of that convention. All EU members are also signatories of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue which oblige them to rescue any refugees drowning at sea and deliver them to a ‘place of safety’. But in case there’s any confusion, the EU’s own laws and directives including the Schengen Borders Code and the European Convention on Human Rights reiterate the same principles as those of international law.

It can therefore only be described as a blatant disregard for not only international law but also its own laws, when considering the EU’s behaviours towards refugees in the last two years. In October 2014, the EU ended Operation Mare Nostrum and instructed the Italian Navy to stop Search and Rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. This decision was made precisely when there were an increasing number of refugees drowning and the feeble excuse echoed by the British government was that saving refugees would only encourage more to cross.

The Search and Rescue missions were replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton, which only rescues refugees right next to the Italian coast and focuses mainly on border control and surveillance – for double the budget. A new European Border and Coast Guard has been proposed by the European Council which will be an agency of Frontex designed to deal specifically with the European refugee crisis – aimed at higher border control with an even bigger budget than the rest of Frontex.

In March 2016, the EU brokered a deal with Turkey that allowed them to begin deporting refugees from Greece back to Turkey. This deal stands on the grounds that Turkey is a safe third country for refugees and that each refugee will still be assessed on a case by case basis. However, it has largely been acknowledged that groups of refugees being deported are not assessed individually or with due process. And there is ample evidence that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees because it has been rounding up refugees in the south east and sending them back to Syria; because non Syrian refugees don’t have any rights to protection in Turkey; and because the government provides no support for urban refugees and has helped foster anti-refugee sentiment across Turkey.

What’s more is that the deal involves Turkey closing its borders in Syria and stopping refugee boats crossing the Aegean. In reality, this has meant the Turkish coast guard intentionally capsizing and, in some cases, even electrocuting refugee boats, and the Turkish military shooting at Syrian refugees fleeing violence in northern Syria to stop them crossing – up to 11 Syrian refugees were killed this week by Turkish forces.

The consequences of the EU’s actions have been dire for refugees across the globe, both directly and indirectly. The EU’s closure of the ‘Aegean route’ has led to increased numbers of desperate people attempting to make the much riskier journey of crossing the Mediterranean – where the EU’s inaction in search and rescue operations have led to huge numbers of people drowning. According to the UNHCR, over 2,500 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016 – 880 of them in a single week in May.

On 17th June 2016, Medicins Sans Frontieres announced that it would no longer be accepting any EU funding for any of its projects globally. The International Secretary General, Jerome Oberreit, said that the EU-Turkey deal has “placed the very concept of ‘refugee’ and the protection it offers in danger,” and that “once again, Europe’s main focus is not on how well people will be protected, but on how efficiently they are kept away”.

The EU-Turkey Deal has also set a dangerous precedent for refugees all across the world. Last month, the Kenyan government cited the EU-Turkey deal when it announced that it would be shutting down Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya – the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting over 300,000 Somali refugees.

And for those of us that tried to deliver humanitarian aid to refugees in Calais on Saturday, the French border control gave us a stark reminder of the limitations of freedom of movement. If you’re an English flag-blazing football fan, you are welcome into France even though violence from English football fans was part of the reason why a humanitarian aid convoy was deemed as a potential security threat and not allowed through.

In all of its actions, the EU has demonstrated clearly that it is willing to spend a lot of money to stop refugees coming in, rather than facilitating their resettlement within the EU. Both Operation Triton and new Frontex agency cost substantially more than Operation Mare Nostrum, the EU-Turkey deal involves paying Turkey €6 billion – the majority of which will be used for the logistics of deporting and stopping refugees rather than supporting and protecting them. Individual member states, such as the UK, Austria and Hungary have also spent significant amounts to build new and reinforce old fences all around and within Europe.

In conclusion, the EU has demonstrated both its unwillingness to protect vulnerable people seeking refuge and its disregard for international law as well as its own directives. Those who strive for social justice, support the rights of refugees and identify as internationalists may want to bear this in mind when voting on Thursday. 

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.