refugees Syrian and Iraqi immigrants getting off a boat from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Refugees are being used as pawns in a geopolitical chess game, writes Shabbir Lakha

Thousands of refugees are trapped at the Greece-Turkey border after Turkey opened its border but Greece has refused to let them pass. Horrific videos have emerged of refugees being shot at indiscriminately with tear gas and rubber bullets, of dinghies on the Aegean being attacked with sticks and bullets, and being sped past in Greek coastguard speed boats in attempts to capsize them.

A child drowned when a dinghy capsized. A refugee was shot and killed by Greek police at the land crossing.

Responding to these developments, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, thanked Greece for being Europe’s “shield”. These disgusting comments fit the EU’s anti-refugee policies and rhetoric for the last 5 years which have directly caused this present crisis.

In 2014, the EU ended Operation Mare Nostrum, a search and rescue program in the Mediterranean which was part of its obligations under international law. It replaced it with Operation Triton, headed by Frontex, the EU’s border security regime which it more than doubled its funding for, aimed at pushing refugees back.

In 2016, the EU signed a deal with Turkey to seal its border with Greece and Bulgaria to stop refugees crossing, allow thousands of refugees already in Greece to be sent to Turkey, in return for 6 billion Euros. The implications of this were threefold:

1It created an immediate international-law violating precedent. The government of Kenya soon after announced it would start shutting down parts of the Dadaab refugee camp – the biggest refugee camp in the world – and begin refouling Somali refugees. In its announcement, it explicitly cited the EU-Turkey deal as its grounds for legitimacy.

2It gave legitimacy to racist, far right rhetoric across the continent. Far right groups began mobilising in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece to “patrol” the borders and began brutally attacking refugees that got anywhere close. Parties like the AfD in Germany, the Lega in Italy and others received a boost as did groups like Generation Identity who were organising violent attacks on refugees. Even now as this crisis unfolds, fascists from across Europe are coalescing in Greece to “hunt” refugees.

3It made refugees into a bargaining chip and placed them as leverage on a silver platter in Erdogan’s hands. On several occasions since then, most recently when he was condemned for his military invasion into northern Syria to attack the Kurds, he threatened to open the borders and let refugees cross into Europe. Now, facing military defeats in Syria and not receiving support from NATO as well as squaring off with Greece in Libya – and to try regain some lost political ground domestically, Erdogan has done just that.

And refugees at the border know full well that they are pawns in a geopolitical chess game between Turkey and the EU. But for many, remaining in Turkey just isn’t a viable option. Turkey now has around 4 million refugees, almost a million in Istanbul alone, and almost all political parties apart from the HDP have turned to demonising refugees. 

The entire premise of the EU-Turkey deal rested on the idea that Turkey was a “safe third country” for refugees. This wasn’t true then and it’s even less true now. At the time, it was documented that Turkish forces were opening fire on Syrians fleeing Aleppo, and on one occasion 11 refugees were killed. The Turkish coast guard had been documented attacking refugee dinghies, in some cases throwing live electric wires to deliberately damage them.

In June 2019, the CHP’s İmamoğlu who won the Istanbul mayoral election capitalised on xenophobic sentiment. Immediately after his victory, there was a roundup of unregistered refugees, arresting around 6,000 Syrian refugees, forcing them to sign “consent” forms which they couldn’t understand and then forcibly deporting them to Syria. Anti-refugee sentiment reached fever pitch, and Syrians in Istanbul were attacked on the streets and in their homes and shops were destroyed by mobs. A Syrian refugee friend of mine was asked on a daily basis if he was Syrian and he would have to lie that he was Indian.

For refugees in Turkey, jobs are hard to come by, they are paid less than a third of what Turks are paid even if they do find one, their children are often in segregated schooling or face bullying where they aren’t, and the vast majority of them live in the most squalid conditions. Syrian refugees are given a “guest” status with temporary protection which most know can be rescinded at any point, and non-Syrian refugees have even less protections and so are largely unregistered.

So when Erdogan announced the border was being opened earlier this week, despite knowing it was a political game, for many refugees they had to take the chance. They sold what little they had, some kept to try get across Europe if they made it, some to give to people smugglers to get on death trap dinghies. Only to be met by extreme violence and are now trapped at the border with just some UNHRC blankets for shelter.

There should be no doubt that the EU’s virulent opposition to refugees is the direct cause of this utterly cruel situation.

The result of the deal with Turkey forced refugees to take the far more dangerous route across the Mediterranean, which has claimed over 30,000 lives, and those saved (stopped) by NATO warships have been returned to detention in Libya where they are vulnerable to appalling brutality, human trafficking and slavery.

Refugees that had already made it to Greece have been kept in detention in Moria and other refugee camps, in barbaric conditions. Those who made it to Calais and Dunkirk have had their camps destroyed, face regular attacks from French police, and both the UK and France have refused to acknowledge their rights to resettlement. On Thursday, the German parliament (with the exception of Die Linke and the Greens) voted against allowing even 5,000 refugees to be settled in Germany.

This is an EU problem. The lives being lost, the barbarity being shown against vulnerable human beings, is on the hands of the EU. The only solution is to open the border and guarantee the rights of every refugee, and this is what we all have to fight for.

Shabbir Lakha

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