refugees lesvos Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive in Lesvos, Greece. Photo: Wikimedia

The language that politicians and the mainstream media use fuels right-wing ideologies, writes Shabbir Lakha

Over a year after the start of what has been dubbed ‘Europe’s migrant crisis’, it is still shocking to see the callous attitude shown by politicians and the mainstream media towards victims of extreme violence.

In reporting news stories related to the crisis, the BBC have the following disclaimer printed at the bottom of their articles:

A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

The underlying assumption is that it is possible for people to risk both their own lives and their children’s lives by taking treacherous routes for economic reasons and are thus migrants until proven refugees. The British and European governments’ decisions to grant refugee status to people fleeing war and persecution is entirely political and does not change the fact that they are refugees and not migrants.

This language is dangerous because it fuels right wing xenophobic ideologies and permeates the general public with the notion that refugees are not necessarily people desperately in need of help and safety. The result is a misinformed public across European countries who are indifferent, or support, their governments’ refusal to accept refugees. In Bulgaria, some people have gone as far as forming vigilante groups voluntarily patrolling the Bulgaria-Turkey border to beat, rob and illegally detain refugees trying to cross.

Governments have amplified this attitude in policy. The Macedonian border has been fortified and Macedonian authorities regularly teargas refugees near the border. The UK spent £7 million to build a fence in Calais to box in refugees while the French courts simultaneously sanctioned the eviction of the make-shift camp which was then largely burnt down by French authorities; the culmination of which has led to refugees resorting to more desperate attempts to escape – such as the 7 year old Afghan boy who was rescued from a truck he was suffocating inside.

The EU-Turkey deal is a prime example of the manifestation of this antipathetic rhetoric. A deal brokered between Brussels and Ankara on the 18th of March means that refugees in Greece are being deported back to Turkey, refugee boats crossing the Aegean sea are being stopped and sent back to Turkey, and the Syria-Turkey border has been closed. In return, Turkey will receive €6 billion and negotiations to join the EU will be reopened later this year. The deal is directly responsible for refugees travelling to North Africa and taking the far more dangerous route across the Mediterranean Sea – as is evident by the 500 people who drowned earlier this week.

Furthermore, this deal is a direct breach of the UN Refugee Convention because the shaky legal ground the EU is standing on depends on Turkey being deemed a safe country for refugees. Turkey still maintains a geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention, which discriminates refugees that can claim asylum in Turkey to Europe. Its Temporary Protection regime of non-European refugees is hardly reassuring and is technically only limited to Syrians (and Palestinians from Syria) which means many refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and other places have avoided registration out of fear of being deported.

There are currently 3.1 million registered refugees in Turkey, over 50% of who are children and over 90% of who are living outside of camps. While the Temporary Protection regime in theory allows the refugees to be registered as residents and gives them the right to work, enrol in school, and access to medical care, the reality is a dismal picture. There is widespread anti-refugee sentiment among Turkish people which means refugees can only find work in manual labour construction, cleaning and sweatshops and are paid on average a third of what Turkish people are paid; children are often not welcome in Turkish schools and independently run Syrian schools have been set up to try accommodate them and even the prices of food and water are often bumped up for refugees. Medical support is scarce and refugees suffering from cancer or asthma and everything in between often have to forgo necessary medication or resort to purchasing at inflated prices from black market dealers.

Refugee families often consist of single mothers and widows, and many families have taken in unaccompanied children in addition to their children. In Istanbul, several families will share a single rundown apartment in half burnt down buildings in the poorest neighbourhoods and still struggle to earn enough to pay the rent. There is an epidemic of gentrification taking place in many of the poorer neighbourhoods, pushing refugees out and forcing them into even worse housing conditions. Judging by the billboards boasting luxury and safety next to pictures of happy Europeans near development sites, this seems to be an effort to boost tourism and improve Turkey’s prospects of joining the EU.

Only a small fraction of the funding pledged by the EU has reached Turkey so far, and factoring in administration and logistical costs, very little of this will actually go towards refugees – and even then,  it will mostly go to camps rather than the 90% who are living in urban areas. With NGOs focused mainly on the camps, the only assistance given to refugees in urban areas is coming from independent volunteers with very limited crowd-funding.

Part of the EU-Turkey deal involves the EU supporting Turkey in stemming the flow of refugees arriving by closing its border and instead creating a ‘safe space’ for refugees on the Syrian side of the border. But there is nothing safe about the space in Northern Syria where heavy fighting between Syrian government forces and ISIS continues. Several of the camps in this area were invaded by ISIS fighters and refugees were forced to evacuate and flee. Those who came to the Turkish border hoping for safety were met with live ammunition from Turkish border forces.

As Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, eloquently put it: “The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet those most at risk of becoming victims of its horrific abuses are trapped on the wrong side of a concrete wall.”

Worse still, Amnesty International recently revealed that since January 2016, Turkish authorities have been rounding up an average of 100 Syrian refugees a day and sending them across the border back to Syria, completely in violation of Turkish and International Law and highlighting that Turkey is not a safe third country for refugees – the crux of the legality of the EU-Turkey deal.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, said: “In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have wilfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day”.

Most of the refugees I have met in Istanbul have come from Aleppo, in northern Syria. They have had to flee because their homes were destroyed by Syrian government and the U.S led coalition air strikes, because of suicide bombings and car bombs, because their towns and villages were occupied by ISIS. It is simply wrong to refer to these people as migrants.

People have to stand up united and challenge the anti-refugee narrative, campaign actively for the EU to stop this harmful agreement and instead take on a fair share of refugees and support independent humanitarian organisations and volunteers working tirelessly to support refugees where our governments have failed.

Shabbir Lakha

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

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