Talking point: refugees are more vulnerable than ever
Refugees truly are in a hopeless situation.
In mid-March, the catastrophic war in Syria entered its ninth year, a bleak and astonishing anniversary that passed unremarked in UK and European capitals.
And for all but the vanishingly small fraction of people who have been resettled in countries like Scotland, the suffering today – right now – is worse than ever.
Syrians find themselves in one of several hells. Inside, millions are crushed up against Turkey’s border awaiting the resumption of Assad’s bombing. Those who survive this war on civilians have only poverty and ruthless authoritarianism in their futures.
And the experience for the 6.7 million who escaped ranges from precarious to Hobbesian.
When a fraction of them tried to claim asylum in Europe in 2015, it caused a political crisis that none of us was apparently capable of overcoming.
Five years on, and that situation is far from resolved. In camps in and around Europe today, tens of thousands of men, women and children – Syrians and other asylum seekers together – are held in limbo, unwanted by anyone, anywhere.
Instead of living up to ‘European values’, the EU has taken a policy of prevarication, paying billions to Turkey to keep people away. The policy worked, in the cruel and utilitarian sense that it reduced the number of asylum seekers.
But when that deal temporarily broke down last month, the guards of Fortress Europe turned nasty.
Who can forget the footage of Greek coastguards ramming and shooting at a dingy full of screaming civilians just metres off the Turkish coast? This is Europe in 2020. It brings shame on all of us.
The UK Government has said it stands by the “rights of states to control their borders”.
Going further still, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen praised Greece for being Europe’s “aspida” – the Greek word for shield.
To ask how much worse it can possibly get for refugees is a redundant question. It will continue to get worse. A better question might be directed at ourselves: what, exactly, will it take to shake Europe out of our state of wilful ignorance?
The outbreak of COVID-19 has pushed all other considerations to the margins, so much so that to even write about something else right now feels, somehow, embarrassing.
But it’s not as if COVID-19 doesn’t affect refugees, too. There are already reports of an outbreak of the coronavirus in Greece’s infamous Moria camp, causing Médecins Sans Frontières to suspend its work there.
How does social distancing work in a camp such as Moria, designed for 3,000 but hosting 20,000? Can you imagine how sanitation is there at the best of times?
There will now be efforts to clear camps in Greece under the authority of dealing with hotbeds of coronavirus. Aid workers are having to leave. But what will happen to the people left behind?
A functioning and humane emergency asylum programme needs to be implemented. That’s what hundreds of charities and NGOs, including the Scottish Refugee Council, have come together to demand under the banner of a new campaign group called Europe Must Act (EMA).
What can Scottish politicians do? Talk more about it, for a start. With the exception of Neil Findlay, not a single MSP has tweeted about it. Joanna Cherry raised it in Westminster. But politicians who talk up internationalism and European values could say more, particularly to EU contacts.
EMA launched a petition. Sign it. Try and get the UK Government to join and expand efforts by the voluntary coalition of countries, including Finland, France and Croatia, who had pledged to take 1,500 unaccompanied children before the COVID-19 lockdown.
At this most awful of times it is, as always, the most vulnerable who will suffer. None are more vulnerable right now than refugees.