In the wake of the Paris attacks and Europe’s fixation with bombing ISIS, the refugee crisis at the continent’s doorstep is being sidelined, writes Nishaat Ismail.
On the 2nd of September 2015, a harrowing image of a little Syrian boy washed up on the shore of the Aegean Sea, hit global headlines prompting an outpouring of condemnation of Europe’s response to the unprecedented refugee crisis on its doorsteps.
The world’s media rushed to the scene of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s death. The international community wept, it voiced its commiseration for the tragic loss of such a young life. World leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government has been widely criticised for not taking in more Syrian refugees, said that, “as a father, I felt deeply moved” by the image.
However the international population’s compassion seems to plummet when violent events transpire, which have nothing to do with those coming into Europe, signifying the futility of a refugee’s identity, as well as the international community’s perception of humanitarianism. One can transform from victim of war and ineffectual policies, to terrorist suspect in a matter of seconds.
This is precisely what has occurred in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris two weeks ago. It has somehow become tolerable to turn on the most vulnerable and persecuted in order to express one’s condemnation of terror and violence.
The rhetoric surrounding the refugee predicament almost immediately became one of suspicion and hatred. Immediately, there were calls to shut down borders and terminate resettlement of refugees fleeing war in Western countries.
In Europe, officials from Poland’s new conservative government used the attacks as a pretext to reject the European Union’s plan to distribute refugees more evenhandedly among member states.
Those who espouse such sentiments overlook the fundamental truth that most if not all, are fleeing the same form of terror unleashed on the Parisians in their home countries whether it be ISIS, the Assad regime, secular dictators, all of whom can be traced back to the misdeeds of Western military intervention in the region.
Trouble at the borders
The aftermath of the carnage in Paris has not only triggered a shift in attitudes towards refugees, it is also causing havoc on the borders of many Balkan states. Even before the attacks, several governments in Europe were taking steps to tighten borders and redirect the movement of refugees elsewhere, but the misfortune of Paris has given authorities a reason to introduce more stringent border controls.
The effects of this were seen immediately at the border in Idomeni in Greece near Macedonia. A new policy was introduced in Serbia on 17th November, followed by Macedonia a day later, which allowed only Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi passport holders to enter their country.
Over a week ago, I was at the Macedonian-Greek border, speaking to those who had been barred from entering the Balkan state due to their nationality. Many were from Morocco, Iran, Libya, Egypt and Palestinian Syrians from the town of Yarmouk. Each had their distinctive stories of grief, horror and hopelessness.
An extraordinary situation was unfolding over the fence which separated Greece from Macedonia.
Although most were anxious, wondering what their fate would be, there was a peculiar sense of joviality as refugees interacted with volunteers from an aid organisation. The xenophobes, ring wing politicians and media have dehumanized refugees to such an extent, that many forget their basic needs, like human interaction and compassion. Just a few days ago, the far-right Britain First group rejoiced at the news of a Greek coastguard who attempted to drown a boatload of refugees in the Aegean Sea. This type of odious bombast will continue if European leaders do not alter the hateful milieu their policies are nurturing.
Back to Paris
The incongruent response to the attacks in Paris has cultivated the view that all Muslim refugees are terrorists, which is treacherous and an impediment to actually solving the current situation. It is also a bizarre notion, as evidence suggests that the perpetrators of the Paris attacks cannot simply be viewed as “Syrians”, “refugees”, “Muslims”, or people vehemently opposed to the “Western way of life”.
This perception undermines the anguish of those in the Arab world, who are the biggest victims of ISIS. Just a day before the Paris attacks, 43 people were killed in Beirut by ISIS suicide bombers.
Also, since the incident in Paris, evidence has emerged which shows that the perpetrators were EU citizens who frequented bars and strip clubs, actions that contravene the teachings and practices of a Muslim, which also nullifies the argument that ‘Islam is the cause’ of such atrocities.
It is also irrational to think of all the refugees entering Europe as a homogenous group who follow one faith.
Segregation of nationalities
The direct prejudice against specific nationalities, blocking them from exercising their right to seek asylum, puts people at danger of being stuck for prolonged periods at various European borders, whilst being subjected to harsh winter conditions, as temperatures drop.
Lydia Gall from Human Rights Watch has stated that, segregation based on nationality runs counter to the right to seek asylum, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the principle of non-discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights; and the right to asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The UN refugees agency (UNHCR), children’s agency (UNICEF) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), described the situation as “increasingly untenable from every point of view – humanitarian, legal, and also safety related.”
This latest policy is also contributing to an increasing climate of resentment and antipathy between the different nationalities trying to enter Europe. A young Syrian, who was on his way to Germany told me how a fight had broken out between Arabs and Iranians. Both groups had been stuck on the border for two days and tensions began to rise. According to the Syrian man, food and blankets were not being distributed equally, which also highlights the ineffectiveness of some international NGOs, and how their presence at times can fuel hostility and not diffuse it.
Those who are still at Idomeni have taken drastic measures and many have sewn their mouths in protest to put pressure on the authorities. This blanket classification, “economic migrant” of anyone who isn’t Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani, is immoral as well as counterproductive. Even those who are permitted to pass through the Greek border into Macedonia are being made to wait for days, adding to the trauma that they have already had to endure.
The world is having to come to terms with many calamities, however an already precarious situation is waning due to the reaction and responses of leaders and authorities around the world, and those benefiting are the likes of ISIS and the Assad regime.
Following the events in Paris, French airstrikes intensified and Cameron has now joined the bandwagon, which highlights the West’s tradition of acting on impulse and not learning from past failures.
By stifling the flow of refugees and migrants seeking asylum and by throwing bombs on countries where many of these individuals are coming from, our leaders are surrendering to the narrative of ISIS, and creating fertile ground for ISIS sympathisers. If there were open and legal routes for refugees, it would be easier to stop these wretched attempts of blaming refugees for terrorism.
The response to Paris has been anarchic and will only lead to further tumult. Cameron wanted to bomb Syria two years ago but suffered a humiliating defeat in a vote before parliament but has now succeeded in using the public’s indignation following Paris to involve the UK in another war.
Whilst the beatings of war drums intensify, the predicament of those stuck between borders is going unnoticed and underreported. Cameron and his European counterparts are facing a “crisis” with having to deal with the 0.3% of refugees in Europe, but omitting the fact that further military action in countries like Syria will increase this percentage. Instead of trying to prove our military prowess, what our leaders must do is focus on efforts to solve the quandary on Balkan borders in order to protect the rights of those wanting to seek asylum in Europe.
We saw the death of Kurdi at sea; I fear our imprudent policies and unreceptive rhetoric will result in seeing the death of thousands on land at Idomeni.
Nishaat Ismail is a freelance journalist who is currently completing a Masters in Middle East in Global Politics at Birkbeck University. She is also a contributing editor for the Moroccan Times.