Margaret Woods is a longstanding antiracist campaigner and is active in the refugee rights movement in Scotland. She has visited Greece twice to support refugee solidarity work there. This is her powerful and moving account of the terrible situation facing refugees today
As we prepare to “unwelcome” US president Donald Trump to Britain, the fallout from the political controversy over his policy of separating families at the Mexican border continues. Pictures of sobbing parents and crying, distressed toddlers have caused a furore not just in America but across the world.
Children sleeping in cages with only a foil blanket and tents set up in 100 degree heat in the desert to house even more children caused such revulsion that Trump was forced into a U-turn and ended the policy after a few days.
But if people watching Trump’s actions with horror comfort themselves by thinking that nothing so dreadful happens in Europe, they would be mistaken – as we shall see below.
In the US, very serious problems remain as no plans were made for reuniting approximately 2,000 families who have been split up and, despite a federal judge ordering this must be done within a month, such is the chaos surrounding the operation that it is feared that some families may never see each other again.
Stopping the criminal prosecution of all those crossing the border and returning it to a civil procedure means the withdrawal of legal aid and, therefore, the loss of lawyers helping people to locate their children. It also means that many families could be imprisoned for a long period while asylum decisions are made.
It has been discovered that many people are not being allowed to cross the border at the designated points and that families have sometimes been separated there as well.
Meanwhile Trump has described those fleeing violence and seeking safety in America as an “infestation” and as “invaders” against whom there must be a “zero tolerance policy”.
Trump’s most recent statement is that he wants everyone turned back at the border without access to due process – in other words, forbidden from seeking asylum. This is both unconstitutional and against international law. There have been increasingly large demonstrations across the country against Trump with hundreds of arrests.
The sheer horror of the US treatment of the separated and caged children has prompted comparisons with the treatment of refugees and migrants as they arrive in Europe. Here too the situation is appalling.
Italy’s new far right interior minister Matteo Salvini, head of the racist populist Lega party, closed all Italian ports to ships carrying refugees who had been rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean. This resulted in first the Aquarius and most recently the Lifeline rescue boats spending days at sea trying to find a European port to allow them to land.
Simultaneously, Hungary – under the increasingly authoritarian far right Fidesz party – passed a draconian new law criminalising organisations and individuals that give any aid to refugees in the country even if it is legal and in some cases obligatory under international law.
And, tragically, people continue to be permanently separated from their families, their bodies washed up on shore, drowned in the Mediterranean as they desperately attempt to reach safety in Europe – including one incident in which 250 were drowned. It was known that there were children included, although the number was not announced.
Thousands of people across Europe, including many separated and unaccompanied minors, still await their family reunions – a process that has become ever longer and more difficult as countries seek to restrict numbers of refugees and migrants.
The two countries where most refugees arrive initially by sea are Italy, via the Mediterranean, and Greece via the Aegean and also by way of the land border with Turkey. Arrivals peaked at approximately 1 million people in 2015, when thousands of people crossed the Aegean in rickety boats every day and even in the better summer weather thousands drowned.
Between incidents in the Mediterranean and in the Aegean that year, up to 8,000 people are known to have drowned – though the number is certainly higher as many bodies are never recovered.
These two seas have been turned into watery mass graves for people desperately fleeing war, torture persecution and poverty hoping for a safe peaceful place in which to build a new life and a future for themselves and their families.
In 2016 it was estimated that one person in 40 who attempted the Mediterranean crossing died or went missing, presumed drowned.
This year, 2018, the numbers attempting to cross the Mediterranean is much smaller, but the numbers drowning are now estimated to be one in 10 of those who attempt the voyage.
Back in 2015 the worsening situation in Syria accounted for some of the increase in arrivals in Europe but people from Afghanistan, Iraq and a number of African countries also came.
Conditions for many refugees in Italy are abysmal. Overcrowding, poor food and grim sanitation blight official centres. The asylum system takes a long time and so people often feel forced to try to make their own way further into northern Europe or are lured by gangs into lives of prostitution and virtual enslavement as they endeavour to pay off traffickers and ensure the safety of family members left behind.
The charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calculates that there are approximately 10,000 refugees living completely outside the system in empty buildings open spaces and rural ghettos.
The charity estimates that of those it has visited recently, about half had no electricity or running water. Many residents had actually been granted humanitarian protection but had been unable to find a job or a place to stay.
Some Italian citizens were also living in these communities, such is the poverty faced because of austerity measures. The government frequently organises mass evictions. This is often done violently and people lose all their possessions. Some people have experienced as many as twenty evictions. This results in fragmented groups setting up in even more desperate and marginalised conditions.
Some Italian cities have made efforts to promote inclusion and integration and to provide access to facilities and health services but these are hampered by the austerity measures the country has faced.
Britain is no better
The extent of the problems for refugees in Italy has been known about for some time.
Several years ago an attempt was made in Britain, through legal action over a group of asylum cases, to obtain a legal judgement forbidding the government from returning people to Italy under the EU’s Dublin Regulation. The refugees whose cases were used had suffered illness, serious assaults and intimidation in the Italian refugee centres and said that they feared for their own and their children’s safety.
Such a judgment was already in place covering Greece and was only recently overturned. The case for not deporting people to Italy as their “original point of arrival” failed. A British judge thought the conditions acceptable.
The situation in Italy has been made worse with the recent election of a populist coalition government including members of the far right.
Not content with closing ports to refugees, interior minister Salvini has announced his intention to conduct a full census of all Roma people living in Italy, in order to deport en masse all those who don’t have Italian citizenship. This echo of the fascist past has sent shockwaves through the continent.
Europe is witnessing a humanitarian disaster on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
In 2015 this humanitarian disaster came to the attention of the public when a photographer released a picture of a small child, Alan Kurdi, who was washed up dead on the shore in Turkey.
Government inaction and the failure of the large NGOs to step in saw the largest solidarity volunteer operation mobilised in Europe for many decades. Community groups, trade unions, churches and others collected money, clothes and other essentials to send to Greece.
Many people went to help as volunteers, eventually organising themselves into groups dealing with helping people as they arrived on the beaches, hot meals, clothing distribution, medical aid and much more.
Greece – a personal account
Having been campaigning against detention and deportation of refugees for many years, I and two young friends who had arrived in Scotland as refugees when they were children, decided to raise donations to help various projects and go to Athens and Lesvos on a (self-financed) fact-finding trip, to see what was happening and what help was required.
Using all our campaign contacts we attracted both publicity and donations for projects doing the most crucial work to help traumatised people who often arrived with only what they stood up in.
What we saw on Lesvos affected us profoundly.
We visited projects, refugee camps and the beach at Eftalou where local people with the help of international volunteers had set up an operation providing help and comfort for refugees on a shoestring budget.
Without this effort there would have been virtually nobody to help these people. In one day we saw more than 1,000 people land and we were glad to be able to donate to this work.
When people saw our photos and read what we were saying, more money was sent out to us to buy food and water for the refugees. We were able to send out more money to the projects when we came back home as donations came in.
We visited an independently run camp that helped sick and disabled people including children. Early on the day we arrived, a boat had sunk and a family including children and a baby had drowned.
The camp was helping to organise the funerals but had little money. We donated all we had left. We were devastated. We had come to help the living and had ended up helping to bury the dead.
Three years later the main camp on Lesvos houses 10,000 people, ten times what it was built for and on an island with a population of 80,000 with a tiny, poorly resourced hospital. Other islands are in a similar position.
Moria camp on Lesvos has squalid conditions, the food is poor, the tents are unsuitable for most of the weather conditions and there are not enough blankets. Perhaps one of the worst tragedies was the death of a four year old child with multiple disabilities in a freezing tent last winter.
European countries and the EU have reacted to the arrival of refugees by sea with attempts to protect the borders.
The Greek government has been given huge amounts of money by the EU to prevent most of the refugees from leaving the islands and even going as far as the Greek mainland.
There are now professional aid workers in the camps and liaising with the authorities of people to the mainland who help to administer this and other matters though the solidarity volunteers remain doing a lot of necessary work. The issue is split between different government ministries so there is a lot of bureaucracy leading to confusion and inefficiency.
There are accusations that a great deal of EU money has simply been wasted. This leads to worsening hardship strain and uncertainty for refugees many of whom are being prevented from reuniting with families in European.
Recently volunteers in Greece tell of a mother whose newborn baby was taken immediately to Athens for emergency lifesaving treatment. The parents were left in the camp with no knowledge of what was happening to their very sick child. It took almost three weeks of help from volunteers to get the parents to Athens and to the bedside the their sick child.
Another recent story of inefficiency and incompetence on part the part of both the authorities and large agencies is of a woman and one of her two children who were cleared to go to Athens – but not the other child. The utterly distraught woman was caught trying to take the second child with her hidden in a suitcase.
Then of course there are regular arrests and deportation back to Turkey.
All this is taking place against a background of increasing incidents of organised racist violence. In Greece, much of this is organised by supporters of the nazi Golden Dawn party – and comes alongside threats against the refugees and residents, businesses and volunteers who help and support them.
After a fire in their camp, a group of refugees took up residence in the square of the capital, demanding decent living conditions, help to claim asylum and to be allowed off the island onto the mainland.
They were attacked by a large group of nazi thugs who threw bricks and stones and flares at unarmed non-violent refugees including children. This horrendous incident lasted much of the night and resulted in many injured and hospitalised refugees.
The police stood by for hours watching and arrested none of the perpetrators. Only days after shocking videos were posted on social media did they arrest a few of the nazis.
Many of the volunteers are subjected to constant harassment assaults and death threats by racists and fascists. Local residents who have in large numbers tried to help and support the refugees have also been threatened. The residents who helped the refugees were nominated for a Nobel Prize. This has further enraged the racists and nazi thugs.
Turkey and Libya
In its attempt over the last three years to prevent refugees arriving in boats via the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas the EU has taken two extremely controversial steps.
The EU has entered into agreements with both Turkey and Libya, under which it provides large sums of money in exchange for greater intervention by these countries. Their navies intercept and drag back the boats trying to leave their shores. They crack down on people-smuggling gangs and, in the case of Turkey, take back deported refugees.
This is very problematic. Firstly many people believe that it contravenes the human right to claim asylum under the Geneva Convention. Use of semantics and clever diplomatic tactics seems to have prevented a successful legal challenge up to now.
In addition, Turkey does not allow the refugees to acquire full status in the country, thus making finding a job, a house and a self-reliant lifestyle impossible.
The Turkish government has become increasingly authoritarian with many thousands of journalists academics and others who disagree with the president sent to jail, while the recent election there was considered by many to be neither free nor fair.
It is not a “safe third country” and Europe should not be returning refugees or making agreements with its government on human rights matters. Indeed some of its citizens are themselves fleeing on the boats to Greece.
Libya is if anything even more dangerous. It is a “failed state”, a country with two governments and in many regions is run by gangs and warlords.
Human rights organisations point to the shocking treatment of refugees. There is considerable evidence of beatings, torture, rape, imprisonment and murder – and the establishment of slave markets.
The Libyan navy is staffed with militias and has been accused of firing at refugee boats and at volunteer NGO rescue ships and trying to sink boats rather than allow them to pass into international waters. Many such incidents are on film and there are major reports available from organisations such as Amnesty International.
Criminalisation of volunteers
There is another important factor to be considered which is the increased effort to criminalise volunteers and volunteer groups that don’t sign up to an “agreement” that would very seriously affect their freedom to operate. This is aimed particularly at the rescue ships.
Criminalisation started soon after the huge publicity about the nature of the humanitarian catastrophe and the failures of governments and major aid agencies in Greece in 2015.
All sorts of controls have been increased and arrests made. Volunteers have been accused of encouraging people to make the sea journeys and even of collaborating with trafficking. A Spanish court found no evidence whatever of this, but some politicians have continued to demonize those helping the refugees.
There is no Europe-wide financed and coordinated search and rescue now.
The EU’s Frontex ships are for border enforcement purposes and unsuited in size and build for rescue duties. National navies and the volunteer rescue NGOs shoulder the task and the volunteers have risked their lives and saved thousands of people. Nevertheless several have been arrested and put on trial. All have been acquitted.
At the present moment, in the wake of Salvini’s move to stop ships docking in Italy, no NGO ships are operating in the Mediterranean, while on Malta the captain of the lifeline who refused to hand back people to the Libyan navy is on trial.
It was in this increasingly polarised and angry atmosphere – and amid the controversy over Trump’s child separation policy in the US – that Europe’s governments came to the European summit at the end of June with “managing migration” top of the agenda and little agreement in sight.
In the years since 2015, when the refugee deaths from drowning first hit the headlines, there have been significant political changes in Europe.
There has been a rise in Islamophobia and increased numbers of far right racist populist parties – and even open nazis – elected in a number of EU countries, which has put political pressure on mainstream politicians on the subject of asylum and immigration policy.
Attempts to maintain the Dublin agreements, then to obtain voluntary agreements from EU countries to take in a greater share of refugees have not met with huge success.
EU member countries such as Hungary and Poland – both with far right, nationalist governments – have refused to accept refugees. Italy and Greece, two countries badly affected by austerity measures, have claimed to be taking in unfairly large numbers of people because that is where the refugees’ boats land.
German chancellor Angela Merkel was given an ultimatum by her coalition partner in government that an EU-wide solution had to be achieved or the government would be brought down. The Schengen agreement and indeed the very EU itself are said to be in danger of collapsing.
The eventual policy statement from the EU summit, after endless hours of argument, was in reality an indication that there is little agreement. Nevertheless the main polints do not bode well for human rights or for refugees.
One plan is to have closed centres in a number of European countries that will volunteer to house refugees and swiftly process asylum claims. No countries have actually stated that they will do this. However, immediately after the end of the summit Merkel was forced by her coalition partner to agree to build closed centres at the German border.
Outsourcing the refugee “crisis”
More sinister still is the plan to outsource the operation to a number of countries in North Africa in attempt to further strengthen Fortress Europe and prevent people from arriving on European shores at all. Many EU politicians want this, and the EU would provide huge sums of money to willing African countries but they have failed so far to find any.
How much of what has vaguely been agreed is feasible or will happen is difficult to say. Whether it will reduce the tension among EU countries is also not yet clear.
The determination to control the rescue ships and leave the matter in the hands of the Libyan navy has appalling implications as deaths are likely to increase and huge numbers of refugees will be trapped in the shocking conditions.
That this is being attempted at a point when statistics show a 96% decrease in arrivals from the peak in 2015 might perhaps seem astonishing.
It is less so however when the treatment of refugees in Europe is looked at more closely. Thousands of families are split by delay or a virtual stop to the family reunion process. Thousands live in squalor and misery with the ever-present threat of arrest and deportation as well as violent attacks by nazis.
Perhaps worst of all thousands of separated and unaccompanied children are unaccounted for across Europe. Many feared to have fallen into the hands of traffickers and abusers.
Never since the Second World War have the selfish cynicism of politicians and the establishment generally been so at odds with the determined antiracism and solidarity of so many of the continent’s population. For example in Britain a recent survey showed that one person in three had done something to help refugees. And in the face of all this never has the courage and resilience of refugees been so obvious.