Friday, 11 March 2016

Refugees: there is a better way

Turkey is holding the EU to ransom. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows that Europe's leaders will do almost anything to stop more refugees arriving on their shores -- so he is demanding a sky-high price for his (apparent) cooperation.

It is not a pretty sight, nor is the virtual capitulation of EU leaders to his demands. Their cynicism and their cowardice is shameful -- not only because it will do little if anything to alleviate the despair of the refugees who are risking their lives to find sanctuary, but also because it will encourage President Erdoğan to continue down the path from democracy to dictatorship.

Europe's leaders -- and the US -- are turning a blind eye to his renewed campaign against the Kurds (even though Kurdish fighters are the West's allies in Syria), apparently not caring that denying the Kurds their rights of free expression and self-determination seems to matter much more to him than bringing peace to Syria.

After the wave of popular uprisings that swept through much of the Arab world in 2011, I reported from Turkey on whether that country might serve as a democratic model for some of its post-autocratic Arab neighbours. After all, Mr Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party had been in power for nearly 10 years, winning three successive elections, each time with an increased share of the vote. Proof that democracy and Islamism can co-exist?

Not at all, said TV broadcaster Banu Guven, who lost her job after objecting to a ban on interviews with leading Kurdish campaigners. She told me then that there was already growing pressure on the media, even intimidation, leading to more and more self-censorship. And it's got a lot worse since then.

President Erdoğan has much in common with another strongman leader who is waging war in Syria: Vladimir Putin of Russia. The two men may be at each other's throats, and there is a real risk of them going to war, but on one thing they can agree: Europe's leaders are so weak and divided that it is absurdly easy to run rings round them.

It's all very well announcing that Europe's borders have been sealed and that a deal has been struck to return refugees from Greece to Turkey. Desperate people will find desperate solutions: if Turkey to Greece is no longer an option, what about Libya to Italy, or Morocco to Spain?

There are well over two million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and that country does deserve credit for offering them at least the opportunity to live free from the fear of being blasted to bits by one of President Assad's barrel bombs or one of President Putin's missiles. What Turkey will not offer them is a chance to make a future life for themselves on Turkish territory, hence the steady stream of refugees heading for Europe.

But now NATO warships, including a Royal Navy amphibious landing ship, are going to try to intercept them and turn them back. I can't help thinking that NATO forces would be far better employed using their considerable expertise in logistics and supplies to build and equip proper refugee camps in Greece where refugees could live safely, free from cold and hunger, with a chance to be screened and assessed for eventual settlement elsewhere, or to wait until it is safe to return home.

It is not so difficult to imagine a much better way to handle the crisis: first, accept that refugees will not stop coming to Europe, no matter how many barbed wire fences are built or how many warships are sent to patrol the eastern Mediterranean. Then build camps in Greece to house them -- that's what the military are good at -- and get the UN refugee agency UNHCR to run them and organise assessment programmes. Other agencies can take responsibility for the welfare of children (UNICEF and Save the Children), the provision of clean water (Oxfam) and medical care (Médecins Sans Frontières).  

Refugees themselves can be employed to build, run and maintain the camps, and to work as teachers. Many are highly qualified, so why not use those qualifications and put them to good use? Joint enterprises with Greek entrepreneurs could be established, providing hundreds of new jobs for unemployed young Greeks as well as for refugees.

But wouldn't Greece inevitably become a refugee dumping ground? That's not how I see it -- I see it as a way of treating refugees as if they are sentient, capable and resilient human beings, with skills as well as needs. And I also see it as a way of saying to the people of Greece, who have demonstrated the most remarkable humanity at a time of national crisis, that the arrival of refugees on their shores need not be only a negative experience.

Of course, there is a risk that the refugee camps will become semi-permanent fixtures. But is that necessarily so much worse than continuing to try in vain to stem the flow and relying on ineffective crisis management as Europe's xenophobes gain in strength? Refugees want above all to be safe, and to have some hope that they can build a new and better life for themselves and their children, either in a new home or back in their old home once the conflict is over. Europe's voters want their governments to show that they are on top of the crisis, not paralysed into inaction.

There are currently more than 20 camps in Turkey for Syrian refugees, housing more than 215,000 people. In Jordan, the mega-camps at Azraq and Zaatari house well over 110,000 people. Is it really too much to ask the EU to demonstrate the same degree of basic humanity as Syria's immediate neighbours?

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