An unorthodox chronology of the last 4 weeks at the European border.
The Covid-19 pandemic is further exacerbating the situation for those trapped in the camps in Greece and those in limbo at the Greek-Turkish border. While in Greece, infections are still increasing with no de-escalation at sight, thousands of migrants and refugees remain trapped on the Greek islands, behind bars and barbed-wire fence, in overfilled "closed migrant camps" under inhumane conditions. The Greek government announced a lockdown of all camps on 16th March, despite Doctors Without Borders’ ( dramatic call which demands and advises for immediate evacuations of the camps.
It’s been five years after the so-called "refugee crisis" and four years after the EU-Turkey deal, and it is clear that the strategy of externalization of Europe's borders at all costs has failed. The solutions proposed so far through the official communications of the EU and governments are, if not just more of the same, a call to arms.
At the same time, the local populations of the Aegean islands, which have previously been at the forefront of solidarity, have seen their islands transform to open-air prisons through the very same EU-Turkey deal. The applied pressure, together with massive propaganda and fake news campaigns, have led the islands to a crescendo of violence in the past weeks.
Meanwhile, neo-fascists and racists attack refugees, migrants, journalists and solidarity movements in the country. Diverse neo-Nazi groups from around Europe mobilize to the Greek border in order to "defend", as they call it, Europe from the "invasion". In Bulgaria, as well as other European countries, the situation is similar.
Europe's morality dies at the border, say some. That might have been true if the EU but also other European countries had shown any moral stands in the migration debate. Only recently, 16 March 2020, a fire broke out again in the camp of Moria (Lesvos), a camp that has capacity for 3,000 and is currently holding approximately 25,000, resulting in the death of a six-year-old child.
On 27 February 2020 thousands of people started to move towards the Turkey-Greece border, after the announcement of the Turkish government that migrants wanting to reach Europe will no longer be stopped on the Turkish side. This announcement came after 33 Turkish soldiers had been killed in Idlib, Syria, an area, where conflict escalation has seen the civilian death toll rapidly increasing and in which basic infrastructure and health facilities are being blatantly targeted. The borders with Syria remain closed by the Turkish side despite the dangers of conflict for the local population. It is obvious that the fate of thousands of people now trapped in limbo at the doors of Europe is not the prime interest of the Turkish or the Greek governments.
Since this 27 February 2020 the situation at the Greek-Turkish border kept escalating and at a pace that made it very difficult to predict the outcome of the latest political developments on both sides of the Mediterranean. Just days before the global outbreak of Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, Greece and Turkey were, and to some extent still are, in a stand-off situation at the border, with Turkey also mobilizing 1,000 heavily armed police at its border and Greece suspending the fundamental right to seek asylum, while violating international law and normalizing illegal push backs, even at sea. Thousands of people, including children, stand between the security forces of two nationalist and racist governments. We have reached the point of no return. Unarmed people are being shot at the border and the silence of governments and the EU implies impunity. Yet, the EU keeps dealing with Turkey and endorsing the acts of the Greek government.
The narrative of "invasion" and the need for "shielding" and "defending" Europe is now dominating the current discourse. Even high profile politicians like Ursula von der Leyen and Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People's Party in the European Parliament, elegantly endorse this framing. Another popular narrative among right-wingers is the supposed correlation between refugees and the coronavirus. Apart from the fact that this framing dangerously plays with the antisemitic campaigns of the previous century when Jews all over Europe were called "vermin", this also enables right-wing politicians like Orbán to take advantage of the situation and recall the right to seek asylum as well. Additionally, the tension between Greece and Turkey has also got an enhanced social media dimension, with both sides pointing fingers at each other and circulating audio-visual material.
Migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and several African countries have been reaching the border-crossing areas of Edirne, Çanakkale, and İzmir; some were brought there by buses of municipalities, some arrived by private taxis, or walking. In the Edirne area, they have been allowed (but also forced, according to reports) to proceed to the border zone by the Turkish authorities, but Greek police forces prevented them from passing with gas and sound-lighting bombs. At the same time, Turkish authorities restricted the access of journalists and reporters. Those stuck in the grey zone between the two states have only themselves and few brave journalists to rely on to share their ordeal with the world.
The instrumentalization of the lives of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees reduced to a threat and a bargaining chip must end, both in domestic electoral campaigns and in the relations between the Turkish government and the EU. On the contrary, Greece and the EU must step up to protect the lives of everyone at the borders and the camps.
On 23 March, even Gerald Knaus, one of the architects of the EU-Turkey deal, in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, admitted that there is no other way to safe-guard the health of migrants, refugees and locals alike, other than to evacuate the camps. There is no other way, other than a complete and immediate evacuation!
On February over 500 organizations, big, small, NGOs, churches, parties stood together behind the statement initiated by activists from Turkey and Greece. For the initiators it was clear that solidarity has no borders and that we all must work together in order to change the conditions under which migrants and refugees suffer. The statement has also found resonance in Turkish media.
According to ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles), the violation of human rights and the violence taking place at the borders these days have even led a Danish Frontex crew to deny performing push backs at sea. They even started to document episodes where Greek patrol boats are putting people’s lives at risk by sailing up close to their rubber boats to make them return. Danish Minister of Defence Trine Bramsen expressed support of the decision by the Danish crew not to follow orders.
Since then, numerous petitions have started circulating to demand the evacuations of the camps. Some of them, unfortunately, only demand the evacuation of children, women and people with serious health conditions, thus perhaps unwillingly adapting to the common right-wing narrative, that frames predominantly young male migrants and refugees as a threat.
Additionally, numerous demonstrations took place around Europe between 4 and 8 March. In Turkey, the government had banned demonstrations already on 4 March for the following 10 days movements reconfiguring their activities within the new reality of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2015, people of Europe self-organized beyond political and national borders, to support refugees and migrants on their March of Hope to reach Europe and they managed together. Back then, as it is now, it was not a "refugee crisis". It was a deep political crisis of the European Union and its governments, shifting the debate to the right.
Therefore, momentarily it is urgent to:
Support solidarity organizations and teams operating on the ground by asking their needs and providing funds.
Support solidarity by sharing directly from social media accounts of organizations and initiatives that work on the ground. This way we make sure that their voices keep echoing in the social media spaces.
Let’s together think up ways to distort and weaken the right-wing narrative.
Solidarity is our weapon and we will prevail!