The EU deportations do not solve the problem that refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere confront, says Hazel Healy of The New Internationalist
GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. My name is Gregory Wilpert and I’m coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. This week, the European Union began to apply a deal it reached with the government of Turkey to send refugees who landed in Greece back to Turkey. In the past year over a million refugees traveled from countries in the Middle East, particularly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq to Turkey, in the hopes of making it all the way to Europe. In most cases they landed in Greece, which is now housing over 100,000 refugees there. Greece though which is still reeling from a prolonged and intense economic crisis, is having trouble accommodating so many refugees. According to the deal reached between the EU and Turkey, refugees in Greece are to be returned to Turkey and for every returned refugee, one officially approved refugee will be admitted into a country in the European Union. Also, Turkey is to receive 6.8 billion dollars in aid from the EU in exchange for this deal. With us to talk about the refugee crisis in Greece and in Europe more generally, is Hazel Healy. Hazel is an editor at New Internationalist Magazine in London and has traveled to Greece to investigate the refugee situation there first hand. Thank you, Hazel, for joining us today. HAZEL HEALY: Thanks for having me. WILPERT: So let’s start with your concrete experience. You traveled to the Island of Lesbos, Greece a couple months ago, which has been one of the main arrival points for refugees coming from Turkey. What did you see there? What was the situation like for the refugees? HEALY: So I arrived on the 28th of October to a small tourist town called Molyvos, a safe town it’s more like a village. Actually earlier that day there’d been a shipwreck- one of the most serious off the island and 40 people were still missing. So my arrival on the island was more devastating than I was expecting, even after everything I’d read on the news and seeing about the crisis before that. In terms of the people who I actually met, I think we can read the statistics and heard that 95% percent of that make that crossing from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, around half of them are from Syria, I think when you hear the personal stories that helps you really relate to these people and their journeys that they’re undertaking and the reasons that they’re fleeing. So one person was Salman, who was a Syriac[inaud] Christian from northern Syria. He joins the exodus of Christians from the Middle East. Started with the war in Iraq and has carried on a pace with Isis. He lost his cousin that night. He hadn’t come in on any rescue boats. Then another woman that I met was an Yazidi mother of 2 called Linda, who lost her 18-month-old son, Jude, earlier that day. He drowned on the crossing. So the Yazidis from Iraq, she was from Iraq, also have a well-founded case under the refugee convention. But she was having to travel in this way and actually lose her child fleeing persecution by Isis, who we all know in the west the kind of terror that they can be responsible for. Just to- one other group I met were two Syrians, a Amal[inaud] was actually a master’s economic student. And he said the reason he was leaving Syria was it had got to the point where you either shoot a gun or you leave. And that was his choice. WILPERT: Was that kind of the situation for most of the people you talked to? That they were essentially escaping a civil war situation as in Syria or Afghanistan? HEALY: Or in Iraq, but there were also- it’s actually an extraordinary experience because there were people there from all over the world. I also met a Somali who called himself Captain Phillips, who was running away from Mogadishu after he had been, received death threats from Al Shaba for his work with a western NGO, micro finance NGO. But what I saw from everyone were either people fleeing war or more sustainable, secure lives. And I was also told more than one Syrian; if I could I’d go back tomorrow. This isn’t my choice and I’m just looking for a way out. WILPERT: Where did they say they were trying to get to? I assume that Greece was not their destination, their ultimate destination. Where were they hoping to go? HEALY: So in most cases, people had a family member who they were hoping to join. So Amal was hoping to join her husband in Berlin. The Yazidi woman, Linda, here parents were already in Germany and she was making her way towards them. I met another man from Iraq who had a brother in Switzerland. I even met an Iranian DJ who was hoping to join his cousin, I think it was, in Zurich. So really a range of motivations and also contacts and reasons for choosing different countries. WILPERT: One of the- well let’s turn to the deal that was reached between the European Union and Turkey last month, which is beginning to be implemented now. People are being returned. You’ve been in touch with people. What have they been saying about this process of being returned to Turkey? HEALY: Well, there are so many concerns about this deal. I mean, its legality is questionable on many fronts. The first is that, how can you be sure that the people that are returned to Turkey have their asylum claim properly evaluated in that time. Of the first 202 who were deported amid much fanfare and media attention on Monday, 13 of those, the Greek authorities have said, oh sorry that was a mistake, we haven’t actually finished processing their asylum claims. So that’s hardly encouraging. The second point is that Turkey is not a safe country to return people to. So that means if you do return asylum seekers to that country your guilty of something called refoundment[inaud]. So under the refugee convention, you cannot return people to a place where they’re at risk of further persecution. So amnesty has been documenting how on the boarder with Syria, Turkey has been returning people to Syria, pushing them back over the boarder illegally. So it’s not a safe place for Syrians, and even less so for the other nationalities. You also have all sorts of people swept up in this deal. So you have [inaud] who are phoning up advocates saying, well what about us, will we be sent back to Turkey? Where can we claim asylum? Because Turkey isn’t even a full signatory to the refugee convention. So many worries people have about people being able to access to the action that they’re legally entitled to if they’re sent back to Turkey. WILPERT: What you’ve seen in the situation there, certainly also I think in addition to Amnesty International criticizing the Turkey EU deal, they’ve also been criticism the camps in Greece themselves, including the one you visited in Lesbos which is one of the largest. What do you think would be the solution to this problem that apparently, even though Europe is saying they’re going to take them in, then at the same time returning them to Turkey? What should be done? What would be a better solution to this situation? HEALY: There’s an easy answer to that and it’s safe legal pathways and you also need a global response. I don’t think this can just be a European response. But if you start with Europe, if you take the resettlement program which is the only safe legal pathway that’s been offered to the refugees currently- they were offered it was 160,000 places were pledged, that was the target. And of those 660 people, I checked this today, 660 people have been relocated within Europe. Which is 0.4 percent of that promised total. So you can shut the door, slam the door in the faces of the refugees and if you don’t offer them any other way to reach safety, they will carry on coming and they will come by another route. So people are already reporting high numbers of crossings from Libya. Which is a very dangerous route and even more people died traveling that route last year than did coming via Greece. So you have to provide people another option, a safe option, a means by which they can have viable lives for themselves and their families because otherwise it’s like the war on drugs. It’s just like a displacement effect. Balloon effect, it’s supply centric effort. You have to look at the reasons people leave. They’re seeking safety and sustainable lives. You need to look at the pull factors such as the labor market and jobs in those destination countries that they’re also need for. And you need to think about our intervention abroad as the industrialized North. And until you think on those things, and act on them, this crisis isn’t going to go away WILPERT: One thing that has really impressed me in reading about the situation is that practically all of the media always insists on referring to them as migrants. And does, what do you think about the usage of that term, given the situation that you’ve experienced of the people who are fleeing their countries and trying to enter Europe? HEALY: It’s a good question and there’s two things going on here. Firstly there is a global displacement crisis. The Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil and that is generating a lot of refuges, conflict refugees. At the same time there are other people on the same pathways who are brought, slightly different motivations and slightly different push factors. But what you find is that actually the neat categories of refugial migrants don’t always fit the people who are on the road. So for example if you take Syrians who leave, who flee the war so they’re safe from the bombs but they’re [inaud] they’re getting deeper and deeper into debt and they can’t establish viable lives there. So they practice what’s called secondary migration and it’s the same for Arigains[inaud] who escape the repressive regime. They get as far as Sudan. They have no options there. They have no way of surviving there so they just keep moving until they get to a place where they think they can build a new life. Then you might have people who are commonly categorized as economic migrants like Pakistanis or Nigerians who are actually fleeing localized violence, which isn’t well publicized but actually would have a good case even under the Geneva Convention. The question becomes more, how can we update the convention to adapt to the realities of the world we’re living in to encompass the different kinds of people who are coming and the things they’re looking for. WILPERT: Well unfortunately we’ve run out of time, but thank you Hazel so much for agreeing to speak to us about this important issue. HEALY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on the program. WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
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