Europe has been frightened into wakefulness. Now that a huge influx of refugees is on its way to our part of the world, or already here, years of looking the other way, of denial, have given way to a panicked and manic urge to find solutions that are no solutions at all. So what should be done? The SP’s monthly magazine De Tribune sounded out people in The Hague and Damascus, in Berlin and Brussels and on Samos.
SCHUTZSUCHENDE. That’s the word of the moment in the German language this autumn. Translation: looking for protection. People who are looking for safe shelter, for protection, for security. Previously in Germany they were called ‘Asylanten’, but now this designation is seen as insulting and stigmatising, so ‘Schutzsuchende’ is the word that the public, politicians and the media now use. The word works like a tower of strength, proudly rising above abhorrent characterisations like chancers, profiteers, cheap labour and potential terrorists. It should be the word of the year.
Germany is playing a central role in the current debate around refugees. The country presented itself during the summer as the safe haven for the many thousands for the many thousands travelling right across Europe in search of a life. Some German politicians called the arrival of the refugees a new Sommermärchen, a ‘summer marvel’ - a reference to the mass euphoria which broke out when their country hosted the World Cup in 2006. Even from a sporting point of view this was a rather trivial euphoria, moreover. Germany only finished third, after all. In a certain sense the Sommermärchen of 2015 was just as trivial, because halfway through September Germany restored its border controls. The predicted 800,000 refugees turned out on closer inspection to be too many. Exit marvel, enter chaos.
In the view of SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong, Germany's zigzag course could serve as a model for the whole way in which Europe has dealt with the refugee problematic. ‘In itself Germany’s introduction of the border controls is a logical reaction. But the worst of it is that it’s so chaotic. At the moment all sorts of countries are putting forward solutions to the problem, but the chaos only increases.’
Because logical or not, in reaction to the German border controls, Austria, Hungary and Slovenia created higher barriers to entry via their borders, meaning Croatia, for a while a ‘route B’ for refugees, became a dead end. The result is a domino effect in a south-easterly direction, that only seems to bring people-smugglers more into the picture. Their practices, which often sound terifying, reached their nadir when 71 refugees died in a refrigerator truck, rubbing Europe’s nose in its own shit. The fact that the EU’s external borders are hermetically sealed and there are no longer any legal ways to get into Europe, is money in the bank for people who are prepared to provide questionable logistics.
Dennis de Jong doesn’t pull his punches. ‘This Europe promotes people-smuggling.’ As long ago as early 2013, De Jong and SP national MP Sharon Gesthuizen presented a proposal for the establishment of asylum seekers’ centres in countries with external EU frontiers, such as Greece and Italy, where sound and dignified reception procedures could be offered and where the bulk of asylum applications could be processed quickly and carefully. Because it was in those countries that degrading scenes were being played out. Gesthuizen and De Jong warned then that EU asylum policy was about to explode. That policy is based on the so-called Dublin Criteria, which include a provision that an asylum-seeker should make his or her application in the country where they enter the EU. In the knowledge that under international law asylum seekers simply cannot be denied access, Italy and Greece became the destinations of choice. If there was neither money nor preparedness in these countries to process countless asylum seekers, the temptation is great to allow them to travel through to other member states, Dublin notwithstanding. Illegal, yes. And that’s why these countries do little more than trace and register them. And so Gesthuizen and De Jong called on then Secretary of State Fred Teeven to put the case strongly at EU level on the part of the Netherlands for European asylum centres on the external frontiers. ‘Teeven certainly found our plan interesting,’ says De Jong. ‘Or so he said. But he never really went along with it.’ Neither did the EU. Although recently the Commission actually produced a plan to set up so-called ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy, where refuges could be accommodated and the prospect of rapid registration held out. More or less in line with the SP proposal. De Jong sighs that they should be coming out with this now. ‘Of course they’re a good thing, these hotspots. But it’s too little too late. It could be months before the hotspots are in place. Typical once again, this shiftlessness at European level. The same goes for aid to Greece. Colleagues from that country have told me recently that European moneys promised for help with accommodating refugees have suddenly met with delays. Blackmail? Who can say? Bureaucracy? The fact is that it all proceeds with remarkable slowness, and that’s what I’m angry about. And it’s not just when it comes to money, but also expertise and sufficient manpower if things in Italy and Greece are going to be steered in the right direction.’
In surgical mask and gloves
That’s urgently needed, as could be seen in September on the Greek island of Samos. In the town of the same name hundreds of mostly young Syrians waited to be registered. They stand, hang around, sit on deck chairs by their suitcases. Red and white tape marks the area within which they are obliged to stay, and which islanders and tourists have to keep out of. Toddlers look helplessly around, there are even babies. Some are interviewed by an official wearing a surgical mask and plastic gloves. ‘Every day hundreds more come,’ a police officer tells us. ‘There are still hundreds of thousands on the other side, (by which he meant Turkey) waiting their chance to cross.’.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands too the growing pressure and uncertainty are tangible. In Purmerend a council meeting gets out of hand, in Stein councillors are threatened, while in centres for asylum seekers in Utrecht and Ovenberg, fights break out. Insecurity and chaos haven’t spared our country. At the same time initiatives have been taken by people touched by the refugees’ lot. Clothing is being collected, demonstrations organised, people are volunteering and offering to share their homes. Heartwarming, for sure.
But what role is the government playing when it comes to the broader picture? What contribution is it making to solving the enormous chaos in Central and Southern Europe, where huge numbers of refugees, existing in the most degrading conditions, stand in the queue to reach the western world? And what about the western world’s responsibility for the conflicts and wars from which all of these Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalians and Eritreans are fleeing. Accommodation in the region itself and an obligatory system of division of asylum seekers in Europe are what the government wants to see. Not bad ideas, but what do you do if you know that the refugee camps in, for example, Jordan or Lebanon have long been overflowing, are in the humanitarian sense of the word a catastrophe and, moreover, often provide the setting for conflicts amongst the refugees themselves? Do you at least offer them decent levels of support for their refugee camps? And must you simply accept without question the thanks of countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and their remark that ‘these people don’t belong here’? No straightforward answers from the government to any of that. And as for the matter of a binding European system of division, you can forget it for the time being. Countries such as Slovakia and Hungary have no appetite for such, as is clear.
European arms exports
‘The current influx of refugees is in the first place a direct result of the creation of Fortress Europe, which means that people are taking far more risks, choosing to come by sea with all the misery that entails,’ says Leo Lucassen, research director of the International Institute for Social History. ‘Also, it’s caused by a number of hotbeds in the vicinity of Europe, in particular in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but also in Somalia and Eritrea, which are, moreover, the consequence of western military interventions . And that must also play a role in the arguments of politicians as to why we have to ease up.’ And it isn’t just these interventions themselves which play a role. The action group ‘Stop Wapenhandel’ (Stop the Arms Trade)calculated on the basis of a report from the European External Action Service (which answers to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) that between 2004 and 2013 EU member states handed out export licences for weaponry destined for North Africa and the Middle East. Here once again Germany plays a notable role. Around the same time that Berlin began to speak of a ‘summer marvel’, the weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported that 2015 could be a record year for the arms industry. ‘Amongst the clients: Egypt, Syria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Kuwait. Hardly a war zone or region in crisis without German weapons,’ wrote Der Spiegel. And what should one think when Vice-Chancellor Sigmaar Gabriel of the centre-left SDP, halfway through September, said that ‘integration and work’ are now the important keys to success for the countless refugees in Germany. Work? When the country counts almost three million unemployed? While the country is humiliated by degrading ‘1 euro jobs’ – lousy, underpaid jobs which unemployed people are forced to take in the name of ‘work integration’ – and the exploitation of so many Romanians and Bulgarians who work there as fourth-rate day-labourers? Nut in the Netherlands too you can hear that the refugees are badly needed.
‘ By shouting about that now, you’re confounding different issues,’ says Dennis de Jong. ‘ The fact that our civilisation gives us a duty not to allow people to die miserably at sea has nothing to do with the economy. Those who make that link fall into the trap of the big employers, for whom it is favourable to have as many people as possible on the labour market. What I mean is, take a look first of all at the unemployment figures in the Netherlands and invest in people who are sidelined! Simply to see refugees as a potential labour force will only encourage xenophobia. I find it disturbing that the fact that Syrian refugees are in the main well-educated is seen as an economic opportunity for the West. Don’t forget that these people do come from somewhere. Who is then – anytime soon - going to rebuild Syria? These people are badly needed there.’
The debate around the refugees has opened a Pandora’s box which has released all of the urgent questions of our times: economic interests, poverty, EU competences, war and military interventions, xenophobia, employment, criminality, housing, reconstruction of countries which lie in ruins. During a recent debate in the European Parliament, Dennis de Jong noted that politicians are seizing on the whirlwind of phenomena and interests as an opportunity to ride their hobby horses. ‘So you’ve got Europhiles like Guy Verhofstadt explaining current developments as proof that even more powers should be handed to the European Commission, while LePen and the PVV speak of a tsunami of asylum seekers and try to use this for political gain.’ And the simple fact that there is an emergency situation for millions of people appears to be getting snowed under. ‘I admit that simple solutions don’t exist, but we must give some direction. Europe must now as rapidly as possible introduce measures to help the refugees. That doesn’t mean that I’m saying that we should let everyone come here. Still less am I echoing Wilders, speaking of a refugee invasion. What I do say is that we must fulfil our duties, which means improving reception camps in the region and ensuring good accommodation for the refugees who are here. The problem’s manageable, but we really now have to pull out the stops.
Back to Samos in Greece. Achim, a Syrian student, tells us about the struggle between different groups in Damascus. Nothing is left out of his account: the roadblocks, the devastation, the militias, their home-made firebombs, burning buildings, burning people. And the risk that you, weapon in hand, will be forced to join the fight on pain of death. And in the end, flight. With nothing but a rucksack you leave the town, the country. On your way as a ‘summer marvel’?
This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in Tribune, monthly news magazine of the SP. The text is by Rob Janssen, Tijmen Lucie and Wim Somers.