Ankara plays pass the asylum-seeker

Published by The i paper (9th March 2020)

The scenes of squalor and stories of despair had a sordid sense of familiarity. On Friday night I stood at a bus station in a Turkish town near the border with Greece, talking to Syrian refugees about their determination to reach Europe. Men gathered wood, women cooked on open fires and sad-looking children sat staring into the flames. In the car park, three Afghan girls barely into their teens picked through a pile of donated clothes. Two young Africans stood back from the crowd, one hiding his face behind a scarf and reluctant even to tell me his country of origin.

Once again, Europe is supposedly facing a migration crisis. These people politely answering my questions and telling pitiful tales of woe were sleeping at that bus station because yet another politician has weaponised their plight. This time it was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the pugnacious Turkish President, who threatened to unlock his border gates. His move, instantly condemned as blackmail, was intended to force Nato into backing his intervention in Syria’s cruel conflict while pressuring Europe’s leaders to provide more support for his nation’s heavy burden of refugees.

The legacy was ugly scenes on the border. There are 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey, often exploited in the black economy and earning half the wages of local workers. There are also huge numbers of Afghans and Iraqis fleeing the chaotic consequences of our own bungled foreign adventurism, along with many Iranians escaping religious zealots throttling their country. Thousands rushed north on hearing the news, only to find Europe’s mood has hardened since the 2015 turbulence. They were met with Greek bullets, tear gas and police brutality; I spoke to several who said they were beaten, robbed of everything, even stripped of all clothes except underwear.

Erdogan’s tactic demonstrated weakness as deaths mount among his soldiers in Syria, dissent grows over sending in 7,000 more troops to support rebels in Idlib and 950,000 more people are displaced in that devastated country. This prickly strongman displayed again his strange talent for angering Turkey’s traditional allies. It is hard to be sympathetic to a man who uses refugees as pawns – especially when his most notable achievement has been to build a vast palace three times the size of Versailles while stifling political space, jailing journalists and flirting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Yet while despairing at his crass approach, do not dismiss his arguments. Erdogan exposes the West’s hollow strategy on Syria, which has involved empty threats, hand-wringing and gross inconsistency while outflanked by foes such as Iran and Russia. Above all, he underscores the shameful hypocrisy of Europe, posing as a moral force with professed determination to protect human rights while allowing populist scaremongering to dictate a hostile agenda towards distraught people in dire need.

As one Turkish analyst said to me, what kind of world do we live in when refugees are robbed of everything by thugs in uniform? Or when a senior aid worker who has attended humanitarian crises all over the world tells me the most tragic scenes of misery he has seen are found on Greek islands, where 42,500 migrants are stuffed into hideous camps intended for 6,178 people a few miles down the road from affluent tourists stuffing down moussaka in fine restaurants?

As this despairing medic pointed out, the problem is political since for all the hysteria such numbers are comparatively small for our rich continent to absorb. Turkey, with an economy one-third the size of Britain’s, hosts more refugees than the entire European Union. There has been scarcely a murmur after Greece suspended asylum in defiance of the United Nations.

Yet it is too easy to blame the Greeks, despite the ineptitude of their public bodies and hardline approach of a new government. This country has – like Turkey – shown sympathy in recent years to a significant influx of people, even if frustration seems to be growing. The problem goes far beyond their borders: to all those other nations shirking responsibility towards refugees, especially those that sent troops to fight in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya but now turn their backs on human beings escaping the consequences of their actions.

Bunging a bit more cash to frontline states does not solve the problem, nor should it salve the conscience of countries such as Britain, France, Denmark and Holland. The issue proving so corrosive for Western democracies is twofold. First, the selfish refusal of most mainstream politicians, with a few noble exceptions, to stand up for the principle of asylum by trying to lead political debate, which allows bigots and populists to set their agenda. And second, the pathetic failure since 2015 to solve the problem of how to define, process and share the hosting of asylum-seekers.

The EU president Ursula von der Leyen called Greece the continent’s shield last week, which shows how the continent’s leaders see frontline states. No wonder Viktor Orban, Hungary’s vile leader who did so much to toxify these issues and wreck European solidarity, claims victory in the debate on migration. There are pledges of a new pact on migration. But since the EU backs lethal Libyan militia and African despots to deter people from its borders, it is hard to have much hope for a humane approach. Meanwhile for all the spurious talk of ‘global Britain’, our breach with Brussels was driven by the divisive force of nationalism.

Erdogan’s cynical stunt was wrong on moral, diplomatic and political grounds. Yet his move served as reminder about the continuing horror story in Syria, the misery of its victims and the urgent need to find a formula to protect dispossessed people. If our democracies do not stand up for the most basic human rights of those in desperate need, then what are they really about at their heart?

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