Agora Europe

There is no refugee crisis, but a crisis of solidarity and responsibility; no refugee crisis, but a crisis of politics.

We are europe banner We are europe banner

Author : Tamara Ehs


Tamara Ehs currently does research at the Department of Legal History and Social Sciences at the University of Salzburg. She also teaches on questions of democracy and the Austrian constitution at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna.


There is no refugee crisis, but a crisis of solidarity and responsibility; no refugee crisis, but a crisis of politics.

As if war, expulsion and being on the run were not already terrible enough, the European Union turns this traumatic experience into a complete disaster. Since the agreement reached with Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March 2016, Turkey is more than ever a European border post. Two million mainly Syrian war refugees currently live on Turkish soil; to make it impossible for them to continue their journey to Greece, and to comply with the EU-deal, the Turkish coast guard engages the inhuman, life-threatening method of so-called push-backs. The militarisation of the EU’s external border is accompanied by a reduction of refugee protection that should put us to shame. People fleeing war are caught in barbed wire fences on the citadels of Fortress Europe in Ceuta, Melilla, Calais; others sink to the seabed and inhabit the abyss, because we do not protect people, but borders.

Loïc Jaeger, head of MSF Greece, explains what the deal with Turkey has changed: Greek islands like Lesvos were only crossing stations; refugees were staying there not more than a week before continuing their journey. Now, the island is a dead end. The asylum seekers have been brought to camps and are held there for months, “The EU uses internment as deterrent. The refugees should be deprived of any hope for an onward journey, so that they report back home that the flight would be in vain“, tells Jaeger. This current EU policy results in letting people suffer and languish in camps to discourage others to come. MSF now have to treat mental illnesses incurred only by the hopeless internment.

Volunteers and local residents help refugees and migrants disembark from a small vessel after their arrival in Skala Sykaminias on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Greek authorities say a number of people have died near other islands after two boats carrying migrants and refugees from Turkey to Greece sank overnight, in the latest deadly incident in the eastern Aegean Sea. (AP Photo/Kostis Ntantamis)



That policy is a “bloody wrong“, comments Eric Kempson, a Briton who had lived in the north of Lesvos for 16 years. In all these years, refugee boats were landing on his beach – previously only men came, then in 2014 also women and in 2015 for the first time children came. Therefore, Kempson realised that the situation in the countries of origin must have deteriorated massively, “Because no one puts his children in an overcrowded boat if he hadn’t to fear for their lives at home even more.Kempson counted 12,000 people seeking protection alone on the north coast of Lesvos on the worst day in 2015. Since the deal with Turkey, only about 100 people per day make it to the island.

This calms the frightened European mind, made believe that the EU would have the situation under control. But Kempson speaks of a “forced disappearance“. Borders are closed so that refugees disappear from our sight. But anyone standing at the coasts of Lesvos at dusk can see them using a simple pair of binoculars: In order to maintain the deal with the EU, the Turkish coast guard forces refugee boats to return before they reach the open sea. It shoots holes in the rubber boats, so they are threatened to sink and need to return. Sometimes, the bullets not only hit the boat but also the people. Kempson also reports of children with fresh burns on their arms because Turkey is now using electric batons to prevent the refugees on their journey across the sea. Those who still manage the crossing are brought to camps to be registered there. These places (Moria and Kara Tepe) are rather detention camps, more reminiscent of prisons, than reception centers for people seeking protection. Especially Moria with all the barbed wire surrounding it makes the impression of a POW camp. In fact, war is waged here, a war on immigration.

©Getty Images

Stratos Georgoulas, criminologist at the University of the Aegean and local politician in Mytilini, calls the refugee management by the EU and the Greek state a “crime against humanity“. After all, the EU is even taking legal action to criminalise humanitarian aid done by both the local population and the thousands of volunteers who have come to Lesvos since spring 2015. This breakdown of civilisation is primarily based on fear, now also taking the resident population of Lesvos which has shown great solidarity so far. But now, as the island has become a dead end and the refugees are stranded here, the residents fear that tourists stop coming. Their solidarity is in fact based on a certain economic security. If now, however, the inhabitants of Lesvos can no longer live by tourism, they themselves may become (economic) refugees. Their fear of their own economic and social decline in a country like Greece that is already humiliated by the EU’s austerity policy reduces their solidarity with refugees.

Our commitment to human rights is experiencing its test now, when it’s actually those looking for protection who have nothing more than what Hannah Arendt once called the “abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human“. Those people have lost their homes, the familiarity of their daily life, their job, often relatives. Now, they are also losing hope when stranded in a Greek camp. Even more unfortunate find death in the sea instead of an “area of security and freedom“. So what to do?

As long as there is no lasting peace in the countries of origin of refugees, Europe instantly has to open the borders to save people. The EU, the United States and Canada have to provide a safe passage. Conciliatory proposal: First of all, those countries that have participated in the US/EU/NATO-led war coalitions in recent years, as well as those having delivered weapons to Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. and therefore financially have benefited of these battles, should take responsibility for their actions. For the admission of war refugees is no noblesse oblige but a duty to the people of the countries against which it waged a war on terror. It was an intervention policy based on untenable accusations that destabilised the countries of origin and triggered the current influx. They are here because we were there.

If human dignity isn’t inviolable everywhere, it is nowhere.

Neither the difficult and dangerous journey through Turkey, nor the crossing on unseaworthy boats and the push-backs by the coast guard, nor the mafia methods of the traffickers, not even the cold winter, no matter how high seas may stop people from seeking refuge: as long as there is war and persecution in their home countries they will try to find their way to Europe. Let us better prepare welcoming them! Let us provide safe, non-mafia routes. Because so far, the road to Europe is shaped in a way that not only traumatises people repeatedly but costs them a total of 3,000 to 5,000 Euro per person. Whoever argues refugees would burden our social system should keep in mind that those people don’t start their long journey with empty purses. Their savings are taken from them by smugglers and corrupt policemen.

Finally, human dignity not only includes the right to survival but also the right to be allowed to care for themselves, not having to wait in detention centres for weeks being condemned to idleness and hopelessness. War refugees are currently deprived of these rights. Let us understand that it violates the dignity of each one of us in the middle of Europe if we allow this treatment of people at the borders of Europe! If human dignity isn’t inviolable everywhere, it is nowhere.


This publication reflects the views only of the author, and does not necessarily represent positions of the We are Europe project members.

Share this content
All posts in Agora Europe