An Afghan refugee girl’s message for European heads of state: “We have been spun around aimlessly by Europe”

by 20th Oct 2016
Marzia, age 15, an Afghan refugee in Greece Marzia, age 15, an Afghan refugee in Greece

Today and tomorrow (20-21 October 2016), European heads of state meet in Brussels for the European Council. At the top of the agenda is European policy on migration. Having recently returned from Greece where I was supporting CARE’s efforts to help refugees, I’ve seen for myself the desperate situation that so many refugees face. It represents a collective failure of European governments – and the proposals tabled for the European Council risk making the situation worse.

What are European heads of state discussing this week in Brussels?

At the European Council, EU leaders will discuss latest developments and progress on the EU comprehensive approach to migration. This discussion comes at a time when the EU is also negotiating the 2017 budget and embarking on discussions on the Mid-Term Review of the Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) and the next European Consensus on Development.

Most worryingly, we are seeing a shift whereby the EU is re-orientating its funding and programming on development cooperation and aid to turn them into tools to prevent migration or incentivise the forced return of migrants, implying that migration is a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ or a ‘threat’ to be stopped. We most recently saw this in action at the recent conference in Brussels on Afghanistan, the outcome of which the New York Times summarised as Europe Makes Deal to Send Afghans Home, Where War Awaits Them. Governments pledged $3.75 billion in annual development aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. The trade-off is that Afghans whose asylum applications are rejected will be forcibly returned directly to Afghanistan.

EU relocation scheme for migrants – arbitrary and unfair

While in Greece, I saw and heard first-hand the impacts of this so-called ‘Fortress Europe’ approach and the decision to deprioritise certain nationalities, such as Afghans, in terms of who can access protection in the EU and who cannot.

I spent time with a coalition of refugee women-led associations called Melissa, which has a community centre on a street a block away from Victoria Square – a part of Athens where many migrants can be seen living homeless in the streets, and also a part of town that has witnessed attacks on migrants by the Golden Dawn fascist movement. It was at this centre – which in a previous guise had been fire-bombed by Golden Dawn – that I met a young Afghan girl called Marzia as part of a discussion with a group of migrant women activists about European policies on migration. The conversation spanned various issues, including how the EU had arbitrarily and unfairly determined that just three nationalities would be eligible for relocation from Greece to elsewhere in Europe, namely Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean, whereas others – including Palestinian refugees from Syria, and Afghans – would not. [see footnote]

Aged 15 and with only two years’ formal education in her whole life, Marzia returned to the Melissa centre the next day with a hand-written statement she wanted somehow conveyed to European political leaders. In Marzia’s own words:

It’s true, I am not Syrian, but do I not have a right to live? Is the blood of others different from the blood of an Afghan? No, people of the world, an Afghan also bleeds red. But unfortunately, today the European Union discriminates against us. They have recognised difference between peoples, have determined that others are worthy of their humanity, and have lowered the value of an Afghan life. Politics determines who is offered a safe place to go, not their needs.

So while the EU relocation scheme is inadequate and unfair in terms of which nationalities can benefit from it, European governments have even failed to deliver on that impoverished and inadequate promise. Sixteen months on from the initial relocation pledge, the EU has only relocated 5,290 refugees – 4,134 from Greece and 1,156 from Italy – which amounts to just 3.3 percent of that pledge.

Most have gone to France, Finland and the Netherlands. Austria, Hungary, and Poland have yet to relocate anyone. Others, such as the Czech Republic, have relocated just handfuls of people. The UK government has refused to participate in the scheme. What’s more, the majority of funding to support decent accommodation outside of camps for refugees in Greece centres just on those eligible for EU relocation. Others live in the squalid camps or are homeless in the streets and squats. When European heads of state meet in Brussels this week, they should either come with serious commitments to step up their efforts to support Greece in hosting refugees, or they should hang their heads in shame.

Europe’s support to Greece

Just last month, European heads of state attended a global summit on refugees and migrants at the UN as well as a leaders’ conference on refugees hosted by President Obama. At both of these, the main thrust of the discussion was to emphasise the importance of responsibility-sharing. Yet the worry is that we are now seeing European governments shrink, not sustain or expand, their support to Greece in hosting refugees.

The inadequate efforts on relocation already described is one aspect of this. Another is that there have been moves from the EU member states to get Greece to accept returns from other member states before the end of the year. This would return Greece to the so-called Dublin regulation, which requires the member state where an asylum-seeker first entered to process the application. Back in 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against this due to the inhumane conditions that prevail for migrants in Greece.

All of this is a dangerous direction for European policy, especially when seen in the context of the bigger picture, which is the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law and human rights norms. As long ago as 2006, Thomas Graae Gammeltoft-Hansen at the Danish Institute for Strategic Studies argued that “‘root cause’ approaches” to address “human rights, democratisation and socio-economic causes of movement” by the EU were being eclipsed by “a set of more restrictive, entry and departure blocking mechanisms, designed to extend migration control to third parties and non-EU countries.”

At the present time, we increasingly hear states like Kenya and Pakistan ask why they should continue to host much bigger numbers of refugees for much longer. Russia questions the West’s criticisms of its support to Syrian regime violence against civilians in Syria, a key driver of refugee flows from the Middle East to Europe, given that the UK and other states sell arms to Saudi Arabia used against civilian targets in Yemen. As such, Thomas’s conclusion that “using hard power to achieve its migration priorities may also entail a loss of soft power and will eventually make such policies unsustainable” seems all the more resonant for Europe today.

Marzia’s message to European political leaders ends with a question: “We have been spun around aimlessly by Europe. In this big, wide world, is there no place for us?” The test for this week’s European Council is will it stop the EU’s spinning on this issue? I fear that the answer this week is most likely going to be ‘no’.

CARE has coordinated an open letter to EU heads of state calling for a new approach that puts its commitments to human rights and refugee protection at the heart of EU migration and development policy. Activists at the Melissa centre also recorded a video testimonial by Marzia, which I share here. Our hope is that European citizens and politicians might listen to these voices, and that over time, this might result in a more humane European policy on migration.

FOOTNOTE The EU relocation scheme gives privileged status to some nationalities, as only applicants for whose nationality the average recognition rate of international protection at the EU level is above 75% are eligible. Afghans, who currently have a 59% recognition rate, and Iraqis, who currently have a 73% rate, are therefore not eligible even though they make up about 25% and 15% respectively of the refugee population in Greece.

Howard Mollett

I joined CARE in 2005, since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with our local teams and civil society partners in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC, Kosovo and most recently on the Syria regional response team. My current responsibilities include co-chairing our global network of policy specialists on gender in emergencies, with a colleague in Pakistan, and leading CARE’s advocacy in the UK on the Syrian conflict.

Over the years, I have also worked on innovative research and advocacy with country teams on conflict analysis, civil-military relations and humanitarian access. What has kept me with CARE is the organisation’s support to grassroots activists and its commitment to addressing gender in a serious way.

Prior to joining CARE, previous roles included research on human security and development at the Centre for Defence Studies; the facilitation of a network monitoring human rights implications of the ‘Global War on Terror’; support to European coordination of the Make Poverty History campaign; global coalition-building with the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition; research on trade policy; and support to a network of environmental and human rights CSOs in the Balkans.

One good thing I’ve read

Drown by Junot Diaz - short stories that offer a brilliant fictional lens on gender, class and migrant experiences in the USA.


Twitter @HowardMollett