While Cameron enjoys his Christmas Dinner, refugees will be freezing to death because of him

Gabriel Popham

We are beginning to understand that the refugee crisis in Europe has only just begun. By 2017, the European Commission expects three million asylum-seekers to arrive; the only way Europe can deal with this crisis is by taking shared responsibility for this situation, and welcome hundreds of thousands of people – 85% of whom have been displaced by conflicts – into our societies.

Germany already expects to take in between 800,000 and 1.5 million asylum-seekers this year alone, but there is a risk that the crisis will spiral out of control if countries like the UK and France do not follow suit. France has promised to take in 24,000 refugees over two years, starting with 200 in November, not a very impressive start considering that 181,000 refugees arrived in Germany in October alone.

But at least that’s better than the UK, where the plan is to take in 5,000 refugees a year from camps in the Middle East, therefore completely ignoring the hundreds of thousands of people that are currently stuck in the Balkans, one of the poorest regions in Europe and with a long history of political unrest. The UK’s strong point is sending aid money to the Middle East (£1.12 billion), but the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has urged the Home Affairs Committee to “match its leadership abroad with action inside Europe’s borders, galvanising other European countries to respond to the European refugee crisis.”

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In a document submitted by the IRC to the Home Affairs Committee, as part of a broader inquiry, the international humanitarian NGO states:

Refugees are suffering so acutely in Greece that the IRC has had to launch a humanitarian response there. As the IRC normally responds to crises in some of the most war-torn places on Earth, this is a sad commentary on Europe’s inability to prevent a humanitarian crisis on its own territory.

Despite the gravity of this crisis, Europe’s response to the refugee crisis within its borders is shamefully inadequate. Basic elements of a humanitarian response are missing in Europe, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees without shelter, food or safety. Experienced IRC workers on the ground—who have responded to major conflicts and disasters around the globe—report that conditions in Europe are amongst the worst they have ever witnessed.

As a matter of the utmost urgency, the EU must lead a coordinated, well-funded humanitarian response that provides safe reception for refugees. If this does not happen, many more people will die.

If we’re not careful, the consequences of our neglect will be disastrous. The WHO has already registered several signs of a growing cholera epidemic in the Middle East, due to a perfect storm of climate change, state failure and mass displacement. “Conditions are ripe for a cholera epidemic that might take hold for a very long time,” writes Foreign Policy, arguing that a refugee crisis coupled with a failure of basic humanitarian provisions will facilitate the spread of the waterborne disease.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of refugees are now in transit across the Balkans, bussed from border to border and kept in squalid refugee camps while heads of state in the region are in total disarray over what to do. Merkel warned at a conference recently that if Germany and Austria closed their borders, this might spark a political crisis in the Balkans.

“I don’t want to see military conflicts becoming necessary,” she told her party members during her speech. Indeed, war in the Balkans is possibly the worst thing that could happen right now.

This is a critical point in time; Europe must now set out a broad plan to deal with the refugees before the winter sets in. At the moment, Europe itself is in disarray, and fragmented along every institutional line over what should be done. The European response has been incoherent in the extreme.

The resurgence of Fortress Europe

As hundreds of thousands of refugees brave the Mediterranean Sea despite worsening weather conditions, the most immediate response from Europe has not been emergency humanitarian support, but an increased militarisation of its borders, externally on the Mediterranean but also internally, all along the Balkans.

On 3 November, at a time when 5,000 refugees were entering Europe on a daily basis, NATO carried out its largest and most ambitious training operation in over a decade, called Trident Juncture. 36,000 members of armed personnel coming from 16 member-states of NATO were deployed across Southern Europe, from Sardinia to Portugal.

This show of military muscle was clearly meant to show the world that NATO is ready for war, but the mentality of our leaders has never been so distant from that of ordinary citizens.

Over 600 protesters in Sardinia managed to disrupt the operation, cutting through the fences and breaking into the shooting range. Sardinia is home to 60% of Italy’s military bases, and over the last decades the island has seen a steep rise in cancer, leukemia, and birth defect, all as a result of NATO military operations.

Even soldiers are beginning to oppose the current state of affairs. In mid-October, a group of conscripts in the Greek army who are deployed in military operations against migrants wrote a powerful letter expressing their anger and revolt at the current response to the refugee crisis.

We, the 16th Division in Evros, are on guard against migrants coming from Andrianopolis. We’re ordered to take part in Crowd Suppression Drills, as in Kos after the dramatic events in Kalymnos, when the governor requested military aid to use weapons against hungry-thirsty-imprisoned immigrants.

We guard the murderous fence which is the real reason of all the drownings in the Aegean.

Across the continent, people are calling for Fortress Europe to let down the drawbridge and help hundreds of thousands of people flee from war and displacement. We can do so, the IRC argues, by providing safe and legal routes throughout Europe, and by investing in a humanitarian response that can provide appropriate shelter and food for all. Instead, the European Commission has decided to give Frontex (Europe’s border agency) a €64 million budget hike, bringing its total budget for policing migrants and refugees in 2016 to €176 million.

At the same time, the UNHCR European emergency response is struggling to secure enough money. It has managed to secure only €16 million of their €76 million target budget, and has recently announced that it needs almost €100 million extra for its winterization plan, bringing the UNHCR imaginary budget to the same level as Frontex’s actual budget.

Preparing for winter

The onset of the winter will not slow down the influx of refugees, according to UNHCR’s latest planning document:

Between November 2015 and February 2016, UNHCR anticipates that there could be an average of 5,000 arrivals per day from Turkey, resulting in up to a total of 600,000 arrivals in Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Slovenia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Harsh weather conditions in the region are likely to exacerbate the suffering of the thousands of refugees and migrants landing in Greece and traveling through the Balkans, and may result in further loss of life if adequate measures are not taken urgently.

Weather forecasts published by UNHCR predict that within December, temperatures will drop below freezing almost everywhere in the Balkans, except in Greece where they are expected to remain between two and ten degrees Celsius.

Refugee camps in Slovenia that were only supposed to host hundreds of people have seen thousands more arrive in the last few weeks. The scale of the crisis is such that it’s becoming impossible to keep track of the situation. UNHCR itself has only 442 members of staff deployed in emergency response, a situation that is undoubtedly related to its difficulties in securing adequate funding.

In a word, the situation is going out of control, and the tools we have built were not made to deal with a potential humanitarian crisis of this scale unfolding in Central and Southern Europe. The only constant resource seems to be the determination of citizens to help out as best they can by volunteering or opening their homes to refugees.

If European governments were to harness this widespread sentiment of solidarity, and follow in the people’s lead, much more could be done. However, the influx of refugees has also caused a spike in xenophobia, particularly in Germany where the Pegida party has been prompting fears of “far-right violence and brutality”, in the words of Martin Schulz, the German president of the European parliament.

Merkel’s dilemma

A demonstration organised by Pegida in Dresden in mid-October saw around 20,000 people gather to protest Germany’s open-door policy, but they were met, as they always are, by a counter-demonstration of the same size if not bigger.

Xenophobic ideology is a concern for European leaders, but racist movements are loud minorities; wherever they grow they meet strong opposition from across the board.

And yet, Angela Merkel seems to be coming under pressure – particularly from Bavaria, the region bordering Austria – to revise Germany’s current policy. The German government is currently torn over the issue of refugees, but it’s unclear whether this will result in an abrupt change of approach.

Some of Merkel’s conservative allies are calling for a total U-turn on the open-door policy, saying that Germany should close its border with Austria and follow the example of Hungary. Resources are starting to over-stretch, especially in local governments that are reportedly “at their limit”.

If local governments in Germany are struggling now, what will it be like in two or three months time? The concern for those wishing to close Germany’s borders is that this refugee crisis will spark a widespread crisis in German society itself. Merkel showed strong leadership when she announced Germany’s commitment, but so far no other country has followed suit, apart from Austria and Sweden. In the words of the Bavarian Finance Minister:

We can’t save the whole world.

But if Germany closes its borders, as Merkel’s allies and opponents are calling for, what will happen?

That’s possibly the worst scenario possible. The 218,000 refugees that crossed the Mediterranean in October, along with many more, will most likely find themselves stalled somewhere in the Balkans. Countries like Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Greece are not rich countries, and they certainly don’t have the resources to support hundreds of thousands of refugees for the winter.

A plan for the Balkans

As a first step towards a region-wide solution, EU and Balkan leaders met with UNHCR in Brussels on 25 October to formulate a leaders’ statement of intent. Taking the form of a 17-point plan of action, leaders agreed to provide 100,000 more reception facilities, including 50,000 in Greece and 50,000 in the Western Balkans. They also  committed to increase the capacity to provide temporary shelter, food, water and sanitation services to those in need. This is a promising step forward towards a concerted approach, which leaders know is the only option:

The unprecedented flow of refugees and migrants along the Eastern Mediterranean-Western Balkans route is a challenge that will not be solved through national actions alone. Only a determined, collective cross-border approach in a European spirit, based on solidarity, responsibility, and pragmatic cooperation between national, regional and local authorities can succeed.

Countries affected should therefore talk to each other. Neighbours should work together along the route, as well as upstream with countries such as Turkey, as host to the largest number of refugees.

This is the only way to restore stability to the management of migration in the region, ease the pressure on the overstretched capacity of the countries most affected, and to slow down the flows.

Other major players in the EU, such as the UK and France, were excluded from this discussion, but any EU-wide plan must see greater commitment on behalf of these two countries, which are two of the richest countries in Europe (and in the world), straight after Germany. In its investigation, the IRC found that:

Most refugees crossing into Europe by sea do not wish to come to the UK. After interviewing more than 800 refugee families, the IRC determined that the priority destination country for interviewees was Germany (59%), followed by Austria (10%) and Sweden (9%).

So a greater cooperation on behalf of France and the UK does not necessarily entail that these countries will have to take in more refugees, just as long as they follow the IRC’s three-point plan:

  • Work to urgently improve reception conditions in the southern Mediterranean, especially in Greece.
  • Increase safe, legal routes to and through Europe for refugees.
  • Address the reasons why people are fleeing to Europe.

The IRC is one of the leading humanitarian organisations worldwide. The evidence it delivered in front of the Home Affairs Committee should awaken the British government to the fact that this is, without a doubt, a humanitarian crisis, and as one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to humanitarian intervention, Britain’s response so far has been shamefully inadequate.

Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons/REUTERS

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