This week we have seen the first reported death of a refugee in the latest phase of the Syrian crisis, when a Syrian man was shot by Greek border police. Within hours of the incident, it was headline news, following Turkey’s policy change and the opening of its border with Greece.
On the same day, the Greek Coastguard reported the death of a child by drowning. It was the first since the tragic death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015.
While the number of migrants on the Greek border makes it onto the news, the killing of refugee children is no longer newsworthy. According to Save the Children, more children were killed in the last few months of 2019 than in the whole of 2018.
In order to deter them from crossing the border, Greek police fired tear gas at the refugees as they tried to push across into Europe. Some held white flags and shouted “peace, peace” as they pleaded to be let in. However, in an apparent declaration of intent, the Greek army on Monday announced a 24-hour live-fire exercise along the border with Turkey.
Who are the villains in this unfolding tragedy? Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provide any legal basis for these scenes in Greece. In fact, there is no justification for the killing of refugees or the suspension of asylum applications, as the Greeks have announced. Of course, all states have a right to control their borders and manage irregular movements, but at the same time they should refrain from the use of excessive force, and maintain humane and dignified systems for the handling of refugees and asylum seekers.
For a long time, Turkey has been warning that there is an urgent need for expanding third country solutions to have a “more equitable burden share” of refugees. For the past seven years it has been hosting 3.7 million Syrian refugees, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who have fled persecution in other countries in the region.
International conventions are very clear and were written to support the idea of burden sharing. The 1951 Convention, for example, lays down certain basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, without prejudice to states granting more favourable treatment. Such rights include access to courts, primary education, employment and the provision of documentation, including refugee travel documents.
This Convention also guarantees a number of rights and highlights the obligations of refugees towards their host country. Actually, the cornerstone of the 1951 Convention is the principle of non-refoulement contained in Article 33. According to this principle, “a refugee should not be returned to a country” where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom.
Furthermore, according to the Convention refugees have the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state. In the case of some Mediterranean countries, they are being punished by death.
Despite the applicability of the 1951 Convention, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced that his country will not be accepting new asylum applications for one month. He also said that the country is invoking Article 78 of the EU Treaty to ensure full European support. Can Greece waive its obligation to help asylum seekers by citing EU protocols? The UN Refugee Agency has pointed out that Article 78 of the EU Treaty cannot suspend the internationally-recognised right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement that are also emphasised in EU law.
If reports are accurate, Syrian refugees who paid a high price under the tyranny of the Assad regime in Syria, are the victims not only of the Greek police, but also other racist action all around the world. Just a couple of weeks ago, a Syrian refugee who fled to the United States more than three years ago became the latest of Baltimore’s victims of gun violence. He migrated to the US with his parents in 2016 after escaping the Assad regime’s attacks and torture. His humble aim on leaving his homeland was to get an education in America and live a peaceful life with his family. Even if innocent Syrian civilians escape from Assad’s excesses like the Ghouta chemical attack, which killed more than 1,500 people in one day, they still find their lives threatened elsewhere.
The Syrian people need more than kind words. Greece’s humanitarian response must be more conscious of its own history. The Greek government and people should remember their fate during World War II when Germany and Italy occupied their country. Tens of thousands of Greeks fled by sea to refugee camps in Syria, where they were welcomed by the Syrian government.
Shockingly, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria has shown that the lessons of the Second World War are being ignored. The appeasement of dictators like Assad who are willing to kill huge numbers of people will never work. Only the hosting of innocent civilians in humane conditions will save our future and prevent Syrian children from becoming a lost generation. If Europe, especially, fails to heed those lessons, it will not only be Syrians who pay the price. We and future generations will have to live in the same countries with those who bear the mental and physical scars of Assad’s genocidal war. Turning Europe’s borders into a bloodbath is not the solution to the Syrian or any other refugee crisis.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.