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As the refugee crisis in Syria worsens, history will record the failures of great democracies

March 3, 2020 at 5:00 pm

A refugee woman sits next to a tent in Nea Kavala camp, near the city of Kilkis, northern Greece, on September 3, 2019. [SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images]

Following the killing of Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Idlib province and the dramatic rise in atrocities, Turkey has allowed more than 100,000 migrants and refugees across its border with Greece. The Greek government has taken a number of tough measures to keep the refugees out as they amass at the border in indescribably harsh conditions.

Greece has also deployed troops along the border. The authorities have announced that they will suspend asylum applications for a month and deport migrants immediately if they enter the country illicitly.

Under the now notorious 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal, both sides agreed that migrants arriving in Greece are to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claim is rejected. In return, Turkey was promised financial aid of $6.65 billion as an operational budget for refugees. As of December 2019, say the Turkish authorities, just $3 billion has been received. The full amount is expected to be paid by 2025, at the latest.

Despite its downsides, thanks to that deal, people were discouraged from making the dangerous journey by sea from Turkey to Greece. However, Turkey currently hosts well over than three million refugees, mostly from Syria, and the government says that it can’t cope with any more should the conflict there spiral out of control.

READ: UN says Greece has no right to stop accepting asylum requests

Although the EU and Turkish officials insist that the 2016 refugee deal remains unchanged and intact, developments on the ground don’t reflect that. Turkey’s longstanding contentious relations with the EU will continue to cast shadows on the stability of the whole region. Unfortunately, in a chicken and egg situation, the EU and Turkey each trade allegations that the other does not comply with the terms of bilateral agreements. For instance, Europe argues that Turkey has violated NATO’s charter and departed from its orbit by seeking a partnership with Russia; the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system is irrefutable evidence of this. NATO believes that Turkey’s move flies in the face of its security structure.

Turkey, however, counterargues that a host of existential threats to its national security have been ignored by its NATO allies. In 2015, the United States decided unilaterally to withdraw its Patriot missile defence system stationed in Turkey. Pragmatically, therefore, the government in Ankara decided to follow a different trajectory in its Syrian policy by establishing communication channels with Russia and Iran in the Astana and Sochi peace talks. The three partners agreed on de-escalation zones that have turned out to be anything, as the bombing and killing haven’t stopped.

For the past few weeks, there has been a widening gap in the already divergent standpoints of Turkey and Russia vis-à-vis Idlib province. This disagreement has apparently led to the ongoing vicious circle of carnage and massive hostilities, jeopardising the lives of millions of Internally Displaced People in Idlib and tens of thousands of refugees in Turkey who are waiting impatiently to get to Europe.

On Monday, the first victim in this round of the worsening crisis was confirmed with the death of a child in the sea off Lesbos. Images of Greek mobs protesting against the arrival of refugees and trying to sink their boats are terrifying.

Not only Syrians, but refugees from all backgrounds have also rushed to the Greek border to reach Europe. They’ve risked their lives and their families in the hope of better living conditions. In return, they have been met by Greek border police firing plastic bullets, tear gas, sound bombs and water cannons.

Back in 2015, the images of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy brought home the full horror of the human tragedy unfolding on the shores of Europe. On Monday, a video of Greek coastguard officers apparently trying to capsize a boat full of refugees went viral, as it showed another dimension of the tragic plight of refugees. One Syrian refugee was killed when Greek citizens tried to prevent refugees from getting ashore and clashed with aid agencies. The situation in Lesbos is alarming, with journalists being attacked by local citizens and the police failing to act.

In 1938, delegates from 32 western states assembled in the French resort town of Evian to discuss whether to accept the mounting number of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. After several days of deliberations and discussions, the representatives of most countries decided to do absolutely nothing.

READ: UN urges more support for Turkey on Syrian refugees

EU foreign ministers are to hold an emergency meeting next week to discuss the deteriorating Syrian conflict. It’s most likely that this will be another Evian moment. History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it can happen. Although it might not be fair to judge the past by today’s norms, in 2020 this is not an excuse. History will record the consequences of the moral failures of great democracies.

Turkey decided that it would no longer stop refugees from entering Europe, and says that it can’t absorb any more. Greece is reluctant to receive more refugees.

Across Europe, it seems that politicians have decided to rip up the 1951 refugee convention, which is a landmark document that defines the term “refugee” and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of states to protect them. It was ratified by the representatives of 145 state parties which were undoubtedly moved by the moral failure of their predecessors in Evian.

Pinning the whole blame for what is happening on Turkey and the EU is misleading. The Syrian regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran should be held accountable. Interestingly, the US administration has very recently considered the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” which legislates for sanctions against Damascus, Moscow and Tehran for past and ongoing war crimes in Syria. Ironically, Trump signed the bill but it has not yet been passed into law.

Today’s refugee crisis is a natural consequence of the inaction, or perhaps the unwillingness, of the international community to act swiftly to rein-in the brutality of the Syrian regime and its backers. Under the pretext of the precarious “potential” spillover of another regime change, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime will continue to massacre innocent people ruthlessly.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.