Although the outbreak of Covid-19 has calmed the tension on the Greece-Turkey border, significant challenges remain as it is uncertain if the migrant crisis will flare up again as soon as the pandemic is over. Years of Turkey-EU disputes about Syrian refugees culminated in early March on the border when the government in Ankara opened its side to those wanting to head for Europe.
However, given that the issue did not arise overnight, we must ask why Europe has been so slow and, it must be said, ineffective, in its response to a problem that is seen as a threat to the EU's very survival. And what does it intend to do now?
Alexandra Stiglmayer, a Senior Analyst at European Stability Initiative, told me that it is impossible to predict how the situation will develop. According to her, much will depend on how long the virus restrictions remain in place and limit movement. What's more, will there be Covid-19 outbreaks in the overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek islands or among the refugee communities in Turkey, which would keep people away from Greece or, in the latter case, drive them towards the border?
Many observers believe that the EU is turning its back on refugees and betraying its own core values. Since 2015, Europe has generally adopted a tough stance on immigration and shut down its borders. Once-promoted slogans about the importance of protecting those in need and insisting on the EU's higher moral values have been replaced with rhetoric about "holding the line", "Europe's shield", security and protection of the "European way of life".
According to Professor Francois Crépeau, a member of the Scientific Committee of the Agency for Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and Director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism in Canada, Europe is on the wrong path in terms of migration governance. For him, the current trend of "accumulating means for stopping migration is the worst investment possible." While control over migration is important, the forced stopping of migrants in a situation where there is a lack of other options for people who need to migrate for safety reasons creates an underground human trafficking scenario. Attempts to prevent migration have never really worked in any case, as all borders are porous to some degree.
In its efforts to close its borders, Europe has made it almost impossible for genuine refugees to seek asylum, a right embedded in international law, as we have seen happen in Greece. Its right-wing government has been criticised for suspending asylum applications and accused of illegally detaining and returning some migrants to Turkey. Although, the government in Athens has reinstated asylum rights for the moment, it has not been acting according to EU and UNHCR standards, which the European Court has stated in several decisions since 2011, as Professor Dietrich Thränhardt from the University of Munster has observed. There is a fear that this could become a new norm.
The situation in Greece suggests a lack of solidarity within the EU, as the country has been basically left on its own. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have criticised the EU for turning its back on Greece and failing to support it when addressing the inhumane conditions in island camps, which are desperately overcrowded with more than 40,000 people now living in abysmal conditions. Camps on Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Kos are extremely vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19. Despite offers from several European states ready to host refugees from the camps (especially Germany), Europe has generally failed to provide any meaningful support.
As far as Stiglmayer is concerned, the EU as a whole will continue to struggle to respond coherently to the migration and asylum challenges. The views among its 27 member states are simply too divergent. Crépeau has also noticed that the last EU Commission completely lost the legislative initiative which has been retaken by the Council, represented by governments of member states. In the past, the European Commission, and its former Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, made many progressive decisions, in Crépeau's opinion, to harmonise, for example, Schengen directives with the rest of the EU standards by inserting human rights and labour rights as well as migrant guarantees. However, no legislation related to the migrant issue has been passed in the past six years except political decisions adopted by the Council, which has promoted a tough stance on migration.
In the words of Ivan Vejvoda, a permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, the EU is caught between a rock and a hard place, with the obligation to live up to its proclaimed values of defending and supporting human life and dignity within domestic political environments in which the far-right has been making significant political gains.
Stiglmayer thinks that Europe urgently needs a voluntary coalition of EU governments willing to deal with the issue of migration, including asylum rights, and implement policies aiming to protect the rights of migrants and refugees that would also be EU funded and supported. While there is a need to control migration and prevent a chaotic mass influx like in 2015 and early 2016 — and this can be done in line with the Refugee Convention — this coalition, according to the Senior Analyst, should also push for the urgent renewal of the EU-Turkey refugee agreement. They could possibly resettle more vulnerable refugees from Turkey, which is a provision under the EU-Turkey agreement; they could also help to ease the pressure on the overcrowded Greek islands by relocating some of the refugees within Europe.
It is doubtful whether the current tactic of refugee detention outside the EU's borders can be a solution, again because Europe is betraying its own declared values. In order to prevent immigration, the EU made deals with Libya, Sudan, Niger and Rwanda, all of which are nations known for committing grave human rights abuses. Ironically, the West has engaged openly in destroying autocratic regimes (notably in Libya and Iraq), triggering a flood of refugees while contributing to the chaotic situation in those countries from which people are fleeing.
"Europe is going absolutely the wrong way and it is completely blind to the long term perspective of what it needs and how it should establish relationships with its neighbourhood," said Prof. Crépeau. It being impossible to stop migration, and with history teaching us that all policies which lead to illegal activities with an undesirable impact on society such as organised crime, the only way to stop illegal immigration, he believes, is to legalise and regulate it.
Europe needs migrants, a lot of them, on all levels. Crépeau supports this view, with UN reports since the early 2000s estimating that Europe will need between 50 and 100 million immigrants by 2050 in order to respond to economic needs. He believes that Europe is looking inwards and could do a lot more for Africa and the Middle East, but it has neither the strength nor the vision and strategy to do this. In other words, Europe really does seem to be powerless to tackle the migrant issue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.