Article by Chris Doyle, first published in Arab News 9 March 2020
In the Middle East’s regional power games, the Syrian regime has deployed 11 million as weapons; Turkey has deployed about 4 million. These weapons are not bullets or shells. They are refugees and displaced people; human beings who have lost pretty much everything. All too often they find themselves forced on to the front lines of the regional great game.
Refugees are the modern-day lepers. These millions of refugees are as coveted as the millions of locusts that have invaded the fields of Pakistan or cruise ships packed with coronavirus-infected passengers. Take the Syrian refugees. Nobody wants them, not the Syrian regime, the Turkish government, the Lebanese government, the EU, or the Trump administration in the US. Greece has deployed troops to its border to send the refugees back; Turkey deploys forces to prevent them being sent back.
Turkey has more than a point, even if it is making it in a brutal fashion. European countries have not taken in their share of refugees. Greece complains but it only hosts around 115,600 refugees and migrants — a tiny battalion compared to the refugee army of millions in Turkey. Moreover, with the Syrian regime and Russia pummeling civilians in Idlib in northwest Syria, trying to force them to flee, Turkey fears it may not be able to prevent a new influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees charging across its border.
Turkey allowed a new flow of refugees into the EU on Feb. 28. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was clear: “Our gates are open. The refugees will go as far as they can.” The Turkish interior minister chipped in with: “The worst is yet to come.” Reports indicated that Turkish thugs were harassing refugees to head to the borders, mirrored by Greek far-right thugs looking for refugees to beat up if they entered Greece. Other refugees were determined to take advantage of what they assume might be a narrow window.
Rumors flowed that refugees were even given wire cutters to cut holes in border fences. The refugees come from a variety of countries aside from Syria, including Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. As has happened before, many claim they are Syrian, as they believe this gets them preferential treatment. None of this, however, can be seen as a justification for what is happening.
The Europe of 2020 is no longer willing to roll out the welcome mat and is lining up in solidarity with the Greek government’s hard-line stance
The images of refugees being turned back at the Turkish-Greek border, having been stripped of their clothes, even having been beaten, are emblematic of their current status. Vermin get treated better — all in the name of acting as a deterrent to prevent further influxes.
It should shame the international community to its core. Greek forces fire tear gas at the refugees, as do Turkish forces. In other words, Greco-Turkish tensions — always simmering under the surface — are taken out on the refugees, just as, in Idlib, Turkish-Russian tensions end up with both sides killing Syrians. The extent and intensity of the abuse then gets lost in the eternal propaganda war, played out over social media and partisan state and satellite broadcasters.
Turkey is able to blackmail the EU and is doing so ruthlessly. One wonders how much Erdogan is demanding this time, after having achieved a promise of €6 billion ($6.85 billion) in 2016. He also insists the EU should pay Turkey directly rather than oversee the expenditure itself.
Greece is no innocent party. Some 42,000 refugees are trapped on Greek islands such as Lesbos, Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos. The camp at Moria on Lesbos has a capacity of just 2,840, but in January it was hosting more than 19,000. Refugee children are at risk, with reports of attempted suicides and acts of self-harm. New arrivals are met with overt hostility by the local islanders, who form the backbone of the support for the Greek government, whose immigration policy was designed to ensure almost nobody can be granted asylum.
Few remember or want to remember that, during the Nazi occupation, Greeks fled and became refugees. Thousands were hosted across the Middle East, including in Syria, at Al-Nayrab camp near Aleppo, which is today the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.
However, this is not September 2015, when a million refugees made their way into Central Europe and, above all, Germany. Those scenes still leave powerful memories. The refugees camped out at Keleti rail station in Budapest waiting to get a train to Austria.
We may not have known it then, but the 2015 refugee crisis probably changed Europe forever. It lurched Britain toward Brexit, in part to distance itself from Europe’s challenges. The far right in most European countries rocketed upwards in the polls, even in Scandinavian states once known for their leftist and liberal politics. The Europe of 2020, five years on, is no longer willing to roll out the welcome mat and is lining up in solidarity with the Greek government’s hard-line stance.
The European far-right movements have inevitably tucked in to the issue, showing not one iota of humanity or sympathy for the refugees. Online chatter talks of another Muslim “invasion” of Europe, or of Turkey having committed an “act of war.” Marine Le Pen channeled this in France and called for Turkey to be kicked out of NATO. All of this is designed to stoke hatred and the fear of any refugees or immigrants, while maximizing far-right support in future elections.
European states are as guilty as all the other parties. For years now, the major EU powers have been content to just let refugees and migrants be contained and corralled in Italy and Greece. They refuse to take their own fair share.
Perhaps the EU can agree a new bribe for Turkey, but this crisis could also grow and grow. The EU is closely monitoring the borders in Bulgaria and Cyprus, both of which Turkey could open as new fronts when it so desires. It has these weapons and has made clear it is prepared to use and abuse them.
• Chris Doyle is director of Caabu. Twitter: @Doylech