Syria’s refugees escape out of the firing line into a pandemic

By Liz Peck

On 27th February, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey would no longer stop refugees trying to cross its borders into Europe. The borders in question, with Greece and Bulgaria, have been closed since 2016. Inside wartorn Syria, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of displaced people have fled their homes in Idlib province and made for the border with Turkey, which is also closed. Syrian government forces and their Russian allies have launched air strikes against these desperate civilians as they try to escape the onslaught.

Turkey says it cannot cope with any more refugees. It already accommodates four million displaced people, more than any other country in the world. The vast majority of them, perhaps as many as 3.6 million, are from Syria.

The two border scenarios are not unconnected. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to ‘open the floodgate’ of refugees into Europe but it was not until 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in air strikes in Idlib that he acted on his threat.

On 5th March, Amnesty International published a report describing the nightmarish scene at the Turkish border with Greece. ‘Desperate people, unlawfully trapped in Turkey since at least 2016, rushed to newly re-opened border crossings – but only on one side,’ the human rights organisation noted. ‘When they arrived they were greeted by heavily armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets and razor wire.’

The European Union responded to the border crisis by informing the assembled migrants that Europe’s doors were now closed. 

Tensions over the plight of Syria’s refugees erupted in the summer of 2015 when the EU deferred the controversial Dublin Agreement, which is the cornerstone of the bloc’s asylum policy. The regulation obliges migrants to apply for asylum in the first country of entry. During the brief period of deferral, a refugee entering the EU through Greece was allowed to continue overland to wealthier states in the north of Europe such as Germany or Sweden. As a result, the number of sea arrivals from Turkey rocketed to just under a million in 2015.

In March 2016, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey whereby Erdogan’s government undertook to prevent refugees and asylum seekers from reaching Europe. In exchange it received six billion euros in financial assistance for refugees in Turkey and a commitment to set up a legal resettlement pathway.

In reality, what has happened is that ever since it was signed, the March 2016 agreement has created an insoluble humanitarian crisis and turned refugees into a bargaining chip wielded by Erdoğan to extract financial support and other concessions from the EU.

However, Turkey’s claim that refugees from Syria are choosing to walk straight back into the civil war is dangerous and dishonest. In fact, research shows that people are being tricked or forced into returning.

‘Turkey deserves recognition for hosting more than four million women, men and children mostly from Syria for over eight years,’ says Amnesty International researcher Anna Shea. ‘But it cannot use this generosity as an excuse to flout international and domestic law by deporting people to an active conflict zone. These are not the actions of an ally, a humanitarian or a responsible global actor, but the actions of a trafficker or terrorist.’

The international spread of Covid-19 has only exacerbated the border crisis, with Greece and other EU countries now closing their ports to rescued migrants on the pretext of containing the virus. However, it is unlikely that the pandemic or border closures will stop people coming. According to the United Nations, 272 million people across the world migrated in 2019. Have the human traffickers stopped working just because of coronavirus? Do they bother to maintain a ‘social’ distance of two metres from their prisoners? Until recently, the majority of deaths in improvised refugee camps were caused by malnourishment, diarrheal diseases, measles and malaria. Now the virus has arrived at the party.

Liz Peck is a member of the AGS national committee

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