Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cynical move to open his western EU borders to allow refugees and migrants to leave - while keeping his southern border to Syria shut to asylum seekers desperate to escape the onslaught there - poses an enormous challenge to Greece and the European Union.
Greece has responded with brutality and disregard for fundamental refugee rights. Disturbingly, this approach has won unworthy praise from EU leaders, touting Greece as Europe’s shield, while they ignore both the suffering of those at the EU’s borders, and the urgency of desperate Syrians fleeing the indiscriminate Syrian-Russian bombing near Turkey’s border.
There are, however, humane and workable alternatives that uphold shared values.
The draconian measures announced by Greece include barring the lodging of asylum claims for anyone crossing the border irregularly for the next month, and its intention to push back migrant and asylum seekers attempting to enter Greece irregularly. Greece is automatically imposing severe criminal penalties for people caught crossing the border (some apparently have already been sentenced after summary trials), and says, where possible, it will immediately deport anyone entering Greece irregularly to their country of origin without registering them.
All countries, including Greece, have the right to control their borders. They have the right to deport people who do not have valid claims for protection or other valid claims. They even have the right to suspend individual asylum procedures. But all countries, including Greece, have obligations and responsibilities as well.
Anyone facing criminal penalties has a right to a fair trial. Criminal penalties must be proportional to the offense committed, and crossing a border irregularly is not an offense worthy of the three to four-year sentences Greece has started handing out. No country is permitted to return refugees to face persecution or severe harm. And, if the numbers seeking asylum overwhelm the system (although there is no evidence so far that the numbers are unmanageable), a country is required to provide at least temporary protection until the person’s refugee status is determined.
Images of people massed at borders can seem frightening, exacerbated by broader fears of pandemics and insecurity as well as - in this case - widely-held beliefs that Turkey has manipulated migration to advance its political objectives. Such concerns should not be dismissed, but policymakers have a responsibility to allay public fears, not pander to them, to ensure that their responses are grounded in respect for human rights, and to respect the dignity of those being used as political pawns.
Here on the island of Lesbos, I have been witnessing the crowds of frightened and frustrated refugees confronted by cordons of riot-geared police, and talking to humanitarian workers who have suspended their work after being attacked by thugs wielding wooden bats. The main problem at this moment is chaos and disorder, and corollary, reactive measures that are abusive and disproportionate.
In 2001, the European Commission issued a Temporary Protection Directive that could be activated in the event of emergencies that create larger numbers of asylum seekers. It established common standards and operating principles predicated on the idea that time and resources shouldn’t be wasted on processing individual asylum claims during refugee emergencies but should rather be devoted to providing quick and efficient protection to everyone fleeing that situation, regardless of status.
When migration and asylum claims spiked in 2015, the EU chose not to invoke the Temporary Protection Directive. The numbers of arrivals today are far lower than 2015. But there is a different kind of emergency today – the threat to shared values and norms posed by the response of the Greek authorities and endorsed by its EU partners. This includes the brutal pushbacks on the Greek border, the fresh allegations of the Coast Guard shooting at rubber rafts on the waters, flagrant disregard for due process, and the abandonment of sacrosanct refugee protection principles.
The Temporary Protection Directive is by no means the only option. But what is desperately needed now is an agreed system that can quickly and effectively meet both the concerns of Greece and other states on border security and the needs of those desperately in need of international protection.
Collective response is required. No country should be overwhelmed while others have the capacity to help. So far, however, EU member states have shown little willingness to help each other. Sending more Frontex border guards to the external frontiers is not what’s needed. What’s required is an equitable, burden-sharing arrangement among EU member states, increased support to Greece - and Turkey, which hosts almost four million refugees - and the preservation of the right to asylum.
The test the EU faces is real, but it is not about numbers - it is about which values will prevail.