COVID-19 means confining ourselves, not abandoning refugees

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Iratxe García Pérez: "What is an emergency situation for European citizens is also an emergency for refugees and asylum-seekers and we as Europeans have a responsibility to live up to our values, without leaving Greece to deal with the issue alone." [EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi dead on the shore in 2015 sticks in our memory as a collective failure. Five years later, it looks like we haven’t done much to improve the situation of thousands of migrants who are either still trying to escape war or wait on asylum-seeker centres already on European soil, writes Iratxe García Pérez.

Iratxe García Pérez is the president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament.

Last week, a little girl died in a fire in an overcrowded camp in Lesbos, Greece.

From our home-confinement, as we try to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, let’s not forget that there are others in even worse circumstances.

At the Moria camp, where over 19,000 refugees live even though it has a capacity of around 3,000 people, the cold, infections and disease can spread quickly and hit a population that is already pushed to the limit. The virus has made evacuation of people most at risk an urgent necessity on the Greek islands to prevent further harmful spread.

What is an emergency situation for European citizens is also an emergency for refugees and asylum-seekers and we as Europeans have a responsibility to live up to our values, without leaving Greece to deal with the issue alone.

We know that Erdoğan is using people fleeing from war for his own political benefit. Yet, Europe seems to respond not by upholding its role as the leading humanitarian actor on the world stage, but by using dehumanising rhetoric previously only heard from the far-right.

Even the President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen last week praised Greece for acting as a ‘shield’ for the rest of Europe. A shield against what? Human beings seeking refuge? Of course, we need efficient border management but refugees should never be dehumanised, no matter how challenging the situation.

Neither are difficult circumstances an excuse for suspending EU and international law, in particular the fundamental right to seek asylum. The Greek government’s decision to unilaterally stop all asylum applications violates both EU and international law.

Moreover, the reports on special ‘black sites’ in Greece where people are denied asylum rights and stripped of their dignity are particularly worrying. The European Commission, as the guardian of the EU Treaties, has to fully investigate what is taking place on the ground. And it should also identify how the EU can support Greece in dealing with this crisis.

Already before Erdoğan took to the airwaves to say the EU was opening its borders, millions of refugees were fleeing war zones in Syria. There were already 42,000 people stuck on the Greek islands, 5,500 of them unaccompanied minors, looking for a place to call home.

With almost a million civilians displaced towards Turkey from Idlib in recent weeks and with regular arrivals of refugees at Europe’s borders, not just in Greece, but also in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, Italy and Spain, the signs were there for all to see. It should have been enough to wake up EU leaders. A handful of EU countries were left alone to shoulder the burden.

Root causes should not be forgotten. We cannot turn a blind eye to a destructive war in Syria and a faltering deal with Turkey. However, many solutions to today’s challenges are blocked by the Member States themselves in the EU Council. The lack of solidarity over the past 5 years has resulted in a failure to establish a proper, functioning common migration and asylum system based on fair sharing of responsibility between member states.

We welcome the European Commission’s work in trying to relocate unaccompanied minors from Greece to other EU countries, and this must not stop as a result of the COVID-19 virus. However, looking forward to voluntary measures are not enough.

We need a mandatory relocation mechanism with solidarity at every step. Firstly, solidarity with Greece and other border countries. Secondly, solidarity with refugees and asylum-seekers.

The EU has to defend their rights. Finally, solidarity between EU countries. This should include increased and adequate reception capacity, a mandatory resettlement scheme, a workable mechanism for disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea, an increased mandate for the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and new safe legal channels for migration.

The Commission is currently gearing up to present a new Pact on Migration and Asylum. We are calling for a reformed asylum system based on solidarity. Only like this, with a true #EUinSolidarity, can we put in place long-lasting and effective rules on migration and asylum. This way we also make sure Erdoğan and his peers can never blackmail us like this again.

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