Aid agency denounces ‘politicisation’ of humanitarian assistance

Syrian refugees. Turkey, July 2014. [Michael Davis-Burchat/Flickr]

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi invited representatives from 92 countries to a special summit in Geneva to address the ongoing crisis. EURACTIV Germany spoke to Oxfam’s Robert Lindner, who presented an update on the current situation at the event.

Robert Lindner is Oxfam’s spokesperson on humanitarian crises.

Lindner spoke with EURACTIV Germany’s Editor-in-Chief, Ama Lorenz.

The Geneva summit showed once that, once again, the EU is reluctant to stick to its own self-obligations. Is this a question of unity in disunity? What is your take on the current situation?

Indeed, Europe is taking too few vulnerable refugees from Syria in accordance with the agreed upon quotas. There is no coordination, no allocation, each country now basically does what it wants. Essentially, there is no readiness to take in refugees, except in Germany and a handful of other countries.

Oxfam submitted a report on the situation of Syrian refugees, including current figures, at the summit, which ended on 30 March. How do things stand exactly?

Our report shows how many refugees have been distributed and received by humanitarian admission quotas in Europe and other countries. Of the 137,000 Syrians that Europe and other parties pledged to take in, which to be frank is not a very large number, so far around 25,000 have actually been received, according to the UNCHR. Those really are not impressive numbers.

The summit has also showed that the UN is not enamoured with the EU’s efforts.

The UN, as always, can only call upon others to act. The UNHCR has also noted that the agreement between the EU and Turkey, which puts a cap of 72,000 on the number of Syrians to be given asylum in Europe, is very questionable, not only in the spirit of the Geneva Convention but also in the spirit of the European treaties and European asylum policy. One can only emphasise that it contradicts all international standards on the subject of asylum and humanitarian intake. It can no longer be dismissed out of hand.

Oxfam has withdrawn from Lesbos, like other aid agencies have from other hotspots in Greece. Why?

The hotspots have been converted into detention centres because of the EU-Turkey agreement. Therefore, other aid agencies have withdrawn from Lesbos and Idomeni. We can no longer operate simply on humanitarian principles. These camps are now run by officials from the Greek Ministry of the Interior. It’s no longer about supplying these people with the basic necessities, it’s a matter of deporting them as soon as possible back to Turkey. We are not talking about humanitarian agencies here, but the police. Outside of these detention centres, we are of course still active.

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Are there any problems in those other areas in which you are operating?

We are mainly in Lebanon and Jordan and there we do not have anything to do with deportations.

How does it look there currently?

Lebanon and Jordan now really do have a problem with the number of refugees coming from Syria. In Lebanon, there is almost one Syrian refugee per inhabitant. There are no official camps, just those which have been more or less organised from scratch. The refugees have to pay rent for these facilities. Some have been there three or four years, they cannot work, or can only do so under very strict conditions, and they have little access to medical care. Education is a huge problem and the money is increasingly running out. This has been going on for so long now, that people can only be supplied with the bare necessities. It can’t go on like this.

The EU-Turkey deal has been labelled as illegal by many parties, including several aid organisations. Especially in regard to the additional EU funding. Where do you stand?

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the region. However, we have to say that through these very rigid refugee and asylum policies, it is attempting to compensate for humanitarian aid. More specifically, the politicisation of humanitarian assistance is taking place. This does not change the fact that the EU makes a very valuable contribution as a humanitarian donor in the region and in Turkey, where the money is also used for aid. However, it is very clear that this aid is provided so that the refugees stay where they are, for as long as possible. In this regard, the EU-Turkey agreement, again, is far removed from any humanitarian action. The keeping of refugees can not be a responsible course of action. This mixture of providing aid, but still keeping refugees at arm’s length, is very questionable.

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Something which is not just happening in Europe…

Indeed, such agreements are in place with North and West African countries, and eastern Africa. These are basically advanced migration obstacles or controls than exist beyond the EU’s external borders. These agreements, with very questionable governments in, for example, Sudan or Egypt, provide for the repatriation of deported refugees and the upgrade of security forces in order to prevent people from exercising their right to seek asylum and migrate. These are extremely worrying developments, funded by the EU.

Some European governments justify the limit on migration by citing the growing terror threat. How do you see that in the grand scheme of things?

This fear of terrorism is counterproductive, because it just increases tensions in these countries even more. Experience shows that turning away refugees does not generally work and if it does, its impact is only very limited. People are looking to other and more dangerous routes. You can see this in Spain and Morocco.

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How do we solve this problem? What measures should the EU take, in terms of a reasonable refugee and asylum policy?

Simply, it should do what it committed itself to doing, including continuing the fight against the causes of flight through development cooperation, not just reclassifying development assistance under the Valetta Process.

A sensible immigration policy has to be implemented in the EU member states. It’s not just about people fleeing war and persecution. There are also many people who are trying to escape poverty, and want to have a better life. All these people need legal immigration options, if only temporary, that facilitate labour migration. Mixing up refugees and migrants, a result of current policies, creates no functioning, legal way to enter the EU.

How do things look in the wake of the summit? Will there be action?

If all states work together and leave their national egos behind. Hardly any European country has reached its capacity to accommodate refugees. Certainly, some countries are more affected than others. The EU has to prove itself to be a community of solidarity and engage with these countries. Of course, there has to be willingness on the part of those member states to make their own appropriate contributions.

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