#WelcomeToEurope?

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

Condemnation of Donald Trump's refugee policy may be admirable but it rings hollow when compared to what is actually happening on and within Europe's borders. Pictured, freezing temperatures in Serbia. [Marcos Moreno/ MdM]

People across Europe have fervently opposed US President Donald Trump’s ban on various groups of refugees and citizens. But EU leaders, and citizens, must not forget that policies imposed by EU members states are causing thousands of people to suffer every day, warns Philippa Nuttall Jones.

Philippa Nuttall Jones is a strategic communications adviser on migration.

European leaders have joined the general public in expressing their criticism of Trump’s restrictions.  All this is clearly laudable and welcome. But rather than simply focusing on what is happening across the waters, they should use this opportunity to take a good look at what is happening in their backyard and use the public momentum in favour of refugees and migrants to amend their policies accordingly.

Social media channels are ablaze with citizens demanding that Trump reverse his executive order to stop travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the UK, for example, well over a million people have signed a petition calling on the UK government to cancel a state visit from the president.

Civil outrage has been matched in some countries by governmental criticism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that she regrets Trump’s decision “convinced that the necessary, decisive battle against terrorism does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion”.

French President François Hollande promised that he would have “a firm discussion” with Trump, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, after initially refusing to condemn the ban, issued a statement assuring the world that “we do not agree with this kind of approach and it is not one we will be taking”.

This all looks fairly promising until it is compared with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s forceful mantra that #ACanadianIsACanadian. While most officials in Brussels failed to even mention the issue via social media over the weekend, Trudeau kept up a constant thread of concern for refugees and information to Canadian citizens potentially affected by the ban.

He is clear that Trump’s position is wrong and that Canada is open to the world. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada,” he tweeted.

The EU’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, acknowledged the situation by urging her blog readers to see refugee flows “through the eyes of Syrian children” she met in Lebanon.

However, the presidents of the three EU institutions spent Saturday and Sunday focused on other issues and no EU leader has used the storm around President Trump and the public outpouring of sympathy for refugees and migrants to initiate changes to their country’s migration policies.

And condemnations of Trump’s policies by European politicians sound increasingly hollow when compared to what is actually happening on the ground in Europe and on its borders.

As the rage against Trump grows, the EU is quietly forgetting to mention, for example, the men, women and children from Syria and Iraq living in sub-zero conditions in the refugee camps such as Oreokastro and Redestos in Greece, where, despite the best efforts of organisations such as Medecins du Monde, most of the refugees are ill.

The constant cold – last week temperatures dropped to minus 8°C – and smoke from the fires, where anything and everything, including toxic plastics are burnt, in an effort to enjoy even a tiny bit of heat in the absence of electricity, are taking their toll on everyone’s health.

In the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, home to more than 4,000 people trapped there as a direct result of the EU-Turkey agreement, at least three people are known to have died from the cold.

In total 65,000 refugees have been stuck in Greece since March 2016. EU member states pledged to take over 160,000 refugees from Greece, yet to date they have only taken 11,000 and there is no sign of improvement in sight.   

Across Europe, including in Brussels, home to the EU institutions, refugees and migrants are sleeping outside in the cold and wet because of the inability of European member states to agree proper joined up policies on migration.

This same ineptitude means that on Europe’s borders with Serbia, where temperatures drop to minus 15°C, hundreds of refugees, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, are living in makeshift camps and abandoned warehouses surrounded by mud, snow and ice, with no access to showers, lavatories or other facilities.

Indeed, it could be argued that EU member states are little better than the US, focusing increasingly on, as highlighted by PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, policies that shut doors.

Such policies will not stop migration in the US or the EU, but simply encourage irregular migration, split up ever greater numbers of families and leave people to survive in camps.

Talk in European policy circles of “solving the problem of migration” increasingly means deportation, even of people back to countries which NGOs underline as being widely considered unsafe, and negotiations with governments that have a track record of human rights violations. 

But it does not have to be this way. In their rightful criticisms of President Trump, EU leaders have a chance to follow the example of Canada and put in place policies that will reduce rather than increase suffering.

This weekend’s protests against the US travel bans have shown that EU citizens want their leaders to build bridges not walls and to differentiate themselves from the dangerous and small-minded orders of Trump. In short, they want their leaders to be on the right side of history.

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