Correspondent: Refugee crisis has exposed the hypocrisies at the heart of the EU

Syrian refugees in Greece. [Ben White/ CAFOD/Flickr]

The European Union’s chaotic and mismanaged response to the refugee crisis has exposed the hypocrisies at the heart of the bloc, says Charlotte McDonald Gibson. The catalogue of failures has a huge human cost, and poses an existential threat to the Union, she said, while the deal with Turkey on migration is immoral and illegal.

Charlotte McDonald Gibson has covered the EU response to migration since the Arab Spring. A foreign correspondent for 14 years and former deputy foreign editor of the Independent, she now writes about Europe for Time.  Her first book Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis is out on 5 May.  She spoke to EURACTIV news editor James Crisp.

How long have you been covering the refugee crisis?

I’ve been writing on the EU’s response to the crisis since the Arab Spring, travelling to Syria, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria and many other countries.  At the beginning of last year I really thought hard about putting it into a book. I was quite keen to raise awareness of what the problems were in Europe and the failings of European governments and the EU when it came to refugees.

The book is idealistic, it’s a moral argument for accepting more refugees in Europe.  And that also means looking at EU history and the original aims and goals of the EU.

I tell the stories of two women and three men who arrived in Europe after 2011 to show their experiences at the different stages of the crisis over the years.

It’s brave of those refugees to talk to you.

I think so. Two of them asked me to keep their identities secret because their families faced direct threats from the people they were forced to flee from.

One of the women, Hanan, had been an anti-Assad activist in her youth but then had tried to suppress her hatred of the regime to make sure her children would be safe. Then the uprising started and those children she had been trying to protect went out onto the streets to call for regime change. The whole family were incredibly brave and had a terrible time trying to escape.

All of the stories have their tragic aspects. Two were in shipwrecks. There was a large shipwreck in 2013, two weeks after the widely covered one in Lampedusa. In both hundreds of people died.  One of the men I spoke to was there, a friend of his died, and he watched people drown.

This second wreck was hardly covered at all. But you had a media circus around the first shipwreck. You had former Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Commissioner Cecilia Malmström going to Lampedusa, making promises that simply weren’t kept.

Personally, I was particularly moved by the story of Sina, an Eritrean refugee. She was forced to flee when she was about six months pregnant. Eventually she got on a boat from Turkey to Greece, four days past her due date.

I was pregnant at same time she was going through this terrible journey, during which she was separated from her husband, and that had a personal resonance for me. When I visited her in Sweden for a series of in-depth interview her, both our sons  – who are obviously the same age – were playing together on the carpet, which I found moving.

Who is responsible for the mishandling of the crisis? The European Commission?

The problem is really member states, individual governments. Take the British, for example. They argued against the Mare Nostrum search and rescue teams in late 2014. They said it was encouraging more people to try and cross the sea.  In the end, the death toll shot up as a direct result of the search and rescue being stopped. Or look at Hungary, how it has tried to make this about religion. The UN has had reports of refugees being forcibly drugged and put in collars.

One criticism of the Commission is that it has only very recently with infringement cases against member states ignoring EU asylum rules.

But it’s a catalogue of failings. People keep burying their heads in the sand. The Italians called for burden sharing of refugees in 2011 and action has only just begun to be taken.  And the migration crisis has not been prioritised enough. There have been European Council meetings that were meant to discuss it, but were instead given over to things like Juncker being appointed as Commission President or Cameron’s Brexit deal.

 Only about 500 refugees have actually been resettled across the EU?

That came about after the picture of Aylan Kurdi. But since then – nothing.

There’s the deal with Turkey.

I don’t disagree with the idea of working with countries to make things better for refugees in those countries. It is a good idea in theory.

Many refugees from Syria would rather be in neighbouring countries. There’s a similar culture and it keeps alive the idea of returning home. They leave because they have to.

But the way the Turkey deal is being put into action is immoral, illegal and won’t work in the long-run.

The idea that you can process an asylum application in two weeks makes no sense. In the UK, it takes years. In Italy it can take one year to get a decision. So how can it be done properly?

The European Court of Human Rights ruled an Italian decision to send Tunisian refugees back was illegal. I don’t see a difference and expect there to be a legal challenge eventually.

What is a workable solution?

The only thing that I can see stopping the flow of refugees to Europe is that there won’t be any Syrians able to leave still in Syria.

Supporting neighbouring counties such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey is good policy but that doesn’t mean building refugee camps in the desert or handing Turkey money without any accountability on how they treat refugees.

There has to be a legal option, a legal avenue of immigration. That will give people a small avenue of hope – and people will choose that over getting on boats.

They need to find way of getting relocation to work. The  Indo-Chinese Vietnamese resettlement after the Vietnam War was global and it worked. So it can be done. Other countries such as the US, Canada and wealthy Gulf countries need to do more.

Could the crisis be the end of Schengen?

It could yes. We are still not seeing any sign of unified thinking on how to handle this. Borders are already closed. Increased migration flows in summer will put a lot of pressure on Schengen.

This crisis has exposed the hypocrisies at the heart of the EU. All of its values of freedom of religion and movement have been put to the test – and are failing.

The EU is constantly preaching human rights and using it as a tool in trade negotiations but there are children being teargassed on EU soil.

It has also highlighted the very real division between East and West. We thought after the fall of the Iron Curtain that suddenly Europe was one – that’s not what we are seeing now.  Merkel alone is standing for the traditional EU values.

This is an existential crisis forcing all the governments to look again at those values.

Do the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels make things more difficult?

I was at the airport in Brussels when the first bombing happened. It is important to realise the people who are coming to Europe are fleeing the same kind of attacks we experienced there.

The terrorists are not refugees. They are or were Belgian and French citizens. The Paris attackers may have been able to exploit the chaotic and mismanaged response to the refugee crisis but that is not the fault of refugees but of the member states.

A launch event for Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis is being held on 12 May at 7pm at the Waterstones Bookshop in Brussels. 

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