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‘Fortress Europe’ Closing the Doors to Syrian Refugees

Corner of unofficial camp in Calais housing Syrian, Sudanese and Afghan asylum seekers before it was closed on May 28 for health reasons. Credit: Roger Hamilton-Martin/IPS

LONDON, Jun 5 2014 (IPS) - Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict in their home country have come up against a less than accommodating “Fortress Europe”.

As of June 1, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 2.7 million Syrian people who have sought refuge outside of their home country. Notable host countries include Lebanon (estimated 1.1 million), Jordan (600,000), Turkey (760,000), Iraq (200,000) and Egypt (140,000).

However, after what Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation described as “disproportionate worries” over Libyan refugees reaching Europe during the collapse of Gadhafi’s regime in 2011, the continent has again failed its neighbours during an international crisis.

“Some attribute it [current reluctance to receive Syrians] to the economic crisis, but I think there is clearly an Islamophobic element” – Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe’s independent Commissioner for Human Rights

UNHCR has called on Europe to accept 30,000 Syrians in 2014, and 100,000 during 2015/2016. The European Union’s most generous country has been Germany, agreeing to 10,000, while several states – including the United Kingdom – have refused to accede to the U.N. programme altogether.

Europe is the largest donor of humanitarian aid, and has made it clear that help will be given in monetary donations for the region, but this generosity will not extend to significant resettlement or temporary hosting. Nicosia, the closest European capital to Damascus, is half as far away as the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, yet Iraq has accepted many times more refugees than all of the E.U. states combined.

Explaining Europe’s reaction to the crisis in Syria, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s independent Commissioner for Human Rights, told IPS: “When I talk with UNHCR and others, you see that the current reluctance to receive Syrians is in pretty striking contrast with reactions to previous flows of refugees from other countries. Some attribute it to the economic crisis, but I think there is clearly an Islamophobic element.”

The United Kingdom has a long history of resettling refugees in reaction to international crises – the 42,000 Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin in the early 1970s and the more than 22,000 Vietnamese displaced during the Vietnam War are just two examples.

However, after rejecting the United Nations Syrian resettlement plan for Europe, David Cameron’s government set up its own resettlement scheme, known as the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which will only permit resettlement for a few hundred Syrians currently located in regional refugee camps. The first few arrived in March.

Those countries that adopted the U.N. plan will be subject to accepting increasing numbers of refugees as the war continues and the U.N. raises its quotas. However, the United Kingdom will not be subject to these increases.

British Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn spoke to IPS about the scheme: “I feel very disturbed that the British government has not taken in many (Syrians) at all, and has decided to run a British programme rather than a U.N. programme, which seems to be a rather dangerous precedent – you end up with a degree of selectivity.”

“I asked a specific question of the Home Office about why we couldn’t be part of the U.N. programme, they kept saying ‘we’d rather do things the British way.’ I don’t know what the British way is on this. This is a global crisis, we should be part of the solution.”

Political feeling has swung to the right during the past year in the United Kingdom, with the rise of nationalist parties such as the U.K. Independence Party, which performed well at the European elections in May. The party campaigned on an anti-Europe, anti-immigration message.

The response of the mainstream U.K. parties to the rise of UKIP has been to pander to an increasingly divided electorate by stepping up anti-immigration rhetoric. Rejecting the U.N. resettlement scheme prevents immigration figures being further augmented, allowing fodder for parties like UKIP to win votes.

A further blow to Syrians attempting to reach the United Kingdom to claim asylum was struck last week, when an unofficial camp in Calais on the French border closest to the United Kingdom was closed for health reasons.

The camp, which also was used by contingents of asylum seekers from Sudan and Afghanistan, served as a launching point to reach the English coast. Many were attempting to reach the United Kingdom to re-join family or find work to send money back to family in Syria.

French police entered the camps flanked with bulldozers after an outbreak of scabies amongst the migrants, who mostly live in small makeshift tents. In a statement, Amnesty International condemned the convictions saying, “Under international law, France must not carry out forced evictions and must protect all people from them, including migrants and asylum-seekers.”

Immigration is also a hot issue in France, with the anti-immigration Front National party making large gains in the European parliamentary elections. It has called for return to full national border controls, and a reconsideration of the Schengen agreement that allows for free movement between European states that have adopted it.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers remain in limbo, caught between a land that they need to escape from and a continent that is reluctant to welcome them.

A refugee in Calais called Abdul, who spoke to IPS, said: “Every time my dad speaks to me he says we don’t have money to eat. I tell him there is no work in France. What I want is to be able to work and send them back some money. I want to go to the United Kingdom as soon as possible so I can save my family from the life they are living.”

Additional reporting (video) by Natasha Tsangarides and Phillip Nye. Arabic translation support by Claire Badawi.

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  • Marie

    So sad to read of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers

  • lolly

    There are so many Europeans who do not have anything to eat.

  • lolly

    if the fear of Sharia is what they call Islamophobic, then I am proud to be Islamophobic.

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