On Feb. 11, 2016, efforts to stop refugees from entering the safety of the European Union were militarized. The NATO alliance will immediately move three warships to the Aegean Sea to stop the flow of refugees to Europe. "This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats," NATO’s commander assured us, but rather “to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks."
In fact, the effort clearly is about denying refugees their legal right to seek asylum. The human traffickers, or smugglers, do not generally travel in the flimsy and overcrowded boats with refugees; they furnish boats and motors, stand on Turkish shores, point to the lights on nearby Greek islands, wish refugees good luck, and pocket their money.
The militarization of the refugee crisis is one more step in undermining the West's promise and legal obligation to provide a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and violence. It is reminiscent of the plight of thousands of refugees in World War II, who were denied safety when they fled Nazi Germany. Most infamously, in 1939, the ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the United States, forcing the ship to return to Germany. More than a quarter died in the Holocaust.
Sadly, history is repeating itself. Let me tell you how.
The global refugee crisis of 2016 is unparalleled. Sixty million people have been forced from their homes, and of these 21 million have fled their homeland. 1,060,518 have sought refuge in Europe, more than 50,000 arriving in the dead of this January’s winter. The European Commission estimates a million more each year are likely to arrive in Europe in the coming years.
During my time in Izmir, Turkey in the fall of 2015, I wondered how the refugees there had survived. Waiting for a smuggler to arrange for a boat to Greece, they sleep in the street on their life jackets or in squalid hotel rooms crammed tightly together with others.
Women tell of sexual abuse by smugglers, male refugees, and government officials. With life savings hurriedly pulled together for the journey to safety, mothers have little money to buy diapers for their babies or clothes for their children. I saw children comfort their parents. I saw fearful young boys traveling alone, for the first time in their lives, sent by their families as the ones deemed strong enough to weather the journey.
Almost half of all refugees are under 18, and half of those are under 11. They have all lost their childhood. Most have never seen the sea. All refugees tell of the brutal death of children, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, the complete destruction of homes; they tell of hunger and illness; they speak of the ongoing trauma of death and destruction. They tell of devastating isolation, loneliness, suffering, and fear.
If a cat has nine lives, a refugee is required to have at least three. The first is spent fleeing death, rape, and torture. In Syria, both the government and opposition have laid siege to cities and villages, blocking access to food, water, and medical aid. ISIS wages a campaign of terror and mass killings. Both Russian and U.S.-led forces have dropped bombs, killing civilians. Those who survive, as one mother said, are “just living on the edge of life.”
The lucky ones who manage to flee war and persecution are granted a second life. But soon they find that it too, is in peril. They cross the border on foot at night; many are injured. They often manage to reach a camp; more often they don’t, seeking any shelter they can find.
More than 80 percent of the refugees in Turkey live outside the camps — more in Jordan and Lebanon, where, if they are lucky, they receive one meal a day from a nearby mosque. In the camps, World Food Program rations are 50 cents per person per day. Although no bombs are falling, no rockets are being launched, people face illness, hunger, and winter cold. Even in the camps, children are exposed to polio, and there aren’t enough vaccinations for all. Although thousands of organizations are bringing aid and myriad acts of kindness abound, there is simply not enough of anything to go around.
The three countries bordering Syria do not offer refugee status. In their camps, people wait for years for asylum applications to be processed; sometimes they remain in limbo there for generations. Only 1 per cent of all refugees will be resettled from refugee camps. Under these conditions, thousands of people per day are leaving the camps, and many bypass them altogether, looking for permanent refuge that can offer food, shelter, work, education, and a home until they can return to their homeland. To reach asylum, they must pick up and move on.
If refugees are able to spare their lives by fleeing the massacres and bombing, and if they survive the vagaries of the camps and streets where the bombs don’t fall, they are forced by the countries promising to grant them asylum to risk their lives again on the journey to reach them. They travel in flimsy boats, on foot, and hidden in trucks.
The lives of many will not be spared. More than 4,000 died in 2015 trying to find asylum. In the last 15 years, 31,478 migrants heading for Europe have died or gone missing; most either drowned or died from exhaustion.
The tragic irony of this life-threatening journey is that refugees do not have to take it! The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees — created after the shameful turning away of those fleeing Nazi Germany — obliged its signatories to accept refugees, even if they have no documents, no visa, no passport, and no resettlement authorization. There is no such thing as an “illegal asylum seeker.” People have a right to refuge if they are forced from their homes by persecution and war. The United States and the countries of Europe have signed this convention or its 1967 Protocol. Turkey has not signed. It only offers temporary refuge.
"Why don’t refugees fly to safety?" you might ask. Why do they pay more than $1,000 to risk their lives to a smuggler in order to reach a country that finally promises asylum? A flight from Istanbul to Berlin or from Amman to Munich costs about $300.
As Hans Rosling, who also asked that question, says, “they can reach the airports, they can afford to buy a ticket, but they cannot leave." This is because the airlines will be fined if they allow anyone to travel to Europe or the U.S. without a visa.
"But," you might say, "asylum seekers don’t need visas!" Indeed they do not. The same EU directive that orders airlines to pay fines if they allow anyone to board a plane without a visa, also states that the rule does not apply to refugees! But a refugee cannot get past the ticket agent. Airlines are afraid of fines, and countries who promise refuge are shamelessly using the airline-ticket agents to deny refugees a chance to safely seek asylum. This is the reason so many people drown in the Mediterranean Sea.
It’s a catch-22. The central goal of the EU policy (as well as U.S. policy) is to turn a blind eye to refugees trying to reach asylum. There are no regular ways for refugees to reach Europe. Only when they touch land can they apply for asylum.
Most EU migration policy funds are devoted to preventing all migrants — including refugees — from touching the safety of Europe. In 2008, the Italian government paid Moammar Gadhafi $5 billion to stop refugees and other migrants departing from Africa. The EU has promised Turkey $3 billion if it would seal its borders. But better policing does not deter migrants; it just makes it more likely that they will be killed. NATO will soon discover this fact.
The United States is no better than Europe. It has built walls and it patrols its borders to keep refugees out of the country. When undocumented people are captured attempting to gain entry, they are put in a prison (called a detention center) behind chain-link fences topped with razor wire to await a hearing for asylum. Conditions there are often unsafe and unsanitary. Migrants have few rights. The wait will last months or even years. Many people have died in these centers.
Thousands die attempting to enter the U.S. illegally. If, however, like refugees traveling to Europe, they dare to cross the border and manage to escape the border patrol, once they step foot on U.S. soil, they are free and their rights are protected. They can then apply for asylum and live in freedom until it is granted. For the refugee, the risk of dying while fleeing from death is preferable to certain death and persecution at home.
The shameful and deadly hypocrisy — a promise of refuge and the attempt to deny it — is killing people, and it must stop. Migrants could be vetted and screened in field stations in Turkey, Jordan, and elsewhere, outside of the camps. Those who are refugees can then be offered safe passage to asylum.
Emad Zand, a former refugee from Iran and now a Swedish citizen, recently founded Refugee Air, a non-profit organization, chartering planes to bring refugees to Sweden. Refugee Air —featured at the 2015 World Economic Forum — with NGOs in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to vet refugees, often getting third-party verification of identity for those without documents, ensuring that they will be granted asylum when they arrive for official processing in Sweden.
Zand argues that a system like his would give European officials much more control over who is arriving than just attempting to process people landing randomly on the shores of Greece or through the barbed wire fences on land. Refugee Air is a safe way to travel, but it is a drop in the bucket. Nonetheless, it can demonstrate to commercial airlines that it is legal and possible to fly refugees to Europe.
No matter how it is done, the establishment of a tradition to process applicants through field stations abroad and with the assistance of NGOs would fulfill a legal commitment, uphold a promise to protecting human rights, and help ensure the success of efforts to manage the crisis beyond simply creating barriers to safety. Refugees who escape death once should not have to risk their lives again and again.