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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 40, New Delhi, September 26, 2015

Refugee Crises in Europe: A Human Catastrophe

Monday 28 September 2015, by Bharti Chhibber

How images affect the human mind is quite evident with the kind of effect the picture had of a crumpled body of a three-year old face-down, washed ashore the Turkish coastline or that of rubber dinghies overfilled with desperate women, men and children. These images have brought out the enormity of the contemporary refugee crises in Europe, the biggest movement of people to Europe since the Second World War.

However, how ironical is the fact that the civil war in Syria, which is entering its fifth year, has caught the world attention only now when there is a massive influx of people to Europe. The reality is that already about five million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In fact these countries may actually face potentially serious issues in the near future in the eventuality of non-resolution of the Syrian war.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Article 1) defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country...” This convention is the key legal document in defining a refugee, his/her rights and the obligations of states. The geographic and temporal restrictions were removed from the Convention by the 1967 Protocol. However, this definition is being interrogated by human rights activists who argue that this is against universality and indivisibility of human rights. In fact states and many international organisations are using this definition to highlight the ‘forced migration’—the refugee crises—as mere voluntary movement for better livelihood. This is exactly what the European countries are projecting right now by repeatedly terming Syrian refugees, who have been forced to flee Syria due to the ongoing civil war, as ‘mere migrants’ for better economic opportunities.

With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Western countries blaming each other for the refugee crises, it is the common masses who are bearing the brunt. Protests against the government in Syria in 2011 soon developed into a civil war. Later the rise of the Islamic State forced about 11 million people from the homeland to flee to other states. On the one hand, the Western countries argue that President Assad has deliberately encouraged the refugee flow, both to the neighbouring countries and to Europe, by using excessive force against his own people to get rid of potential opponents. On the other hand, the role of Euro-Atlantic powers in this present crisis cannot be negated either. Owing to rich energy resources, West Asia has always been geo-strategically significant for the US and European countries. This is the reason for the Western states using coercive measures in West Asia, be it Iraq or Syria, where in the name of the supporting pro-democratic elements, the Western states ended up helping the radicals by giving enough room to them, resulting in the growth of the Islamic State.

Under the present scenario, the European countries cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to protect the refugees who fear being persecuted in their own homeland. With scores of refugees seeking asylum in Europe, sharp differences have surfaced among the European Union (EU) member-states. Recently German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart, Werner Faymann, met in Berlin and called for an emergency EU summit. Earlier the EU’s Interior Ministers also met but failed to reach an agreement on the European Commission plan for a binding quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among the member-states. The Eastern European countries have showed fierce opposition to this proposal. Germany, which has accepted a good number of refugees, even proposed cutting EU subsidies to the member-states that refuse to take their share of refugees. Hungary sealed its border with Serbia with barbed-wire fences resulting in the refugees marching into Croatia. Many critics of the EU have already questioned the EU as an organisation. Presently the EU is facing its greatest humanitarian challenge with the pronouncement of the end of the Schengen agreement that sets up free travel in most of the EU.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the international organisation whose function is to assist and protect refugees throughout the world. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has said: “It is a tragedy without parallel in the recent past.” The conflict has left at least 250,000 people dead and displaced more than 11 million. According to the UNHCR estimates, two-thirds of the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan live in absolute poverty. Turkey is the only country in the region in which some Syrians are allowed to work, attend school and receive medical care. Funding is another crucial issue. The UNHCR has spent more than $ 5.6 billion on housing and food for Syrians since the conflict began, but that was less than half the amount it said was needed.

In the final analysis, it is high time that instead of some ad hoc mechanisms, Syria, its neighbours, the US, Russia and the European countries work out a solution to the Syrian crises as they are responsible for this state of affairs. Moreover, the EU, which projects itself a champion of human rights, has to rise to the occasion. It is a question of the very survival of refugees. Already thousands of refugees have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone trying to make it to Europe. Refugees have a right to live a decent life till a solution is found to the Syrian crises. They cannot be forced to go back and be persecuted. It is also a test of the EU as an organisation with a common policy. Moreover Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, should also be involved and be willing to resettling the Syrian refugees owing to many similarities in the field of language, religion and culture. It is a global collective responsibility to protect these refugees and find a solution to this human catastrophe instead of just pushing them from one country to another and merely debating on the issue.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Political Science in the University of Delhi. Her e-mail is bharti.chhibber@

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