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With more refugees expected, Europe needs to get a grip
February 7, 2016, 3:40 pm

It was like a scene from the film Titanic – the great and the good looked concerned and talked earnestly about impending doom over canapés while cosseted in the luxury and wealth to which they’ve become accustomed.

Elsewhere, out of sight, the poorest were locked away in the bowels of the disintegrating wreck, suffering and dying, almost forgotten as the rich searched for a lifeboat to rescue them from their responsibilities.

So it was that in London the world watched as the rich wrung their hands pitifully and hoped that throwing some loose change at the refugee problem will make it go away.

A billion here, and hundred million there, mere crumbs from the countries who were happy to commit trillions of dollars worth of war machinery in their original half-baked pursuit of the Arab World’s bogeymen just a few years earlier, and whose misplaced confidence in their own military supremacy, allied with total lack of planning for the ‘peace’ they created, produced the conditions for seemingly endless instability and the growth of the cancer of extremism.

While a procession of presidents, royals and prime ministers turned up for what felt like a private telethon for the Syrian people, across Europe attitudes towards the refugees were hardening.

Syria’s near neighbours are once again pleading poverty while those still stuck in the country were dying in more and more horrific ways: starvation, siege, disease and almost incessant fighting in a three-way contest with no real winners and only an empty, shattered, dust-bowl as the prize.

In reality there will be no winner, and anyone who does claim victory when peace arrives will have all the credibility of a Donald Trump speechwriter.

Where are the refugees?

The gathering in London was called by the UN and jointly hosted by the governments of the UK, Kuwait, Germany and Norway, under the guise of being a “conference” where guests included Queen Rania of Jordan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Nobel Prize winner and Taliban shooting survivor Malala Yousufzai was once again invited as the token victim; one “real” person out of scores of rich dignitaries and faceless politicos who served only to counterpoint the surrealism of the event and underline how completely out-of-touch the world’s leaders are in dealing with such a vast, human tragedy.

Apart from Malala, the official record of the event seems to show that there were no refugees, no migrants, no survivors, no dead and no dying – the real victims were far away, kept out of sight, viewed only through the sterile safety of a photograph, a television screen or an infographic where millions of stories of human misery were reduced to a statistic, proving Stalin right once again.

Various amounts of taxpayers’ money were bandied about.

On the BBC morning bulletins, there was talk of the British government contributing more than £1.2 billion ($1.73bn), although earlier reports said £2.2 billion ($3.17b); in the event they stumped up less than a quarter of that.

The disparities between the European leaders was clear to see: while Germany put in £1.7 billion ($2.45bn), France could only muster £685 million ($987m), although that was at least more than the United States which managed to scrape together £633 million ($912m).

In all, around £7 billion ($10bn) was raised to help the Syrian people although few could actually pinpoint where the money would be spent.

There was lofty talk of helping Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, who have taken the vast bulk of the refugees, and this would have been welcome news to those leaders, especially King Abdullah of Jordan who, just a few days earlier, said they were struggling to cope with the responsibility of educating Syrian children and finding jobs for adult refugees.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s prime minister handed out apocalyptic warnings of a “fresh exodus” of refugees amid reports that 70,000 more people are fleeing towards the Turkish border after schools and hospitals in Aleppo were attacked in a new advance by President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airstrikes.

Europe’s leaders were clearly concerned that more of these refugees would be heading their way, and this underlying fear was writ large between the lines of the official statements from people like David Cameron, who said: “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians fear they have no alternative than to put their lives in the hands of evil people-smugglers in search of a future.”

Roughly translated, this meant: “Once you’re over the border and safe, stay there and we’ll throw money at you, just don’t come here.”

Elsewhere, diplomatic confusion reigned.

Cameron said: “We face a critical shortfall in life-saving aid that is fatally holding back our efforts.”

At the same time though, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was bemoaning the Syrian government’s refusal to let that life-saving aid anywhere near the people who needed it.

“It is deeply disturbing that the talks have been undermined by the continuous lack of humanitarian access,” he opined.

Peace talks falter

The tragedy of the event was underlined by the abject failure earlier in the week of a UN-sponsored effort to get the various sides in the conflict to start talking. Leaders of the Syrian opposition and representatives of President Assad met with diplomats in Geneva, but the whole effort ended in farce when news of the fresh attacks in Aleppo reached the conference hall.

Many Syrian Refugees are at risk as temperatures fall during the winter months in the Middle East, the UN says [Xinhua]

Many Syrian Refugees are at risk as temperatures fall during the winter months in the Middle East, the UN says [Xinhua]

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told the BBC: “Every time there is a chance for negotiations, there is just the opposite happening on the ground, they are increasing their attacks, to be in a better position.”

At that point he was undeterred: “We should be aware of it and still push forward.”

But 48 hours later, de Mistura was forced to accept a “temporary pause” in the negotiations, further undermining the credibility of the United Nations, who seemed to be more worried about the welfare of another immigrant, Julian Assange, than they were about the thousands fleeing the bloodshed in Syria.

Meanwhile in the UK, opinion polls began to show that public attitudes to the refugees were hardening. A survey for BBC Local Radio reported that 41 per cent, two in five people, felt that Britain should be accepting fewer refugees from Libya and Syria, up from 31 per cent just four months earlier.

Of the 2,204 people questioned by pollsters Comres, just 24 per cent said Britain should allow more refugees in, compared to 40 per cent in September, shortly after the tragic pictures of the body of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, were dominating the newspaper front pages and news bulletins.

This hardening of attitudes has been reflected across Europe, where even the generous stance taken by Germany’s Angela Merkel in 2015 has been soured by reports of widespread sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

Monthly surveys by YouGov reported in January that 62 per cent of Germans felt that the number of refugees being taken in by their government was too high, compared to only 42 per cent who felt like that in September.

Meanwhile, demonstrations by far right, anti-immigration protesters continue to stir up tensions across the continent, with rallies held in a number of countries.

The European muddle

The politicians have, as ever, responded in typical knee-jerk fashion; there is talk of toughening the justice system to deal with refugees and migrants who break the law.

After meeting Christian Democrat party leaders in Mainz, Mrs. Merkel proposed new measures to deny the right of asylum to anyone who has committed a crime, including those on probation.

But while the German chancellor is walking a tightrope buffeted by the conflicting winds of public opinion and humanitarian responsibilities, Britain’s prime minister Cameron is facing the same perilous journey burdened with the weight of trying to get his programme of EU reforms approved, so he can go ahead with a promised referendum on Britain’s future in the union.

The final negotiating points were released by Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, just two days before the event for Syria, placing Cameron in the embarrassing position of starting his efforts to get the other 27 leaders in the EU to support his reforms, knowing they would ultimately make life harder for any refugees who reached Europe’s shores.

While the establishment media focussed on the nuances of the four main reform talking points released by Mr Tusk, and the prospects of actual peace talks starting in Geneva, the efforts by the great and the good to raise more funding to help people on the ground was reduced to a mere media sideshow.

All of this abject behaviour hides an unspoken truth: that the international community, including the UN, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the US, Russia and the EU have all failed to do anywhere near enough to help the millions of innocent people who have been driven out of their homes by Syria’s long, internal conflict.

On top of that, what little they have done has completely distracted the world from the millions more innocent Palestinian refugees who are still suffering in camps across the region as, almost unnoticed, Israel’s development of apartheid policies makes life in the Occupied Territories ever more dismal.

Falling short

Back in Europe, the leaders are starting to realise that last year’s unprecedented deluge of refugees was the direct result of their lack of financial support for the camps in Turkey and Jordan, despite pledges to the contrary, and despite the view expounded by many refugees that they want to remain close to their home country so that they can return and rebuild as soon as it is safe, just as the majority of the refugees from the Balkan Wars did a decade ago.

In the absence of a comprehensive and unified policy, local authorities from Croatia to Hungary, Denmark and Sweden have adopted their own measures to push back the tide of refugees [Xinhua]

In the absence of a comprehensive and unified policy, local authorities from Croatia to Hungary, Denmark and Sweden have adopted their own measures to push back the tide of refugees [Xinhua]

The financial shortfall led many refugees there to believe that the only way they could find a long-term future was to head West, to Europe.

When they got there they found the people who had already let them down once were less than willing to take them in; some countries erected fences, others refused to take their fair share of refugees even though such responsibility was one of the demands they had agreed to when they joined the European club.

Those that made the perilous months-long journey faced social services, immigration processing and political systems which were stretched to the limit, even in Germany, which left many disillusioned.

The Financial Times reported this week that at Berlin’s Tegel airport, managers at Iraqi Airways were planning to double the number of flights to Baghdad to cope with the number of refugees wanting to go home.

Everyone is aware that something needs to change.

Firstly the donors at this week’s conference need to make good their financial pledges to help the millions of refugees who are currently living in camps.

While $10 billion seems like a lot, The Economist pointed out that this was about the same amount as Germans spend on chocolate every year.

So this is a start, but the international community needs to do much more to help Syrians do what they originally wanted to do – stay as close to home as possible so they can get back to their own lives as soon as it is safe.

At the same time global leaders need to help Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon process asylum seekers effectively so they do not feel the need to flee into the arms of the criminal gangs of traffickers and people smugglers who will fleece them of their last belongings to put them on flimsy inflatables and push them in the direction of Europe.

The refugees need reasons to stay: proper homes to live in rather than tents, jobs for the adults, education for their children, access to medical and welfare services – the basic requirements for common human decency.

Diplomatically the UN needs to knuckle down and stop acting like a distracted teenager and do more to get the the protagonists in this murderous conflict around a table, regardless of Russia’s manipulation of events on the ground.

The irony is that the international community has demonstrated it can do this before.

When states went to war against their own people and refugees streamed out across Europe, the UN and the EU responded, and despite the depravity of the fighting on the ground, they were able to provide relief for the helpless and help to bring peace to the region.

Quite why they’re unable to do the same just a few years later is a mystery, and one that is beginning to test the patience of even the most reasonable of observers, and embarrass the most experienced of international politicians.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

3 Responses to With more refugees expected, Europe needs to get a grip

  1. campo Reply

    February 7, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    It doesn’t help when US elites and Jewish hedgefunds like those owned by Soros and IMF, are trying to colonize the Middle East through arming ‘moderate’ rebels imposing regime change in sovereign nations and debt in the form of IMF loans.

  2. Mohamed Reda Laghzaoui Reply

    February 11, 2016 at 8:21 am

    I Dont understand why “anyone claiming victory has the credibility of a Donald Trump speechwriter” after the war ends. The Syrian Army will have every right to BRAG that they SURVIVED A WAR, against the dominant power of this era’s efforts and a whole bunch of its allies put together. If that’s not a victory then i don’t understand what else it could be.

  3. rarahkwisere Reply

    March 14, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    now europe knows what it feels like to have refugee crisis.We”ll trade any day for the brown man for a “VISTOR”

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