European Civil Society and Double Standards

An analysis of European attitudes towards refugee crisis

 

The Greek philosopher Aristotle used the term politikei koinonia, to indicate an association, composed of self-governing free citizens who discussed public affairs and negotiated among themselves to find solutions to public problems. “Civil societies” as we know them today, derive exactly from this ancient Greek term, and they have been influencing political decisions ever since.

The term “civil societies” completely disappeared for centuries due the scarcity of democractic frameworks in the political sphere. Axioms like individual liberties and human rights were inexistent concepts from the fall of the Roman Empire, during the decay of the Middle Ages, up until the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries. The Enlightenment was the movement that gave emphasis for the first time on human liberty, independence, equality and freedom of citizens to promote their public interest in the political sphere.

However, civil socities developed as a means to ‘democratize democracies’ only after the tragedy of World War II. They were seen as a necessity for protecting social life and preventing the establishement of totalitarian states, such as the ones that controlled Europe during the 20th century.

Moving on, today’s civil societies are seen as transmission belts, between society, business, and the State. These transmission belts are considered a cornerstone for the functioning of liberal democracy. Furthermore, they have the great potential of creating a sense of trust and willingness to cooperate, through ensuring transparent and accountable governance. Nevertheless, for this to work there must be a strong legal framework and communication channels, like the state, which significantly shapes the role in which civil society operates.

In the context of handling humanitarian issues, like refugee crises, the essential role of civil socities and the capacitiy that they have becomes more relevant and essential than ever.

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The Ukrainian and Syrian refugee crisis
The Russian-Ukrainian war has unfolded an unprecedented refugee challenge in Europe. Research carried out between the 9th and 16th of March by the International Organisation for Migration indicated that approximately four million people from Ukraine fled their homes to neighbouring countries. In addition, 6.5 million people have already been internally displaced in the confines of a war-torn country.

Although the Western world prefers to refer to it as the largest humanitarian crisis across the span of many years, it’s worth noting that Europe faced a similar, if not more critical, challenge a few years ago.

As a result of the conflict in Syria in 2015, there was an influx of refugees and migrants in Europe that reached staggering levels. For instance, by the 7th of December 2015, more than 900,000 refugees had arrived on European shores and approximately 3,550 lives have been lost during the dangerous journey. It is said that the number of individuals that had arrived at the continent to seek asylum ultimately reached 1.3 million by the end of the year.

The simultaneous reference to the Ukrainian and Syrian refugee crisis is not meant to cause conflict, nor to compare the intensity of human suffering. Instead, it’s introduced to raise questions about the role of civil society in every kind of crisis. For example, there have been inconsistencies in the ways Europe reacted to the influx of asylum-seekers during the aforementioned challenges. This shift in attitudes towards refugees taking place across Europe raises questions of mistreatment and discrimination based on culture and ethnicity.

Indeed, European politicians and citizens have rediscovered compassion for refugees, but its focus makes us wonder: Are double standards apparent in the ways civil society functions in refugee crises?

In the next section, we are going to look more in depth to that issue by analyzing the various ways in which the EU civil society reacted in 2015 and 2022.

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2015 Refugee Crisis
The International Centre for Migration Policy Development suggested that in the face of the 2015 refugee crisis, Europe reacted in discord.

For instance, heated debates unfolded over the reception of refugees and their distribution. Border controls were introduced, and fences were constructed at five borders, outside and within the Schengen area. Moreover, several EU member states tightened their legislation and restricted the rights of asylum-seekers.

Instead of enhancing the protection and respect for the freedom of movement and human rights, in such a humanitarian crisis, different Member States decided to increase the monitoring of internal cross border mobility.

On 13th September 2015, Germany could not manage the influx of migrants or asylum seekers. The assistance from other countries was scarce, so Angela Merkel decided to reimpose border controls with Austria. Addiotionally, the Netherlands followed by increasing the spot-checks that could be carried out on the borders to combat illegal migration as well as certain forms of cross-border crime. Moreover, Hungary, after sealing it’s borders with Serbia using barbed-wire fences, started using police force to block and arrest individuals trying to cross the borders.

This tightening of the border controls was completely against the planned process of relocation, which provided the transfer of an applicant for international protection from one Member State to another Member State within the European Union. The relocation plan aimed at reducing the influx of asylum seekers, in the two main arrival ports: Italy and Greece.

In 2015, Greece received the considerable amount of 80 million euros from the European Commission. Amidst an already exponential economic crisis, the tension led to outbursts of violence between locals and migrants. As the number of refugee hot-spots increased across Greece, like in Lesvos and Kos, so did the recorded cases of mistreatment and discrimination. Throughout the years, the UN and multiple NGOs became increasingly alarmed about Greece illegally and violently pushing back refugees in the Aegean sea. For example, a lawsuit was filed by an NGO, named Legal Centre Lesvos, at the European Court of human rights, that accused Athens for illegal pushback strategies that threatened the lives of refugees.

This is no exception, as in 2016, the EU entered into a geopolitical and economical agreement with Turkey, in order to limit the number of asylum seekers reaching EU soil. Based on this agreement, Turkey would try to monitor the creation of new migratory routes and accept migrants that attempted to enter Greece in the first place. In exchange, among other socio-political benefits, the EU paid 6 billion dollars in aid to Turkey for Syrian migrant communities.

Even though this deal assisted Europe at alleviating the pressure of the crisis,
and maintaining it’s ‘unity’, the years after the agreement saw hostility from Turkish communities towards Syrians, with violence between communities peeking from 2016 to 2017. In addition, a handful of advocacy organisations began doubting that Turkey could be considered a safe country for migrants and asylum seekers. For instance, there had been recorded cases of Syrians being illegally pushed back in their countries after abuse and detention.

On the 10th of June 2018, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to let the boat Aquarius transporting 629 migrants land on the Italian coast. This action reflected Salvini’s future policies, including blocking NGO rescue ships from the Italian ports, and the implementation of hardline measures which abolished key forms of protection for migrants and made deportation easier.

Thus, it can be observed that the 2015 refugee crisis reflects a civil society in discord, which mostly served political interests rather than individual rights and freedom. The EU Member states desperately tried to maintain their ‘integrity’ and ‘unity’ by either blocking the entrance of refugees or systematically allocating them to other countries via bargains. As we can see, these tactics ultimately led to outbursts of discriminatory behaviour, stress, violence and scarse health conditions for refugees.

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2022 Refugee Crisis
In the face of the 2022 refugee crisis, the EU is implementing a new plan, and this time the Member States are more open and collaborative.

The new plan includes reactivating the Temporary Protection Directive, which is a scheme introduced in the 1990s for the management of refugee movements during the Balkan crisis. If the scheme gets established again, the refugees from Ukraine would be offered up to three years of temporary protection in EU countries, without the obligation to apply for asylum. Additionally, they would get rights to a residence permit, access to education, housing, as well as the labor market. The EU is also proposing to simplify border control and entry conditions for individuals fleeing Ukraine.

“The 2022 EU proposals reflect how a functional civil society should work during times of every kind of humanitarian crisis, no matter the race, culture, or ethnicity.”

Now that the currents of two refugees crisis collided, one originating from the Middle-East and the other from Europe, sheding light on inconsistencies and malfunctions of civil society is crucial and necessary.

There has been a growing number of incidents across Europe that mirrored discrimination and segregation. For instance, Ukrainian refugees have been crossing Poland, a country that has been building a wall across the Belarus borders to block refugees coming from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, mentioned that the refugees from Ukraine are not the refugees that the EU is used to. He emphasised their European identity, intelligence, and education, thus making clear his racist intentions. He also went as far as to call the refugees from the middle-East potential terrorists.

Only a few days after the onset of the Ukranian war, Vasilis Kikilias, the Greek Minister for Tourism called out and accused the greek NGOs for ‘double standards’ via a twitter post. Behind this message, there was a strong intention for far-right propaganda based on an escalating crisis taking place in Ukraine. Furthermore, Notis Mitarakis, the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, who’s political agenda has been accused for intense anti-refugee elements, made the following statements on SKAI TV channel:

‘ Greece will contribute to the support towards the Ukrainian people directly, sending technical and humanitarian support to Poland and other countries. The refugees who leave Ukraine are war refugees, and these are real refugees. If we must, we are willing to accept a number of people as a country, in cooperation with the EU. The cost will be covered by Europe’.

Moving on, NGOs have also called out French authorities for double standards in the infamous area of Calais. According to reports, Ukrainians fleeing war are enjoying special treatment in Calais, while other refugees are still living in inhumane and harsh conditions in the Calais jungle.

The UN experts have also expressed their concern for the discrimination of people of African descent in the Ukrainian border. Specifically, there have been various incidents where Ukrainian trains, buses, as well as borders were regulated in order to deny or delay freedom of movement for people of African descent. In essence, priority was given to the accommodation of white migrants and asylum seekers.

In the Netherlands, smaller citizen-led initiatives have been materializing since the start of the Russian invasion on Ukraine. The approach is simple: Dutch hosts and Ukrainian newcomers fill in a form. Then, a volunteer organization or a municipality matches similar profiles. There are multiple Dutch volunteer organizations working in this hosting process: Takecarebnb, Room for Ukraine, Share my Home. After only few weeks the start of the war Takecarebnb had received already 5,500 new registrations to host Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, there is a considerable amount of refugees from the Middle-East in the Netherlands, who still experience harsh living conditions and unfair
treatment, like in the Schinnen camp.

The list goes on, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: The EU Member states reinvigorated their collaborative tendencies and openness after the influx of Ukrainian refugees, while still being discriminatory and intrasigent to refugees from the Middle-East. It is our view that this phenomenon will be
more apparent by introducing a refugee testimony from Schinnen.

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A Story from Schinnen Refugee Camp
Ammar could not go back to his home in Yemen, a country which has been exponentially devastated by a cruel war since 2015. Thus, in October 2021, he decided to flee to the Netherlands in search for a safe space. The Schinnen refugee camp became his new home in November 2021.

Despite the circumstances, Ammar decided to become an RPM volunteer, contribute to the refugee community and embody the voice of 415 refugees currently living in the camp. According to him, there are many individuals in the camp that “can not speak English but need to express their problems, challenges, and needs”.

Ammar also took some time to explain to us the living conditions in Schinnen camp, which is composed of three huge tents, each subdivided into rooms made of wooden wall. Each of the rooms host approximately seven individuals. When the refugees arrived at the “provisional” camp, there was insufficient heating, as well as lack of educational resources, cooking materials, and Wi-Fi connection.

Until today, there is still not enough clothing and pharmaceutical support. Hospitalization of refugees from Schinnen camp is an exception that occurs only in extreme cases. In addition, the camp does not provide sufficient food that can support both basic and specific health needs, like intolerances and nutritional disorders.

The aforementioned conditions led to a hunger strike during past November. This movement created a positive response, as refugees received money to purchase their own food. However, the issue of not having a kitchen and cooking materials still remains unsolved.

Amidst the hardships, Ammar also emphasized the support that the camp has received. For instance, the government has started constructing an actual building for future refugee accommodation. It is predicted that families and children will be allowed to move in the building on May. He was also extremely grateful for the support that NGOs and local have been providing
thus far.

As there is always room for improvement, we asked Ammar whether the Dutch government or the communities could do something more to contribute towards that cause. As he explained, there are still families and children still living in tents with insufficient healthcare, inadequate food and privacy. These individuals should become the priority for the government and the locals. According to him, the community should be more present and attempt to breach the wall of isolation and loneliness of refugees who “feel homeless”.

Concluding, Ammar mentioned that he desires equal treatment for refugees coming from every part of the earth, be it from Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, or Afghanistan. This statement is extremely important and relevent for our discussion, as we’ve been exploring how civil society functioned in a discriminatory way during two different times of refugee crises.

The whole testimony should act as a reminder that, amidst the welcoming, compassionate and resourceful European environment that we’ve created to welcome refugees from Ukraine, there are still individuals experiencing harsh conditions and unfairful treatment.

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Conclusion
Despite it’s terrible nature, the Ukrainian refugee criris has demonstrated one undeniable fact: civil societies not only exist, but they can also function. The culminated assistance from the govemernt, NGOs and community can have a tremendous impact in alleviating consequences during times of crisis. But why the same did not happen during the 2015 refugee crisis? And why Ammar and the other 415 refugees are still leving in tents?

Apart from trying to inverstigate possible answers to these questions, this article strived to raise awareness of this unfair phenomenon. It our wish that the public becomes more conscious of double standards and discrimination. All refugees should always be treated equally, regardless of their culture, color
and ethnicity.

If you want an expert opinion on the European response to the Ukranian displacement listen to the Refugee Project Maastricht Podcast episode, where our volunteer Vincent Halder interviewed Prof. Dr. Melissa Siegel