In early September last year, newspapers all over the world published the shocking photograph of a dead Syrian boy, of Kurdish descent, Alan Kurdi, with his tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt, blue shorts, lying face down in the water.
The reaction to the photograph was immediate. With world leaders expressing their shock and dismay; and donations to one NGO – that was set up to lead rescue operations in the Mediterranean - increasing its donations 15-fold in the 24 hours after the photograph was published.
Britain’s Chief Rabbi said: ‘‘For far too long we have related to these suffering individuals as if they are people living on Mars …. That desperately sad and tragic image has moved our hearts. (The image) has brought us to our senses and we must respond adequately.’
But what did this photograph represent to the millions who saw it? Did it represent an urgent need to stop people making the dangerous journey by boat to Europe? Or did the widespread reaction horror at the boy’s death signal a broader desire for Europeans to do more for those fleeing warzones – and in particular Syria?
There is much talk in Europe about the so-called refugee crisis. There is no doubt that thousands losing their lives. According to the International Organisation of Migration, almost 4,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, with most dying making the crossing from north Africa to Italy. A further 800 died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece.
While we might all agree that these deaths need to stop, what isn’t so clear is the best way to do this.
On the 18th of March, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey that will change EU refugee policy dramatically. Under a new plan all people travelling to Greece, who are found not to be refugees will be returned to Turkey immediately. What will happen to these people after that point is not spelled out, although the European Union has guaranteed that it will fund any further operations.
And yet the agreement also states that for each Syrian returned to Greece another Syrian – presumably a refugee - will be resettled in the EU.
According to the United Nations Human rights agency, the UNHCR, an estimated 91 per cent of the people coming to Greece from Turkey come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – so presumably a large number of them will have grounds for protection.
In return, Turkey will receive three billion euros before the end of March – to aid ‘health, education, infrastructure, food and other living costs’ for refugees in their territory (and another three billion euros up until the end of 2018).
Discussions are also now underway to lift visa restrictions into the EU for Turkish citizens and there is a reinforced commitment to ‘re-energise the accession process’ that might lead to Turkey joining the European Union in the future.
What struck me in the announcement was the confused terminology relating to the largely Syrian arrivals. The document begins with the bold statement: ‘All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.’
But then mentions that these people will be returned in accordance with EU and International law and avoid ‘any kind of collective expulsion’. To avoid this mass expulsion, so-called ‘migrants’ will be allowed access to the asylum process, but it is not clear what will happen to those found to be refugees.
Will they be resettled in the EU – it appears yes - but how will that be arranged? And if they are to be resettled in the EU, surely this very possibility still offers an incentive for people to make that dangerous journey.
The statement allowed that this was just a ‘temporary and extraordinary measure’ that is ‘necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order’.
There is no doubt that the European Union needs to act. More than 1 million immigrants arrived by sea in 2015, with almost a further 34,900 arriving by land. Compare this to the previous year’s figure: in 2014, 280,000 people entered Europe by land and sea. And Europe – following the recent, bloody terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels - is not in the mood for accepting hundreds of thousands people fleeing warzones.
There is no reason to judge Europe for this: any other country would react the same way. But as an Australian this talk of mass returns of people to a third country, in this case Turkey is very familiar and a development of concern.
Don’t forget that Turkey too is undergoing a period of upheaval and has not shown its capacity to either treat refugees and asylum seekers – or its own population – with a respect for human rights.
Added to this: Greece has struggled with its role as the first point of entry for many migrants. It is not clear how the human rights of the asylum applicants will be guaranteed – even though now there is an added pressure on the Europeans to return them elsewhere.
Some years ago I travelled to Malta and Greece to report on these very issues. I travelled to Malta, a tiny island, and visited open-air camps where people slept in tents and a former school, where bright green mould covered the walls. (In Greece I couldn't enter any centres, though I did go to a 'prison' complex in Athens).
I spoke with local officials, people working for major NGOs, police and border guards. First-hand, I saw how ill-equipped both countries were to cope thousands of asylum seekers. Neither country had a developed immigration system, or refugee assessment agencies. Local lawyers were doing their best, but it was ad hoc and often arbitrary and chaotic.
There is an enormous difference in terms of development in the EU; northern countries such as Sweden or Norway inevitably have much better assessment systems compared to the poor countries on the edges of Europe. And as a result of these fundamental flaws in Greece – made worse by the 2008 crisis - asylum applicants were either detained for long periods of time, or as I saw in Athens, living on the streets.
But there is another broader ethical problem connected to this new EU-Turkey plan – and this reflects the emphasis upon deterrence. Key to this initiative is the idea that when people see the mass returns to Turkey, others will change their minds. This has long been the key driving force behind Australian policy that sees all boat arrivals sent to poor countries in the region, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Notions of deterrence rapidly paint the seekers as somehow inherently guilty, as as at its base is the idea that seeking protection within the European territory is something to be discouraged - something to be deterred.
There is also another problem. To date, EU states have been extremely reluctant to resettle refugees via the official UNHCR program. Worldwide only a small number of countries accept refugees for resettlement. These are Australia, the United States, Canada and a few Nordic countries.
According to the UNHCR figures for 2014, the US tops the list in that it resettled just over 69,000 refugees; Canada comes next with around 15,000 and then Australia with 6,000. Then there are much lower figures for the remaining countries: Germany, Sweden and Norway, New Zealand. Note this, though: the figures for two of the richest countries in the EU in 2014, the United Kingdom accepted fewer than 1,000 UN identified refugees and France around 700 people.
I remember speaking with the UNHCR representative in Malta about this, and he said that getting European countries to accept refugees via the ‘official’ channels was the hardest part of his role.
Let me make this clear, though unlike some on the Left I do not believe that ‘open borders’ and the free movement of people, without any restrictions is the way forward. Of course, I see the hypocrisy of the current system, where people from rich countries have this freedom of movement, while people fearing for their lives remain trapped.
And yet, as Germany has now discovered ‘opening the borders’ - especially now in this tense time in European history - is not the right path. My concern is that any sudden and dramatic decision, as found in the EU-Turkey agreement, often brings further problems with it (for example, pressures to outsource even more to private companies with a punitive mindset).
Moreover, if the European Union has been unable to manage this issue within its own borders - in European countries, such as Greece, Malta and Italy, it's hard to imagine how they will be able to guarantee due process and human rights outside them. Perhaps, though this is the point.