Europe closes its eyes to death on its doorstep

Europe closes its eyes to death on its doorstep
Blog: With thousands of Syrian refugees stranded on the border of Macedonia, Europe's morality is being called into play as the humanitarian situation in Syria worsens.
5 min read
21 Aug, 2015
Macedonia is blocking the route to Western Europe for Syrian refugees [AFP]

Fortress Europe has put a new roadblock in the way of the thousands of desperate Syrian refugees attempting to flee what is probably the world's most bloody ongoing conflict.

Two days ago, Macedonia closed its borders to fleeing Syrians, leaving thousands of migrants stranded at the border.

With nowhere to go, they have gathered in a no-man's-land. The scenes bring to mind the situation in Calais, where migrants have been blocked passage to the UK after an "iron ring" of fortifications was erected.


Macedonian police fired stun grenades yesterday to disperse a crowd of refugees who are stranded on a bare, open patch of land on the border with Greece.

Children and babies in the group were forced to eat corn picked from nearby fields, and spent a chilly Thursday night in a dusty field.

reported that aid agencies - including the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the United Nations refugee agency - do not have access to the area in which the refugees have congregated.

Skopje has declared a "state of emergency" to deal with the "problem". It says that the tough measures put in place are to protect its own citizens on the border, and to better help refugees.

But the real emergency is for the would-be refugees who have no food and little water, and no medical assistance.

Barbed wire, tear gas and batons have all been employed against the Syrians trying to cross through the country.

"Are we really afraid of families fleeing war?" Amnesty International asked about the situation. The answer for many in Europe, is sadly yes.

There were rare signs of humanity in the melee between the bulky column of riot police and the unarmed refugees they faced.

     Are we really afraid of families fleeing war?
- Amnesty International

One police officer helped a woman, her husband and ten-day-old baby - born on the journey to Macedonia - to board a train out of the country.

"We want to go to Germany to find a new life because everything has been destroyed in Syria," Amina Anmani told AP. "The policeman let us on the train because they felt sorry for the baby."

Although Macedonia argues that it lacks the resources to deal with the crisis, the Balkan state has enjoyed an economic boom over the past decade and boasted Europe's second fastest growing economy in 2014.

But Macedonia is not the target country for Syrians trying to escape totalitarianism inside Syria and deprivation outside. Macedonia is a thoroughfare for them to reach a place that will protect them and their families.

For most, they know that it is only Germany or Scandinavian countries that won't turn them away. 

Lives on the line

Syrians have risked everything - including their lives - to get there.

We have seen this with the thousands of bodies washed up on the shores of North Africa, after their "death boats" which were taking them to Europe sank in the middle of the Meditarranean.

This is why the new, comparatively safer route through the Balkans has become such an immensely appealing passage.

Europe's response to what may be the world's worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War has shocked many.

Route to refuge - the passage to Europe [Click to enlarge]

For a continent that prides itself on its humanity, rule of law, and liberalism, the way European countries have handled the current refugee crisis make these principles appear hollow to many.

"Most EU countries have increased the number of resettlement or humanitarian places for Syrians - but other than Germany - the increased numbers remain dismally low compared to the overall numbers of refugees from Syria," said Cynthia Orchard, a lawyer specialising in asylum and human rights.

Hungary has also resorted to extreme measures to stem the flow of Syrians and other migrants to its territory. It is fencing off its border to Serbia, where most migrants pass through. 

The UK has also been adamant that it will only resettle the smallest number of Syrians.

"I think the main factor for the UK and several other EU countries failing to offer refuge to more Syrian refugees is anti-immigrant sentiment and the impact this has on politics and elections," said Orchard.

"EU countries should very significantly expand legal routes for entry into Europe for Syrians and other refugees in the region. Legal routes include resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunion, student visas, and employment visas."

Protective measures

The European bloc should also consider reactivating the Temporary Protection Directive, she says. This would provide a framework to deal with the mass displacement of people who are unable to return to their countries of origin - such is the case with the Syrians in Greece, Macedonia and Italy.

Only a handful of countries have accepted a significant number of refugees - and even then priority has been given to Christians.

An EU plan to resettle 40,000 Syrian refugees saw Slovakia agree to take in 200 - but only Christians.

This minority group make up as important an element to Syria's social fabric as any other.

But Sunnis and other Muslim groups - who make make up the majority in Syria - have been given second-class status in Europe's immigration system.

They have paid the heaviest price for the war - being the daily target of the Syrian air force, living under the suffocating conditions of Islamic State group tutelage, and facing punitive raids from Kurdish and regime forces.

With NGOs such as the World Food Programme cancelling aid programmes to the refugees in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan due to a lack of funding, the situation for Syrians is growing increasingly desperate.

If Europe continues to wall off the path of refuge, then more Syrians will be forced to board the death boats across the Mediterranean.

It will show Europe as being a place of liberty that is blind to the suffering of outsiders - even when they die in the thousands in their own front yard.