March 4, 2020

Making sense of the news from Greece and Syria

You may have seen the headlines. Thousands of people have been trying to reach the EU through Greece since Turkey announced last week it will no longer stop refugees from crossing into Europe.

The EU responded with appalling violence: Greece sent military reinforcement to the borders and suspended asylum applications. Heartbreaking videos have emerged of Greek forces firing tear gas on babies and shooting at a boat in an attempt to capsize it. Syrian journalist Ahmad Abu Emad was shot dead. Instead of prioritizing protection and human rights and evacuating vulnerable people to European countries, EU officials praised Greece’s response.

This started on Thursday after an airstrike killed 36 Turkish soldiers in Idlib, prompting Turkey to launch a counteroffensive against Assad, shooting down at least two regime fighter jets and targeting a chemical weapons storage facility and a barrel bomb factory. Turkey’s opening of the border with Europe was apparently an attempt to get European leaders’ support against Assad.

In Idlib, the humanitarian crisis is worse than it’s ever been. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and entire towns destroyed and emptied of their residents. Schools, hospitals, rescue workers, ambulances, busy markets, displacement camps have all been deliberately bombed by Syrian and Russian jets. The number of people forced to flee their homes since December has surpassed a million and will continue to soar with no end to the bombing in sight.

The area along the border with Turkey where fleeing families are trapped is overcrowded beyond capacity and even tents have become a luxury. Thousands of families are sleeping out in the open without shelter. Several children have died from the cold. Turkey’s border remains shut to those fleeing the horrors in Idlib.

Let’s be clear: Turkey’s use of refugees as a scare tactic is unacceptable, but it’s the EU’s fear of refugees that allows Turkish President Erdogan to use them as a political bargaining chip.

For years the EU and the rest of the world have ignored Assad and Putin’s war crimes and refused to take any meaningful steps to protect Syrian civilians where they live. The humanitarian crisis in Idlib today is a direct result of this inaction.

At the same time, the EU chose to respond with force to those trying to seek safety on its shores. The Mediterranean became a graveyard of people trying to pursue a life. In 2016 the EU struck a deal with Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing in to Europe in exchange of billions of euros in assistance. More than 3.5 million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, far more than the whole of Europe put together.

To justify this immoral deal the EU claimed that Turkey is safe for refugees, but Turkey has deported thousands of Syrians back to Syria. The fact that thousands decided to pack their lives and head to Europe the minute they got the chance shows that they see no hope of returning to live in dignity and safety in their own country because of the non stop bombing in areas outside Assad’s control and the grave human rights abuses in areas under Assad. It also speaks volumes of the lack of safety and stability Syrians feel in Turkey, where they live under fear of deportation with little chances of finding work or being able to travel freely, and even fewer chances of their conditions improving.

For far too long powerful leaders and institutions have justified their inaction by labeling Syria as too complex, but attacks can stop immediately if the international community shows real leadership and prioritizes the rights and protection of Syrian civilians including those seeking safety outside Syria.

We need a genuine ceasefire, one that the international community is prepared to enforce. This means increasing the cost of attacking civilians through military means and putting real pressure on Russia for their actions in Syria through imposing EU sanctions on Russian individuals implicated in war crimes. Perhaps there’s no clearer damnation of the world’s inaction than the fact that until now no one considered destroying Assad’s factories of barrel bombs which have killed countless civilians and forced millions to flee Syria.

The EU and the rest of the world must put forward a plan to protect refugees, evacuate people from the Greek islands to European countries, and reform broken asylum systems.

The killing of Syrians for trying to carry on living must end.

Here’s what each of us can do today:

Support the White Helmets. The volunteer rescue workers in Idlib are doing what the entire world has failed to do, saving lives at a great personal risk. They’re also responding to the humanitarian emergency by evacuating families to safety and providing shelter.

Sign the petition to demand urgent action to stop the bombs and respond to the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.