As you may have heard, Turkey has opened their border with the EU, giving refugees the chance to try their luck at crossing.
This has very little to do with humanity; it’s a power game Turkish President Erdogan is playing, trying to leverage either more money or more support for his military manoeuvres in Syria.
But humanity will out, just as the 2016 EU-Turkey deal never will.
The EU was supposed to give Turkey loads of money and ease restrictions on free movement for Turkish people. In exchange, Turkey would accept returns of ‘irregular migrants’ and enforce the EU border in Turkey.
In the meantime, those who break the line of defence will find their journeys stopped in the five ‘hotspot’ islands of the Aegean: Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, where their asylum claims will be processed (interminably slowly), like as not destined to be returned to Turkey.
The deal has trapped millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.
This was never going to work really, was it?
1) There’s no amount of money you can throw at a problem like this.
The only solution is to flip the script and give refugees the right to work for money themselves from Day 1.
The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees accords refugees the right to work — but most countries don’t fully honour this commitment. It’s insane.
People are working to have this absurdity overthrown in the UK. You can join the campaign here.
2) Hard borders are unenforceable.
Even the Iron Curtain was permeable. The folly of a hard border demands a Turkish coastguard that is omniscient and omnipresent. It’s not. So boats get through to the island hotspots in Greece, inside the EU.
A hard border also demands that the Greek island communities repulse the new arrivals. But humans don’t do that. We have too much in common; too much solidarity.
As mushy-minded flimsy fools, we are too touched by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Despite reports of black-clad militants in speedboats, Greek volunteers rush the boats with water and warmth.
The xenia of welcome can’t be sustained, of course. Conditions in the island camps are sickening and, see point one: there is still no amount of money you can throw at a problem like this. Let people work.
We’re leaving the EU, not Europe. In theory, we could use our new status outside the supranational bloc to opt out of the collective punishment of border brutality and welcome refugees directly.
I’ve got to say, though: that seems unlikely to happen.
More likely is that we can continue to show faith in humanity. Sign a petition. Or…
Let’s tackle it together / AKA: Why I’m cycling 3,000km+ this summer
With Thighs of Steel this summer I’ll be cycling 3,000km, across the Carpathian mountains, through Transylvania and the Balkans, from Bratislava to Athens.
It’s an odd way to remember that our borders are trapping millions of people in intolerable conditions. But it’s my way.
Today, there are more than 42,000 people living in horrifying camps on the Aegean Islands — stuck there until such a time as we collectively choose compassion over nationalism.
Read this story, told by a woman living in Vial camp on Chios, to find out what life is really like in a Greek refugee camp.
And, of course, that figure of 42,000 is dwarfed by the 3,500,000+ Syrian refugees trapped in Turkey.
It’s easy to feel hopeless, but I think we can make a difference.
That’s why I ride with Thighs of Steel and why, as part of the core team this year, I’m doing all I can to help the other 100+ cyclists raise tonnes of cash for Help Refugees.
The main beneficiary of the money we raise will be Khora, a grassroots community centre in Athens that offers displaced people hot food, legal support and friendship. The centre is run entirely by volunteers on solidarity and donations.
I visited Khora last year and met a wonderful bunch of people who are already making a difference. The work they do is of immense practical and psychological support to actual human beings every day.
Alee is a long-term volunteer and refugee from Pakistan who found Khora after the factory where he worked was shut down in 2016.
‘I didn’t come here to volunteer,’ Alee told me. ‘When I came here, I was homeless, I was jobless, I was penniless — even hopeless, to some extent.
‘I was at the verge of mental collapse,’ he says. ‘I mean, I could have been suicidal. I could jump from the fifth floor. The Khora volunteers kept me alive. Honestly, I’m telling you, they kept me alive.’
Fluent in multiple languages, including Greek, Alee started volunteering as a translator on the Khora info desk, during refugee hospital visits and with the legal team.
Now Alee spends most of his volunteer time at the Khora Free Shop, where refugees and others can pick up clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, toys and other things they might not be able to afford.
‘Khora is about giving hope as well as help,’ Alee says.
If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then there’s loads you can do.
- If cycling is your cup of tea, join us! We are three-quarters full, but there’s still space for you. It’s a great bunch of people, passionate about making change happen.
- If you can afford to donate to the Thighs 2020 appeal, then I promise you that even the most modest gift will do things that simply wouldn’t happen without your contribution. Honestly. Like paying the motorway tolls so that a library van can get out of Athens to the refugee camp in Corinth. Without that handful of Euros, the van doesn’t go and the kids in the camp kick cans in the dust instead.