Open the borders for Syrian refugees!

Submitted by AWL on 4 March, 2020 - 10:22 Author: Pete Boggs
Syrian refugees in Germany

For a long time, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been "threatening" to open Turkey’s western borders, and allow the millions of refugees to travel to Europe.

Now he is upping the threats and raising the stakes. His aim is not to get better conditions for the refugees. It is to force Europe into greater support of Turkey.

Yet, with the renewed attacks on migrants, it is the responsibility of socialists all across Europe to challenge the racist anti-immigration laws being put forward by our governments.

In Britain the losses have far outnumbered the victories as Home Secretary Priti Patel tightens up restrictions under the direction of the hard-right Tory government. Even before Brexit the UK was one of the most restrictive countries in Europe for Syrian refugees. The UK had admitted only 10,600 refugees by late 2018, while Germany had admitted 770,000 and Sweden over 120,000. Now Patel wants to add extra fences and barriers.

Even the global total of the refugees from Syria, maybe six million, makes an entirely manageable number for Europe's relatively wealthy countries, with a total population over 500 million, to integrate. These refugees deserve a welcome and a chance to rebuild their lives, not barbed wire and persecution.

Turkey holds maybe four million refugees from Syria, and many more people are seeking to flee from formerly rebel-held areas of Syria now under attack from the Assad regime.

In March 2016 a deal came into effect between the EU and Turkey to hold the refugees in Turkey, in return for a payout from the EU to Turkey which was supposed to help provide maintenance for the refugees. Turkey helped to police the borders, and anyone found to have entered the EU through Turkey without having already undergone a formal asylum application process would be returned to Turkey.

Now thousands of people have attempted to gain access to Greece: at least 500 people have arrived at Greek islands including Lesbos. According to the UN at least 13,000 people were preparing to make border crossings on the weekend 29 February/ 1 March.

Greece’s response to this has been unwelcoming and violent. All international phone numbers in the vicinity of the border received a text from the government: “From the Hellenic Republic: Greece is increasing border security to level maximum, do not attempt to illegally to cross the border.”

They have cancelled all asylum applications at least for the next month, and fully armoured riot police have fired tear gas. Already one child has died when a dinghy capsized.

Erdoğan’s response to the migrant crisis, allowing millions of refugees from Syria into Turkey at a time when Europe has been beating up asylum-seekers and turning back boats in the Mediterranean, looks humane by comparison. However, refugees in Turkey have been banned from working, and restricted to specific areas which are often lacking in basic infrastructure. Ultimately they have been used as a political pawn.

In the Turkish state’s existential war against the Kurds (existential for the Kurdish people, that is) Syrian refugees have been forcibly and often violently resettled in north-eastern Syria as part of an attempt to change the predominantly-Kurdish nature of the region.

This latest episode of talk of opening the borders with the EU has also shown how the AKP will carry out its political plays at the expense of refugees’ safety and lives.

Erdoğan has revelled in taunting Europe with the threat of sending more refugees up against barbed-wire fences and truncheons of Fortress Europe. Süleyman Soylu, the AKP Interior Minister, tweeted the unsubstantiated claim that 76,385 have left Turkey through Edirne, which borders Greece and Bulgaria.

EU member states are not very squeamish about carrying out the brutalisation of migrants themselves, but for the most part their preferred method has been to outsource that work to authoritarian leaders, such as Sudan’s Omar Bashir and Turkey’s Erdoğan.

The deal with Turkey has been nowhere near as bloody as the Khartoum Process in Sudan and the broader Horn of Africa, where Libyan and Sudanese authorities have captured and tortured refugees. However, it still demonstrates the unwillingness of Europe to accommodate refugees, and their willingness of EU states to deport those who manage to slip through the cracks.

The background to all this is the beginning of full-scale conflict between Turkey and Syria, and a developing new surge of refugees seeking to flee across the Syria-Turkey border.

What had previously been limited to sporadic violence largely carried out through proxies has seriously escalated.

As I write on 2 March, about 100 pro-Assad soldiers (whether government troops or from other forces such as Hezbollah) have been killed in the last few days, following the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in the Idlib Governorate.

The big question for both powers is Russia, and what Putin will decide. Ostensibly, Russia is the central concern diplomatically for Syria and Turkey.

Since the coup which brought Hafez al-Assad to power in 1971, Russia has effectively acted as an overlord for Syria. That status has given Russia the warm-water port of Tartus, one of its few ports other than Sevastopol which are ice-free throughout the entire year, and its only access to the Mediterranean Sea. In return Putin has dutifully defended Bashar al-Assad, vetoing UN sanctions on Syria during the civil war, and Russian air support has been an important part of the war effort.

The situation is more complicated for Turkey. Putin and Erdoğan have been on opposing sides in conflicts in Syria and Libya, yet have consistently presented themselves as working together to bring peace to these areas. The TurkStream pipeline has been built as a joint project, bringing Russian national gas to Turkey and beyond to southern Europe.

Since the renewed fighting in and around Idlib, both Turkey and Russia have been more and more antagonistic towards one another, at least in words. Russia has said it cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish planes if they are flying over Idlib. It says that, when asked, Turkey refused to say where Turkish troops were so that Russia could exempt from attacks or push Assad to exempt them.

Turkey, on the other hand, says that they did give Russia this information, and holds Russia responsible for the deaths of Turkish soldiers in Idlib. As of yet, it is unclear whether any of the Turkish casualties have been directly caused by Russian forces.

The situation might become clearer after Thursday 5 March, when Erdoğan will visit Moscow.

The situation at home for Erdoğan is not disastrous, but it is not good either. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the secular nationalist opposition to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has made noises against the war and criticised the government over the deaths of "martyred" soldiers. However, only the left-wing and Kurdish-linked People’s Democracy Party (HDP) has been able to bring itself to vote against the government’s most recent parliamentary motion authorising the war.

The government has further tightened restrictions on social media since the end of February, and temporarily detained the editor-in-chief of Sputnik (a Russian-government funded news outlet) in Turkey.

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