Politics & The World

In 2015, Michael Lüders wrote a seminal book on the hypocrisy of Western[1] politics in the Middle East. Allegedly driven by Western ‘liberal values,’ interventions from outside powers have been anything but constructive, leaving the region in a much worse, much more chaotic situation than before. Taking Lüders’ major claim as a guiding narrative, it is difficult to not see how the current quagmire in the Middle East, the growth of failed states, violent conflicts, the refugee crisis and the surge of terrorism are largely Western, self-inflicted dilemmas. This does not imply that the illusive concept of the West as a superior state order is responsible for the long list of terrorist attacks over the last months. However, without any doubt, the bottom line is that Western countries, first and foremost the United States, bear a great responsibility in creating their own enemies and accelerating chaotic circumstances and radicalisation.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The first fallacy of several American governments and their European allies has been to distinguish between “the good and the evil” among conflict parties in the Middle East. Policymakers claim to understand the local culture and political situation and choose local leaders to be “evil” where deemed appropriate. It’s a process chain that has been largely repeated on various occasions, probably starting with the ousting of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran 1953. Mossadegh had been a democratically elected chef d’état, and Iran was thriving as a showcase of liberties in the whole Middle Eastern region. Largely unknown to most of the public nowadays, the US and the UK were the main instigators behind the regime change in Tehran, putting into place a puppet government (led by the Shah), which catered to British and American economic interests in the country. Guaranteeing foreign domination of Iran’s oil sector for twenty years while neglecting the local population created a breeding ground for anti-US resentments among ordinary Iranians. Numerous are those who believe the Islamic Revolution of 1979 could have been prevented/would probably not have happened without the Western interference in Iran. As if history repeats itself, the same naming and shaming of evil leaders recurred on various occasions, from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Qadaffi in Libya to Assad in Syria. Former US President George W. Bush coined a famous phrase when speaking of ‘the axis of evil’.

The West is always the best

Of course: contrary to the evil, Western forces feel the need to represent enlightened values and disregard their own severe mistakes (that have cost the lives of thousands of innocent people in the region). They feel empowered to impose sanction regimes (as in Iraq and Iran) – which – by the way – never led to the envisaged regime change and improved social/political climate. Instead, Iraq is a horrific case where a society of well-educated people, including some of the best doctors and scientists in the Middle East, was destroyed by an externally-sanctioned regime. Throughout the 1990s, the country was so badly hit that at times even first-aid mechanisms and vaccinations for childhood diseases were missing. Western ignorance also surfaces when it comes to the choice of “friends” in conflicts in the Middle East. While cooperation with Russia was always seen as an option of last resort, supporting dubious proxies on the ground was done without the blink of an eye. Blatantly, the American decision to dissolve all armed forces of Saddam Hussein and replace them with an Iraqi army of their own liking pushed thousands of former soldiers into the arms of more radical forces such as the Islamic state. Equally opaque, US weapon support to allegedly moderate Islamist forces ended up arming Jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war. The Islamic State would not have been able to acquire such weapons without indirect, unintended American assistance.

The axis of instability

Speaking of an axis of evil has been an American narrative, and the war against terror has been continued by Barack Obama with much smoother language, using drones and surrogate warfare without any ‘boots on the ground.’ Hypocritical positions by consecutive American administrations have magnified the situation. Take Egypt, a de facto military dictatorship, tolerated by all Western forces for reasons of stability and even financed with trillions of dollars (making it the largest rentier state on earth). Take the Gulf States, whose citizens often finance radical Islam in the region, but who are still best partners, mostly Saudi Arabia. Or the Israel-Palestine conflict, which the West has considered for a long time as so one-sided pro-Israel that the real underlying problem has not been understood.  Could it be worse? Well, the EU has admitted to its own ambivalence and narrow-mindedness by adopting a far more distanced, differentiated neighbourhood policy towards Middle Eastern countries.  Accepting one’s own mistakes, not forcing one’s own views on states in the region are some first steps to be taken … but from the American side there is no such thing to be expected in the near future. There’s a new President about to be elected, either a candidate that wants to abandon NATO and pull back all American troops. Or an expansive agenda by the less radical, yet still belligerent democratic candidate, which could lead to new tensions/errors in the Middle East. Finally, supporting the Arab uprisings has been the right and only choice by Western countries, but not following up afterwards has been a cardinal error, as the crumbling state structures in Libya and Iraq demonstrate. The reality is that the Middle East resembles an axis of instability stretching from Syria to Libya, and the US remains invested in all major conflicts – without a clear idea where this investment will lead to.

 [1] The „West“ is here understood as a concept delineating mainly the United States and its allies in Europe – all countries which claim to support liberal democracy, rule of law etc.

inspired by:  Michael Lüders (2015): Wer den Wind sät: Was westliche Politik im Orient anrichtet. German Version.

photo from flickrccl.

Politics & The World

On 20 March 2016, the siblings Javid and Nahid Raoufi and their friend Abdul Majid Rahimi arrived on the Greek island of Chios after having fled Afghanistan via Turkey. Upon arrival, they were detained in the so-called „Hotspot“ of Vial, an EU-initiated registration facility for asylum seekers converted into a detention centre. There, they had to endure abhorrent detention conditions: neither did they have access to medical care nor was the food sufficient or of acceptable quality. The sanitary conditions were appalling, with frequent cuts in water supply and extremely dirty toilets and showers.

Their story is not only one about personal suffering, but about the EU abandoning its commitment to human rights and international protection in the name of migration control. The day Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi reached Chios, the EU-Turkey statement of 18 March 2016, known as the EU-Turkey Deal, entered into force. It declares that any irregular migrant arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey will be sent back. This includes asylum seekers with inadmissible or unfounded claims. In exchange, the EU promised to resettle one Syrian from Turkey for every Syrian returned and to put in place a humanitarian scheme to take in more Syrian refugees from Turkey. The EU furthermore pledged to provide 6 billion € to support Syrian refugees in Turkey and to allow Turkish nationals visa-free entry into the Schengen Area. It is probably not very contentious to state that deporting asylum seekers to a country which hosts 3 million refugees, is mired in civil war and governed in an increasingly authoritarian fashion can hardly be considered a policy of providing international protection in a spirit of solidarity. What is more, the implementation of the deal raises serious questions as to its compliance with human rights and EU asylum law.

At Vial, Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi claimed asylum and on 19 April they filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. They claim that they had not been informed of the reasons for their detention, that their detention was arbitrary and that they did not have access to legal aid or representation. Greek law allows for the detention of asylum seekers of up to 25 days with a possible extension of up to 3 months. The current policy appears to be to detain anybody arriving irregularly on the Greek Aegean islands for 25 days and then to release them with a restriction order, limiting freedom of movement to the island concerned, but the three claimants have been detained for longer. The complaint also alleges that the detention conditions at Vial amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. The claimants’ reports in this regard have been confirmed by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch: In both the open and the detention sections of the “Hotspots”, extreme overcrowding forces people to sleep on the floor and in small tents. The hygienic conditions are extremely poor, with toilets overflowing and feces covering the surrounding floor. Medical care is either absent or insufficient and asylum seekers report frequent violent clashes and high levels of sexualized violence and harassment, which the Greek authorities did not provide protection against. Frequently, women, families and unaccompanied minors are not provided separate accommodation.

This state of affairs violates EU asylum law and the European Convention on Human Rights in multiple ways. Under the EU Reception Conditions Directive, detention of asylum seekers must be based on an individualized assessment. It may be applied only if a less coercive measure would not be adequate and if it is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim. The policy to automatically detain all asylum seekers violates these requirements. Furthermore, both the EU Reception Conditions Directive and the European Convention on Human Rights require that detainees must be informed about the reasons of their detention and be granted the possibility to challenge its legality before a judge – this did not happen in the case of Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Furthermore, the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment; the EU Reception Conditions Directive grants asylum seekers an adequate standard of living which guarantees subsistence, protects mental and physical health and, in any event, covers basic needs. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that detention conditions in Greek detention facilities for asylum seekers amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment – the claimants had been detained in overcrowded facilities under appalling hygienic conditions, without access to showers or clean toilets. Judging by the complaint of Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi as well as NGO reports, EU funding and support have not prevented the same deplorable and illegal detention conditions from materializing in the „Hotspots“.

Besides the illegality of the detention practice, the plan to return asylum seekers whose application is declared inadmissible to Turkey raises serious legal issues. This part of the deal is applied via admissibility interviews on the basis of which the Greek Asylum Service determines if Turkey is a safe third country or a first country of asylum for the interviewed asylum seeker – the logic being that a person for whom this is the case can avail themself of protection in Turkey.

For a country to be a safe third country under the EU Asylum Procedures Directive, there may neither exist a risk of persecution nor of serious harm, e.g. through torture or armed conflict. Furthermore, there must be no risk of a further deportation to a situation where such risk exists and there has to exist the possibility to apply for refugee status and to receive protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention. For a country to constitute a first country of asylum, the applicant must have been granted refugee status or enjoy an otherwise „sufficient protection“ in that country. It seems logical to assume that the requirements for such sufficient protection should be as demanding as they are with regard to the safe third country standard.

As of 15 June, the Greek committees that decide on the appeals against inadmissibility decisions of asylum claims have denied that Turkey is a safe third country in 70 out of 72 cases. This is because there are NGO reports about mass expulsions of asylum seeking Iraqis and Syrians to their countries of origin from Turkey as well as about violent rejections of asylum seekers at the Turkish borders. Furthermore, the committees doubt that the temporary protection status which Syrian refugees are granted in Turkey amounts to protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention, as it is often only granted with unacceptable delays, does not allow for access to the labour market and is only of temporary nature. Non-Syrians can obtain a „conditional protection“ status – however, this hardly seems to be applied in practice. Against this backdrop, returns to Turkey cannot be considered safe, although the Turkish government has provided assurances that deported Syrians will be granted temporary protection and that other returned persons will be protected from deportation to a situation where their life or liberty would be at risk. The appeals decisions demonstrate that the Greek institutions are capable of providing an independent scrutiny of the deal’s implementation. But as they call into question the entire scheme, they also put the Greek administration under enormous political pressure to overcome this obstacle to a smooth execution of the deportations.

The EU Commission maintains its assessment that Turkey is a safe third country and that the temporary protection available to Syrians amounts to protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention. It welcomed a recent reform which changes the composition of the Greek appeals committees and scraps a second hearing before the appeals decision – ostensibly to speed up proceedings. Most commentators however fear that the recomposition of the committees will undermine their independence; in an open letter, members of the previous appeals committees accused the Greek Migration Ministry of recklessly trying to clear the way for mass deportations to Turkey.

Hence, the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal violates EU asylum law and the European Convention on Human Rights in multiple ways: with regard to the legality of the detention of asylum seekers in Greek „Hotspots“, the appalling detention conditions and the assumption that asylum seekers can safely be returned to Turkey. This has not hindered the deal’s implementation, although article 2 of the Treaty on European Union declares respect for human dignity, human rights and the rule of law to be amongst the EU’s founding values. The EU and its member states seem content to betray their values, as long as this brings down the arrivals of asylum seekers at their shores. It is people like Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi who bear the cost. Ms Raoufi reportedly intented to commit suicide twice since being detained.



Simon Rau also published this article already in March on the Mercator Blog: https://nefia.org/blogs/Simon-Rau/The-implementation-of-the-EU-Turkey-Deal-betrays-European-Values

Politics & The World

  • From Istanbul, reports Sebastian Franzkowiak

Fans of Game of Thrones or House of Cards are used to incredible turns and twists in the series’ plots. Violence, intricate power games and cold-blooded calculations are constant features of those shows and shed a negative light on politics. What is going on in Ankara might be increasingly seen as one of the latest episodes developed by writers for HBO or Netflix. Taken to the extremes, Turkish politics are also a game, with an aspiring Sultan trying to impose his rule over his realm. Let’s take a look at an anecdote from last week to clarify:

The leading article in Günes, one of the most government-friendly Turkish newspapers, blamed the recent bomb attack in Istanbul on Germany, which had allegedly not been able to ‘cope with the harsh Turkish reaction’ to the Bundestag’s recent resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Subsequently, President Erdoğan announced an ‘action plan against Germany’, publically denouncing the members of German parliament of Turkish origin as co-conspirators with terrorist forces in Turkey. When most German newspapers criticised Turkey’s reaction and direct attack on the parliamentarians, the Turkish narrative went so far as to present this as a clear proof that press freedom in Germany was under threat.

Conspiracies like this are as recurrent as is the public bemoaning of officials of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who feel notoriously disadvantaged and discredited by alleged ‘enemies’ from both within and outside Turkey. We are not in the realm of fictional TV series, but paradoxically it appears that as the discourses by Turkish politicians become increasingly unpredictable and absurd, the AKP rules the country as unchallenged as never before. What is going on in Turkey, a country that was cherished as the rising regional force in the Middle East, a growing economic power and as some tend (or would like) to forget, which is still an official EU accession candidate?

A self-inflicted predicament

Part of Turkey’s current predicament is self-inflicted. Take the Kurds. One year ago, the pro-Kurdish HDP landed a major election success by entering Turkish Parliament. For the first time since thirteen years, the AKP had failed to win an absolute majority in the legislative elections. Observers were hoping for a more peaceful Turkey that could leave the past violence behind it. Instead of a continuous armed conflict between the militant Kurdish wing (PKK) and the Turkish army, Turkey’s Kurds would get the chance to use Parliament as an arena to assert their political rights. What an illusionary thinking.

One year on, HDP-Parliamentarians have a hard time in Turkey. Erdoğan did have two choices when the Kurdish party won a considerable number of votes in summer 2015: accommodating them in a coalition government or re-launching the conflict and scheduling new elections. The AKP managed to regain its absolute majority in the newly held November 2015 elections, and is now stronger than ever before: recently, the immunities of Kurdish parliamentarians were lifted and Erdoğan replaced the too critical Prime Minister Davutoğlu, with a less critical figurehead (Yildirim). The establishment of a semi-presidential system with a strong presidential mandate for Erdoğan seems to be a palpable vision. The Sultan-like personal empowerment strategy however happened at the expense of the peace process with the PKK and the conflict resumed increasing levels of violence.

Turkey in 2016 is a different country than it was only a year ago. You can literally feel that something is in the air when strolling through the streets of Istanbul. On Istiklal Street, the major shopping avenue, a suicide bomber had blown himself up in March 2016, inflicting the death of five tourists and many more wounded. It was another heavy blow in a chain of deadly attacks throughout the country that had started in autumn 2015, and already the second one in Istanbul including foreign tourists in 2016. Although life in a metropolis like Istanbul must go on, people are anxious about Turkey’s fate – as the country now faces the threat of both the Islamic State and Kurdish extremists willing to use bomb attacks for their political goals.

Failing in Syria and beyond

Turkey’s foreign policy failure in Syria is the major factor behind the Turkish predicament. While Turkey does a great job hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in the Syrian conflict is constrained by opposing any solution involving Al-Asad. Moreover, uneasiness with the growing autonomy of Syria’s Kurds has put Ankara at odds with the United States, who favour the Kurds as effective fighters against ISIS. Ankara’s preferred solution – regime-change, will most probably not manifest itself in the near future. Too many things are at stake in Syria, and the global repercussions of the proxy-war mean that any final solution is beyond Turkey’s capacity to act. Furthermore, as long as Ankara does continue targeting PKK positions instead of decisively fighting ISIS, rumours about ties between ISIS and the AKP will not cease. Some officials speak of Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’ in the Middle East, as Turkey would arguably benefit from having stood with the people that rose against autocratic regimes in the region in the long run. Realistically speaking, this is a strategy to mask failure to the Turkish public, particularly in Syria.

Arguably, the aspiring Sultan has to be careful that the wind does not blow too harshly from all sides. Despite Erdoğan’s conviction to ‘fight terrorists until the end’, and despite the apparent stability of the governing AKP, the actual prospects of a stabilisation of the situation are very unclear. Turkey appears to be in a flummoxed state. Usually, cordial ties with allied countries should be a top priority for Ankara. Messing up the relations with major international players – Russia, the US and now Germany to name a few – is not in the long-term interest of the government. Because finally, while there is some truth in the idea that especially the EU needs Turkey to manage the refugee crisis, Turkey also depends on its allies in terms of trade and investment relations. At worst, disenfranchising allies and purporting absurd discourses might reveal that the apparently stable house of cards can be knocked down. If Erdoğan does not recalibrate his risky posturing, a very long winter might be coming for Turkey.


cover image: flickr_cclicense

Politics & The World

There is not much that we can be certain about. One thing though seems pretty certain to me: that we live in troubled times. Not because us Westerners face any true hardships, but because it appears to me that these days many decisions need to be taken that will deeply affect generations to come. Proponents of historical path dependency will interject that this is always true. Maybe so.

Anyhow, we now face many great challenges: climate change, a situation in the Middle East and beyond where state failure is the norm, unprecedented migration, and terrorism – to name just a few. How we handle these challenges will be decisive for how we will live in the centuries to come. Liberal democracy claims to be the pinnacle of political systems, yet so far its response to the challenges mentioned above is anything but effective or even remotely close to well deliberated.

During the last weeks I made some experiences that have led to deep frustration with how our politicians behave.

A week ago Friday and Saturday some close friends and I walked the streets of Brussels in complete disbelief. Police and military personnel everywhere – everywhere! Armed to the teeth! In front of Brussels Centraal stood a military vehicle that looked like something from Jurassic Park. Sirens. Flashing blue lights. A drunk guy ran past us at some point screaming: “C’est la guerre! C’est la guerre!” (“This is war!”). While we were strolling through the comparatively empty streets of Brussels, we were making jokes about all of it. Maybe that was our way of handling it. But a day later, it really hit me. What is going on? State of emergency had always been an abstract concept to me.

Then, last Thursday, in Berlin, I was watching the news in which German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was being interviewed. She was asked whether Germany was now at war. The decision to deploy German troops to support the pseudo coalition fighting ISIS in Syria had just been made. Von der Leyen replied that this was not war since it is not two states that are fighting each other – let that sink in.

So here is the German Minister of Defence claiming that there is not a war going on against ISIS or at least that the German support does not constitute an act of war. Either she has never heard of Mary Kaldor’s concept of “new wars” or she is knowingly lying to the public, both of which would be equally scandalous.

Friday, as I was boarding my flight to Frankfurt my anger at the current situation turned into plain, numbing shock. My mom, standing beside me asked the man in front of us if they maybe knew each other since his face seemed familiar to her. He said that he was a member of the Bundestag, the German parliament, and that she might know him from TV. They exchanged a few words and then he turned to me. So, we started talking. I present to you the end of our conversation.

Yannic: “So what’s it like at the Bundestag at the moment? High alert?”
MP: “No, everything’s normal.”
Y.: “Oh ok. I was in Brussels last weekend.”
MP: “Shit was hitting the fan there.”
Y.: “Yeah, it was crazy. I have never seen anything like it. [I elaborated on my experience, see above]
MP: “It truly is crazy what is going on. [pause] And every day new ones are coming. We need to shut the border now!”
Y.: “And then what? The refugees will be stuck at the border.”
MP: “Good. That’s the pictures that should be going out to the world. The message must be: don’t come.”

No more words were spoken between us. My mom and I exchanged glances of disbelief. I will not name the MP, but I will say that he was a member of the CHRISTIAN Democrats.

So why am I telling you all of this? For me the following became clear:

  1. We are in a state of emergency – in many respects.
  2. There are leading politicians who are either uneducated in their main fields of activity, deliberately deceptive, or both.
  3. There are parliamentarians who seem to be ignorant of the fact that the Paris attacks were conducted by EU nationals, not refugees and that these refugees are fleeing the very same terror that has now reached EU soil. Or even worse, they are aware of this, but still choose to conflate the terrorism and migration discourses for reasons of political opportunism.
  4. My faith in democracy is deeply shaken by all of this. Who are we electing? Do we need a more elitist government? Isn’t it the time for experts, technocrats?

Troubled times indeed. And troubled times produce troubled minds. Let me know what you think about my observations. How are you experiencing our democratic systems these days? Isn’t it time for radical change?


Image by Patrick Willemark, taken from flickr


Politics & The World

I will not add the French flag filter on Facebook to my profile picture. I am not putting a picture of the Eiffel tower with the hashtag #prayforparis. I will not write condolensces to the victims, will not endorse the public outrage with the events that took place in Paris. Before you condemn me about being apathic about these events, I would invite you to read further as to see exactly the reasons why I take this stance.

It doesn’t mean that I am not shocked by those events or that I don’t care about what happened. I just find it hypocritical that people add the French flag filter on their profile pictures and think that in this way, they are showing solidarity. Can someone explain to me just how is this solidarity?

Or is something else the reason for this social network phenomenon?

Being the guy that I am, I had to find out just why some of my friends changed their profile pictures to endorse the French flag filter. Most common answer was, of course, because what happened in France was shocking and terrifying.

I had a question for them at that point, and would like to ask you, our dear readers and followers the same thing:

Did you know tat militants and suicide bombers from ISIS performed a very similar attack in Lebanon two days before the Paris massacre? Did you know that at least 40 people were killed in Beirut, over 200 were wounded?

Did you know that on the 3rd of April 2015, 147 people were killed in the Garissa University assault in Kenya? Al-Shabab militants stormed the University, killed two security guards and then started shooting and indiscriminately killing students.

Where was Facebook on these occasions? Why wasn’t there an option to filter the Lebanon or Kenya flag on our profile pictures? And although I hate being vague, I have to in order to ask the following: Are the French lives worth more than the ones in Kenya or Lebanon?

Where was the Facebook community on these occasions? Why weren’t there hashtags #prayforkenya or #prayforlebanon? How were these attacks any different from the one in Paris? How were they not as shocking or not as terrifying as the one in Paris?

Or is it our hypocrisy that we only feel solidarity towards things that happen in Europe or USA,  in these so-called lullabies of civilisation?

Another thing I would like to point out. A really fair argument was brought up by one of the Republican party president candidates of the USA. The person in question is of course, Donald Trump, who said:


‘People are getting their heads chopped off. They’re being drowned. Right now it’s far worse than ever [than it was] under Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi,’ […]

‘I mean, look what happened. Libya is a catastrophe. Libya is a disaster. Iraq is a disaster. Syria is a disaster. The whole Middle East. It all blew up around Hillary Clinton and around Obama. It blew up.’


Needless to say, I realize the fact that he is trying to blame the Middle East situation on the Democrats and Obama, because he is actively trying to rack up the votes. But, he wasn’t wrong.

ISIS was created after the war in Iraq. Now it is spread and active in other countries as well, namely Libya and Syria. As we all know, the war in Iraq has proven to us time and time again that it was a mistake. After overthrowing Saddam Hussein, Iraq hasn’t been transformed into a democratic community. Things have even deteriorated.

The West forces led by USA and UK were adamant, a country led by the dictator Hussein is evil and should be disposed off. Little that they know, after the disposal of Hussein, a far greater and more vicious evil was born.

Isn’t it a bit weird and even ironic that France and Europe are now trying to fight ISIS? After all, they are one of the parties that helped them, not much different than the USA (ironically enough) helped Al-Qaeda in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980’s.

Let me answer that for you. It is not weird. It is not even ironic. It’s just.. karma. The only problem is, it is not the politicians who are paying for their past sins. The people who died are paying for the sins of their politicians. Innocent lives were lost. Where is the justice in that? Why isn’t there a public outcry for this?

I would like to be clear again: I do not urge you not to change your profile picture and endorse the French flag filter. On the contrary, if you really feel the need to do so, then please do. But if you really feel solidarity, don’t let it stop there. Don’t get swept in this social network frenzy because ‘it looks good’ or because ‘it will generate likes’.

Try and understand that we live in a world that is involved with war every single day. Thousands of lives are lost every year due to military struggles. Let it be known that you care about each and every one of them, not just the ones that come with a social-network agenda behind them.

Let those lives be worth more than a hashtag. Let those lives be worth more than a filtered profile picture.

Image by Christiaan Triebert, taken from Flickr.

Campus Europe Goes BalkansPolitics & The World

by Ivan Šuklev

July 25th, 2015. Five thousand refugees are desperately trying to enter the city of Gevgelija, a city that lies on the border of Greece and Macedonia. Their goal is to continue their long journey from the hells of Syria to their final destination, the paradise of Germany and Western Europe. On their way stands more than 2000 km of road, police brutality, negligence, President Orban’s well known stance and… corrupted Balkan politicians.

In the news nowadays, people can hear a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis that has hit Europe. How they escaped in order to live, how General Assad is killing his own people with his politics, how some of them may be terrorists in disguise sent from ISIL, how precarious their journey is (hint: remember the boy that drowned?) and how their arrival to Germany is a dream come true. But let me tell you a story that you won’t find in any of the news stations. Let me tell you a story in which you will understand just how this crisis has helped some of the politicians in the Balkans get rich, and not a single one of the Western European news agencies reports about this. After all, everyone knows that it’s all about the money, right?

As a guy who was born in the city of Gevgelija, I am well familiar with the ways of public transport. A bus ticket to Skopje (70 km from the Serbian border) is about 7 €. A train ticket costs even less, 3 €. This is because of the fact that Macedonia is a country that has a very, very low living standard (minimal pay check: 180 €/month) and ergo, the prices for public transport are very, very cheap. Except for refugees.

Several days ago, reports have surfaced which said that Macedonian police has acted upon the refugees stationed in the camp of Gevgelija with brutality. As a guy who is highly sceptical of every news agency, I decided to talk with some people who live closely to the railway station in Gevgelija (the refugee camp in Gevgelija is about 1-2 km from the railway station) and also to some local taxi drivers. What I found out was absolutely stunning.

The taxi drivers expressed their disgust towards the police and the local authorities in Gevgelija because the police was stopping them to transfer refugees from Gevgelija to the border with Serbia. This statement seemed pretty absurd to me, because after all, in the news reports every Balkan politician has said that they want to help the refugees to get to Germany. So, why did the local taxi drivers  come up with this frankly ludicrous accusation?

And yet again, the answer was – very simple. Money. Unknown to me or to the rest of Western Europe apparently, the prices for public transport are different if you are a refugee. Bus ticket to Skopje? 30 €. Train ticket? 25 €. Maximum capacity of a bus – 50 to 70 people, depends on the type of the bus. An actual bus filled with refugees – 100 people! Maximum capacity of a train with wagons – 400 to 500 people. An actual train filled with refugees – 800 people! And the local taxi drivers have also said that they witnessed how the police has boarded the refugees on the trains using police brutality and force. I insisted on seeing these busses with my own eyes. When I arrived at the railway station, I saw at least 20 busses parked, from 20 different firms, and not a single one was a public transport company. Not a single one has ever before showed up at the bus station and not a single one has ever made a transport from Gevgelija to Skopje. Then it all added up.

The Macedonian politicians from the government (a government widely known to be an authoritarian and in some instances even totalitarian) had sent these busses and trains because they saw an opportunity of a tax-free material gain. According to the local taxi drivers, at least 4 trains part from Gevgelija every day filled with refugees. That’s about 3200 refugees. A ticket costs 25 €. Daily, that’s about 80.000 euros. No receipts are being issued for the tickets, so these numbers are just speculative. They could be much, much higher. Daily, about 5-6 busses part from Gevgelija to the Serbian border. Roughly about 500-600 refugees. Around 15.000 to 18.000 euros per day.

And this continues on a daily basis. The local taxi drivers are stopped of doing what they are supposed to do (some were even beaten by the police for trying to stand up to them) and their hopes of getting actually paid to do what they are supposed to do – shattered. A taxi driver that looked resignedly at his fate told me in his final sentence: ‘That is just the way things happen around here. Not much we can do about it.’

So next time when you hear a report in the news in which it is stated that many refugees entered Germany or any other country in the EU, think about the fact that around 90% of them passed through Macedonia. Think about the money that went into the pockets of the corrupted Macedonian and Balkan politicians (Serbian and Croat politicians are accused of using a similar transporting scheme). Think about the horrors that the refugees had to endure. Think about the fact that in the Balkans, they had to survive a hell not much different from the one they escaped from.


Image by Fotomovimiento, taken from flickr

Politics & The World

by Arne Langlet

As it becomes ever more apparent that the current handlings of the crisis is unsustainable, policy makers are by now finally agreeing that is it the so called “root-causes” of the crisis that be tackled to in order to control and stop the flow. If the EU wants to succeed in fighting the current crisis, it has to implement changes now. Both, the creation of better legal entrance possibilities for refugees, as well as a the introduction of “European value codex” would be crucial steps on this way.

Violent incidents in refugee camps have started to occur more regularly, with reports of refugees discriminating, threatening and fighting other ethnic or religious groups increasing. How is it surprising that a bunch of men in their twenties, crowded together without chance to work, without clear legal status bored to death after a journey where they had to bite their way through, become violent?

In these situations, religion is a strong tool to regain dignity, and thus it is no wonder that it plays an important role in many of the incidents. Yet, Europe must make clear that no kinds of violence – especially along ethnic, sexual or religious lines – can be accepted.

Although the ratio of violent incidents may be very small, it managed to create a real feeling of fear among many European communities – and this fear, even if mostly unfounded, must be taken seriously. Not least because these emotions have increasingly bigger political effects.

If one wants to ease the public tensions with regards to refugees, declaring such fears as “ridiculous” does not help, but merely pushes those people into the arms of populists to claim to care. Instead, those fears have to be met in a constructive and comprehensible way.

The Syrian war has been going on since 2011. For four years relatively few refugees arrived, while most stayed in refugee camps around Syria, where each year the food was becoming scarce while the hygiene worsened. This shows that the act of traveling clandestinely from camps in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey to central Europe is certainly not a comfortable and easy decision for most, but rather a last resort. It is taken only once the hope of a return to their homelands is destroyed.

As the journey is expensive and dangerous (also due to corrupt politicians on the Balkan), it also applies a clear Darwinian selection. Syrians without financial resources are almost sure not to get anywhere. Furthermore, 69 per cent of all arriving refugees are young men.The trip requires physical and emotional strength, it might include running for hours and resisting physically against police or other refugees. And here lies the big problem.

These men in their twenties learnt that you can only reach the destination illegally and if you have the money, the physical strength and possibly the ruthlessness to make the dangerous trip.

Hence, one of the first necessary changes would be to cut the element of the illegal journey, and to allow refugees to apply for asylum directly in their home country or in the refugee camps in the surrounding countries. With this measure, the EU could gain control again, and implement proper registration (ideally determining destination countries beforehand, according to a fair allocation key – but that’s a different discussion).

The EU is aiming at a similar direction by installing so called Hot-Spots, however only inside or directly at the EU’s borders. Yet, these spots would have to be as close as possible to Syria, to have the best effect.

Also the business of human-smugglers could be destroyed with this. Even though the proposed system would not give all applicants the immediate chance to enter the EU, it would foster the hope that doing so will be possible not only legally and cheaper, but also together with the whole family. This would ease the pressure of the flow and avoid new mass departures. Would you rather risk everyone’s live and all your savings now, or wait another few months or even a year to get to Europe legally? In the end, this would also buy Europe time to solve the real root causes!

Secondly, refugees could be obliged to sign a “codex” upon entering the EU, binding them to European basic values. It might be naive to assume that everybody would strictly adhere to the principles, but still a moral burden to adhere to them would be created, serving as a constant reminder. Furthermore, the alleged problem of refugees not knowing the local rules beforehand would be solved.

While the current system shows them that only illegal actions are rewarded, this could teach them that acting according to the legal system is rewarded instead. While some might argue that this would mean forcing “our” norms on them, it should be clear that respecting the very basic values of European society can be expected of all those who arrive. Everyone who enters this society is aware of this, and there is also no alternative.

The content of this codex would represent the basic European values of diversity, tolerance,  and equality of all ethnicities and religions – thus also creating an interesting public debate to truly determine and codify what we perceive as common European values. This would increase awareness and foster European identity.

The proposed measures will not automatically solve the situation but could buy us time to solve the real root causes, while facilitating the job of social workers on the municipal levels.


Image by Josh Zakary, taken from flickr