Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.

December 8, 2015

Refugees in Europe

Thousands of refugees have been stranded in Europe’s eastern border zones the past few weeks in increasingly abysmal conditions and with no hope of advancing on their journey. Why? Because they happen to come from the “wrong” country. UUSC is working with partners on the ground to ensure refugees’ right to seek safe refuge no matter their country of origin.

Refugees being left out

On November 17, four Balkan countries — Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia — began closing their borders to anyone who could not prove Syrian, Afghani, or Iraqi nationality. Thousands of people with extremely serious protection needs are being denied asylum as a result. Some of the excluded refugees are people who lost their legal documents in flight (an all too common occurrence when people are running for their lives). Others are children born in exile or people who have been displaced from multiple conflicts in the Middle East (including many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who are coming from Syria).

Thousands of refugees entering Europe do not originate from one of the three “approved” countries (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) but have just as urgent a need for protection. These include Yemeni children who have fled Saudi bombs and forced recruitment into rebel armies in their native country, Iranian survivors of torture and persecution, and countless others from Pakistan, Libya, Eritrea, Morocco, and elsewhere. Such refugees are resorting to desperate measures to convey to the world the urgency of their plight: last week, one group of Iranian refugees sewed their own lips shut in protest.

Reports from UUSC partners on the ground

The result of blocking out thousands of desperate refugees has been foreseeably calamitous. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding at the small Greek village of Idomeni, close to the Macedonian border, where as many as 3,000 people have been stranded at facilities equipped to house only a fraction of that number.

Praksis, UUSC’s new partner, is one of a handful of organizations providing food and medical care to this population, so far in the absence of any help from the Greek government or the European Union (EU). Praksis recently reported to us the appalling conditions their staff are witnessing on the ground in Idomeni:

“Many people are sleeping and waiting on the ground, the camp extending to the fields nearby while temperatures during night drop below zero. To heat themselves, refugees put into the fire all kinds of litter and the atmosphere is covered by a choking black cloud.

“Furthermore, there is increasing tension between ethnicities, including a protesters’ blockade that delayed the crossings. Tension has culminated since the death of a 22-year-old Moroccan who climbed a wagon because he had no proper place to sleep and died of an electroshock from the electric wire of the railway infrastructure. Conflicts rise among those who can pass and those who cannot. Desperation and anger are taking over.”

Meanwhile, the Asylum Protection Center, UUSC’s partner in Serbia, reports witnessing a striking decline in the number of people entering the country via Macedonia the past few weeks, due largely to these draconian new restrictions.

Discrimination: illegal and immoral

Refugees have a universal right under international law to cross borders and fairly present their case for asylum on an individual basis. In the words of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which all EU member states are party, every government must apply this right to asylum seekers “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin” (Article 3).

To exclude asylum seekers solely because of where they come from or what papers they carry is not only against the law — it is also deeply immoral. It leaves out of consideration thousands of refugees who are in imminent need of protection but who don’t come from approved countries. It tears apart families who are of mixed nationality. It further marginalizes stateless people, who are already uniquely vulnerable on the migration trail because of their lack formal recognition. Finally, as our partners at Praksis are already witnessing on the ground, discriminatory policies cruelly pit different ethnic groups of refugees against one another, despite the fact that they are all survivors of the same kinds of violence at home and are experiencing the same long journey to safety.

Immediate responsibility for these unjust policies falls to the Balkan countries that have implemented them, but other Western governments bear a portion of it as well. EU leaders have so far completely failed to condemn the border closures; nor have they yet managed to craft a coherent resettlement plan to equitably provide for refugees across its member.

Meanwhile, many U.S. politicians are deliberately contributing to a toxic anti-refugee rhetoric that makes draconian border restrictions like these possible. In the immediate wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, more than two dozen U.S. states said they would not accept resettlement of additional Syrian refugees. In the past few weeks, the governors of Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all directed state agencies to refuse resettlement support to any people from Syria who are referred by federal authorities, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Texas this week relented on its anti-refugee stance, but Indiana’s Mike Pence is continuing to defend his blatantly discriminatory policies.

UUSC’s response

UUSC upholds the right of all people to seek asylum across borders, irrespective of their place of origin or documented status. That is why UUSC is partnering with following organizations:

  • Praksis in Greece to ensure decent reception conditions for new arrivals
  • The Helsinki Committee in Hungary to reunite refugee families
  • The Asylum Protection Center in Serbia to provide comprehensive mobile aid across the migration trail
  • The Center for Peace Studies in Croatia to provide long-term resettlement support to refugees

In all aspects of its response, UUSC seeks to protect the rights of people on the margins of society, to decriminalize migration, and to ensure refugees have power over their own destinies.

This article was written by Josh Leach, intern for UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program.

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