For the past three months we’ve been working with refugees in Turkey. Apart from four days in March where I was at the Greek- Turkish border, I am currently working from my apartment in Vienna.
I could tell you so much. I could tell you so many stories about the thousands of people in Turkey that I’ve been in touch with since March, all of which were forced to leave their homes one way or another and had hoped to build a new life but are now left with nothing at all.
Day and night I am faced with the fate of these people. They are running on empty. These are people who would have loved nothing more than being able to be at home in peace. People that had to leave everything behind because they simply could not stay any longer. Around the clock I receive messages. “We are on the street, what shall we do? We have two small kids.” “We don’t have any food left and we already owe 1000 Lira to our supermarket. Can you help us?” “I was pushed back from a hospital in Greece. I had a car accident, had an operation and have an external fixator on my leg. The Greek police took all my money. I don’t have money to pay for a doctor. What shall I do?”.
Messages of people who used to be teachers, journalists, DJs, construction workers, nurses, students. People who lost everything - their home, relatives, perspectives.
People that no country wants to take in.
I often cry while sitting on my desk, reading their messages not knowing whether I should be grateful for my apartment and my passport or ashamed of them.
The EU and Turkey (and other countries on the other side of the external border) are pushing these desperate people back and forth like chess pieces - consistently outdoing each other in their cruelty.
People who have not committed any crimes and are only looking for a place to live in peace are being abused, beaten, robbed and humiliated. Instead of being able to exercise their right to apply for asylum, they are being treated like criminals. Their fate has been accepted for a long time through denial of assistance due to political considerations. At this point, they are actively being killed by authorities.
The EU has been unable to find a solution for so long that the situation is escalating all across our borders now. Malta imprisons people on boats and enlists criminals to push them back to Libya. Croatia is tagging people like livestock before the pushbacks. Bosnia criminalises refugee aid. Greece has passed a secret budget for push-backs and started pushing back registered asylum seekers before the first-instance decision in their asylum procedures. In those push-backs, they are almost always beaten and robbed, often left with nothing but their underwear.
Politicians in Europe have fueled hatred and xenophobia for so long that we have returned to a point in history where some people’s lives are considered unworthy, in fact they are viewed as subhuman.
This may sound exaggerated. But how else is it possible to explain the fact that denial of assistance has become official regulation? How else is it possible not to save people on a sinking boat, but to shoot at them with live ammunition? How else is it possible to pick someone up from the hospital right after an operation and with an external fixator attached to their leg, put them in a boat and send them over to Evros?
At the same time, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, the large international organizations who should actually be taking care of refugees are withdrawing more and more. The increasing burden has to be borne by small civil society initiatives - and these too are increasingly being criminalized, which has been the norm in the Mediterranean for years already, now applies on land as well.
In Germany and Austria, attacks on businesses and associations of people with a migration background have increased so much that there is no longer an outcry. While the human right to asylum is de facto suspended, authorities of EU Member States are committing crimes on a daily basis, increasingly brutal and degrading. If media reports about it, they are officially discredited as propaganda for the neighbouring country and named an enemy of the state - regardless of how much evidence they have to back their reports up.
History has taught us more than enough times what happens when people are denied their humanity. Whether South Africa, Rwanda or Nazi Germany: the beginnings were similar, and the end was terrible.
There have been moments since March - which now feels like an eternity - when I thought about opposition and resistance. When does one become the other? Resistance begins at the point where opposition is criminalized. And we have already passed this point. Not in all of Europe and not yet made official everywhere. But, after years of criminalization of sea rescue as well as arrests and bans of aid workers in several EU countries, the move in Bosnia is just another step towards absolute criminalization.
In the summer of 2015, it was inconceivable that all of this would be possible one day. In the following years, this trend became clearly recognizable, but the hope remained that we could still turn things around. The past few months have shown that Europe (incorrectly) considers refugees no longer just as a burden to pass on to other countries, but as second-class people who are not entitled to the human rights that we claim for ourselves and are so proud to show off.
But human rights are and must be universal, inalienable and indivisible. If we no longer just fail in practical implementation, but also theoretically debate whether they should be restricted for some, then the step towards the abolition of the human rights conventions is only a tiny one.
"It is better for me if this world ends" a Moroccan in Istanbul wrote to me today after we talked about what is currently happening at the European borders. The European Union, Nobel Peace Prize laureate which likes to portray itself as the cradle of human rights, is abolishing its own principles - and thereby itself.
Human rights violations are never justified - not in the times of Corona or at any other time. Neither now, nor at any point in the future can we sit by and watch while people seeking protection are being violated. We want a solidary, a just and open Europe. If we do not succeed in that, Europe as we know it will soon cease to exist. We all, each and every one of us, need to fight for that, every single day.