Greece, Syrian Refugees and the Paradox of Humanitarian Intervention

There was a grim but essential story in last week’s Guardian, on the secret deportations of Syrian refugees by Greek police  across the Evros River border with  Turkey.   The Guardian described how a group of Syrians recently crossed the Evros.  Some members of the group drowned, others made it to Greece, intending to ask for asylum:

Instead, they were arrested by officers in “blue uniforms” and driven back to the river. “There were between 100 to 150 people by the river,” said Farouk (not his real name), a 29-year-old from the Qamishli region in northern Syria. “They were of many nationalities, mainly Syrian. Some tried to make problems: they had paid a lot of money to get that far. When that happened, the police beat them. The police kicked and slapped them, including the women, they picked up children and threw them into the boat.”

No one with any familiarity with the role played by Greece in enforcing the EU’s immigration restrictions over the last decade will be entirely surprised by such events.    For years, refugees and NGOs dealing with asylum and migration issues in Greece have accused the Greek authorities of secretly deporting asylum seekers in the Evros region and  also in the Aegean,  without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum.

These allegations include nocturnal deportations carried out by the army and police, in which migrants are rounded up at night and taken to the Evros, where they pushed into boats and dumped in Turkey. In the Aegean, there have been persistent reports of coastguard patrol boats driving back migrant boats across the maritime border into Turkish waters, puncturing their boats or confiscating their oars.

Such procedures are completely illegal under Greek and EU law, and have always been officially denied by the Greek government, as one might expect.   But Greece’s  ruthless treatment of migrants attempting to cross its land and maritime borders is not simply a consequence of the economic meltdown,  nor can it be attributed to rogue elements within the increasingly fascistic Greek police.

The European Union is also complicit in the transformation of Greece into a migrant dumping ground.   Deployments of the European Border Agency Frontex in the Evros border and the Greek islands are not just intended to stop migrants from entering Greece – these expressions of EU ‘solidarity’ are also designed to prevent Greek territory being used as a migratory portal to the rest of Europe.

These exclusionary efforts are aimed at both ‘ economic migrants’ and asylum seekers, regardless of where they come from.   And the fact that Syrians are now being turned away, despite the role played by leading European governments in fueling the mayhem in Syria, and despite the endless faux-concern expressed by these same governments for its victims,  reflects a recurring paradox in the principle of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that Western governments so often present to the public as a justification for the projection of military power in areas of strategic concern.

Whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria, proponents of interventionism routinely invoke images of death, brutality and civilian suffering in order to present bombings, invasions, occupations, covert wars and proxy wars as instruments of liberation and rescue.

But the West likes its victims to remain as virtual victims,  anguished faces on television screens that can make viewers squirm with guilt and support the sonorous ‘we cannot sit idly by’ pronouncements from politicians and a guilt-ridden commentariat that likes to imagine its governments engaged in some morally uplifting act of violence, somewhere,  for someone,  that can make it possible to enjoy a Fleet Street liquid lunch with a clear conscience.

In the discourse of interventionism, the victims we wish to save are often represented as collective abstractions such as the ‘Syrian people’, the Íraqi people’ or ‘ Afghan women’, in order to mobilize the public or at least reduce it to headshaking acquiescence and unquestioning passivity.

But God forbid that these abstractions should actually want to come to our countries. When that happens they become ‘ illegal immigrants’, parasitical intruders, a drain on public services, or a threat to our cultural identity and ‘social cohesion.’   In their own countries,  they may – indeed they must – suffer so that only we can save them, and the public is invited to feel just enough empathy with their plight to approve the next missile strike or Special Forces op.

Over here, their suffering becomes dubious and the motives for their migratory journeys automatically become suspect.  Are their claims to asylum are ‘genuine’ ? Were they really the same people we saw on tv?   Or are they in fact ‘ economic migrants’ taking advantage of our generosity?   Do we have the resources to deal with refugee ‘floods’ and ‘invasions’ when our governments are struggling so hard to take car of ‘ our own people’?   Are their countries actually as dangerous, violent and insecure as they say they are?

Proximity always raises such questions and complicates issues that always seem so simple and morally unambiguous when confined to the distant victim-countries of the Western imagination.

That was how it was – and is – with Afghanistan and also in Iraq, where even translators who had worked with Coalition forces found their asylum appeals in Europe rejected because Iraq was conveniently declared a ‘safe’country.   It was the same thing with Zimbabwe, when the Labour government introduced stringent new visa requirements that were specifically intended to stop Zimbabweans from coming to the UK to escape Mugabe.

And then there was Gaddafi. Even as our governments were bombing the hell out of Libya in order to ‘save lives’, politicians in Italy were warning of the danger of  a ‘Biblical exodus’ of refugees from North Africa.  In the UK William Hague – one of the most fervent advocates of humanitarian intervention in both Libya and Syria – declared unequivocally that refugees from the Arab Spring would not be welcome in the UK.

At least 600 people drowned attempting to reach Europe during the Libyan Civil War, some of whom were abandoned or ignored by the NATO ships and helicopters that were engaged in the humanitarian effort of bringing down Gaddafi.  Now a similar paradox – or should I call it duplicity – is evident in European attitudes towards Syria.   As long as Syrians suffer and die within their own borders – or in refugee camps close to them –  they remain worthy and useful victims.

But as soon as they come here, they cease to have any use at all.   And that, not the Greek economic crisis, is the real reason why Syrians are being sent back across the Evros River.