Arab Spring Migrants Reveal Contradictions in Europe’s Policy
Refugees fleeing nations such as Syria and Libya that are still in turmoil have come to a head with European policies seeking to shut down or tighten their borders in response to the flood of evacuees.
This makes the recent passage of UN Refugee Day, on June 20, particularly poignant. Critics of Europe’s responses have pointed to the uncomfortable contradiction between applauding and at times actively helping Arab movements topple their dictators while not taking in the expected refugees from political unsettlement.
Ad Melkert, the United Nations Special Envoy to Iraq, called for European countries not to shut out refugees or migrants “but recognize what is happening in the Arab countries. They are our neighbors and therefore we have to support them. Not only by letting people in who have nowhere to go, but also by investing in the region. That's the only way to prevent people from fleeing on irresponsibly rickety boats.”
Though migrants from North Africa, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have been fleeing to Europe on ‘irresponsibly rickety boats’ for decades, Melkert argues that the very nature of the pro-democracy uprisings—and in some cases Europe’s role in them—means that Europe must take a new approach to helping refugees.
“These developments will change the face of society on this part of the world,” said Melkert, and how Europe is involved in this is crucial. Libya is a particularly apt example. Britain and France supported the use of NATO forces to help the Libyan rebel movement fight Muammar Qaddafi but, even after NATO accidentally bombed civilians on more than one occasion, have continued to resist taking in any refugees.
Instead, tens of thousands of displaced Libyans have fled the violence into Turkey or taken risky paths to make it into Europe where, in the age-old migrant story, they see more economic opportunity. And in an age-old response, European countries have closed their borders.
“I had an idea of what Europe was – a place where human rights are important,” Eritrean refugee from Libya, Terefa Girou, told the Independent UK. “How can Britain and France be so cruel? They bomb Libya and when people flee they make us live like this.”
Emily Arnold-Sernandez, executive director of Asylum Access, says the narrative that every refugee from the Arab Spring is swelling into Europe is not quite right. In fact, only a very small proportion of refugees fleeing conflicted areas ever come to Western countries – less than 1 percent of people that fit the official description refugees ever arrive Europe or America.
Arnold-Sernandez’s organization works with refugees in countries of first response, like Turkey, where refugees are likely to be held in limbo for months or years—the average time of exile is 17 years, she says, and in that time many people aren’t allowed to work.
As the Arab world turns its back on factors that have defined its political landscape for decades—dictatorships, an electorate without real power—will Europe also turn its back on its defining struggles like immigration and inter-European fighting?
While the answers seem to be pointing to no, progressive journalists hope that the European tide may turn, much like the Arab tide did.
“Doing anything useful in the Arab crisis requires a European response. Handling refugee migration can't be done alone,” argued Jackie Ashley in the Guardian UK. “The "Arab spring" is a vindication of people power, which isn't fuelled by religious extremists. The EU may be infuriating but it is a successful longterm experiment… Didn't someone back then talk of having nothing to fear but fear itself?”
Yana Kunichoff is a staff writer for Campus Progress.