“Instead of selective humanitarianism, Europe should protect the rights of all asylum seekers and refugees.”
by Laila Khondkar
My home country, Bangladesh, is presently hosting around one million Rohingya people who had to flee Myanmar after the genocide in 2017. Around ten million Bangladeshis lived as refugees in India during our liberation war in 1971. One of the biggest sources of income for Bangladesh is the remittance sent by labor migrants in different parts of the world. I have lived in several countries for work and studies, and have experience of working with the Rohingya population in Bangladesh and refugees from Ivory Coast in Liberia. So, the concerns related to refugees and migration is not only a matter of theories to me or something that happens to other people in the news; this is also very close to my heart.
Intensive Summer Course on Migration and Refugee Studies (7-30 July, 2023) was offered by The François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, in collaboration with the Refugee and Migration Studies Hub at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Attending the course has been a rewarding experience.
The objective of the course was to offer participants both conceptual and practical engagement with key issues related to contemporary forced migration. The course was organized around a multidisciplinary, rights-based curriculum that covered legal, medical, environmental and broader social-science approaches to migration policy and practice. The course included lectures, seminars, interactive class sessions and fieldwork (e.g., visits to camps, simulation on rescuing asylum seekers). It was held in four sites–Athens, Ancient Olympia, Nafplio and Lesvos. Twenty-seven students participated (half of them were from Harvard and half from other Universities across the world). Expert lecturers included distinguished scholars and practitioners from different disciplines and backgrounds: human rights lawyers; medical doctors; social workers; psychologists; educators; child-protection officers; first responders, and national and local governmental actors. Visits to Ancient Agora, the Acropolis, Ancient Olympia and a performance of Medea at Epidaurus theater (2500 years old) were part of the course. We covered a lot of issues during three weeks. I want to highlight a few points that struck me as important.
Having a discussion with two fishermen in Skamnia village was very inspiring, as they rescued people in 2015 when several million asylum seekers reached Greece by boat. Many ordinary people like them tried their best to support those who arrived. According to one fisherman, “We did not think of the race or religion of the person seeking asylum, we just wanted to do our best.” Even when public support to asylum seekers has decreased significantly, I appreciated the initial assistance the local communities have provided. We also met representatives of around ten NGOs that are offering legal, shelter, and other services to refugees and asylum seekers. They seemed very committed and trying to work hard despite funding constraints.
Presently there are an estimated 160,761 refugees and 22,139 asylum seekers in Greece. Asylum seekers have to live in camps on islands. There are few camps on the mainland; those are also quite far from the cities. We visited two camps, one close to Athens and another in Lesvos. The camps are not as crowded as they used to be at the peak of the crisis a few years ago, and the people living there receive food, shelter and some protection services. The visits were guided by the staff of the camps, and we did not have any opportunity to talk to the asylum seekers or organizations working with them. It was not possible for us to verify what we have heard and so I do not know about the quality of the services, or how the asylum seekers are being treated by the staff. The mobility of the asylum seekers is very strictly monitored and there is a strong presence of security guards. In Lesvos, we learnt that the asylum seekers will be moved to another camp which is being built inside a forest. Most of the people we have spoken with consider that camp as a prison.
Those who register as asylum seekers and receive refugee status face a bleak situation. They lose all support and have to earn a living. Most refugees living in urban settings are unable to find work to support their families, as Greece continues to struggle economically in the aftermath of the 2015 financial crisis. The Greek government has been cutting back housing and financial support for refugees since 2019, which means thousands of people are facing destitution and homelessness. I have seen entire families begging on the streets of Athens.
High unemployment rates have taken a toll on the local population as well. A robust integration program is needed to ensure that local residents as well as asylum seekers benefit from assistance. Even when the presentations made by the government representatives emphasized integration of refugees, my observations as well as discussions with people from refugee backgrounds made me think that what is happening is cultural assimilation. Refugees, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, are not able to assert their identity in terms of food, drinks, clothes etc. due to the fear that they will not be accepted by mainstream society.
This is not a humanitarian crisis, but a political one. The European Union adopted border restrictions that have prevented people seeking sanctuary from entering Europe. The EU’s policies mean that Greece, along with Italy, are being asked to shoulder much of the responsibility for the lives of those who have reached Europe. The European Union is giving money to these countries, but they need to do more by accepting refugees.
The refugees from Ukraine were given temporary protection immediately by various European countries. This demonstrates that it is possible to address an issue if there is a political will to do so. Why were Ukrainian refugees treated differently than people from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq? All were fleeing from dangerous situations. The media reporting of the Ukrainian crisis clearly showed biases towards “white Europeans.” Roma people from Ukraine faced discrimination in various countries while seeking asylum. Every human life is equally valuable. Europe should be more consistent in protecting human rights.
During various discussions, it was apparent that it is due to Islamophobia that asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries face discrimination in Greece. Greeks have memories of the Ottoman empire for almost three hundred years, which is deep rooted in their collective psyche. Many still equate Muslims with Ottomans/Turks, and they do not like the Muslims or are “afraid” of them! What bothered me was that this narrative is so normalized as if it is “justified.” One academic said, “Greek people need more time before they can accept Muslims.” This type of attitude is quite alarming, as xenophobia and Islamophobia may increase with time if those are not addressed in a proactive way through policy, legislation, public awareness, etc.
Migration is as old as human history. However, some passport holders travel more freely than others in the present world. It is worth remembering that more than 75% of all refugees and asylum seekers live in neighboring countries in the Global South. Do Western people realize this? Climate crises, conflicts etc. will make many people flee their own countries. There has to be a process to support them. With declining fertility rates, Europe will need more migrant workers. People try to reach Europe illegally, as going there legally is almost impossible for most people. Having regular migration may be beneficial for all concerned.
The rise of right-wing politics in Europe is a matter of grave concern. The process of “othering” that they do regarding refugees and asylum seekers is dangerous. Is Europe trying to send a very strong signal to the asylum seekers (especially those from Muslim backgrounds) that they should not try to reach Europe? Will Europe continue to practice selective humanitarianism?
The writer is grateful to ClassACT HR73 for funding her participation in the Intensive Summer Course on Migration and Refugee Studies.
**It should be noted that Laila’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of ClassACT HR73.