Border walls symbolize a Europe where refugees are increasingly unwelcome

Refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their home countries are frequently met with barbed wire, suspicion and outright hostility when they land on the EU’s doorstep. (AFP)
Refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their home countries are frequently met with barbed wire, suspicion and outright hostility when they land on the EU’s doorstep. (AFP)
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Updated 15 January 2022

Border walls symbolize a Europe where refugees are increasingly unwelcome

Refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their home countries are frequently met with barbed wire, suspicion and outright hostility when they land on the EU’s doorstep. (AFP)
  • Thousands of migrants arrived on the Belarus-Poland border in late 2021 in the vain hope of crossing into Europe
  • Poland shut its borders in December with a 115 mile-long fortified wall, expect to cost nearly $300m when completed

JEDDAH: In the absence of safe and legal passage to Europe, refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their home countries are frequently met with barbed wire, suspicion and outright hostility when they land on the EU’s doorstep.

For several years now, the plight of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe has divided public opinion, throwing up competing narratives about compassion and national identity, while raising concerns over security and counterterrorism.

These divisions were brought to the fore in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, Sudanese, Eritreans and other nationalities made the perilous journey to Europe overland or by sea, often with the help of traffickers.

Many of these debates resurfaced in the closing months of 2021 after tens of thousands of people, predominantly from the Middle East, arrived at the Belarus-Poland border, camping out on the bitterly cold forest frontier in the vain hope of crossing into Europe.

Earlier in December, Poland shut its borders by building a 115 mile-long fortified wall, expected to be complete by June of this year at a cost of nearly $300 million.

Fortified border walls began showing up after the 2015 refugee influx, mainly from the Middle East. Hungary’s wall alone cost the EU over 1 billion euros.




A European Union flag waves behind barbwires at the new closed center for migrants in the Greek island of Kos on November 27, 2021. (AFP)

Similar fortifications have sprung up in Slovenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Spain and France, all with the aim of keeping migrants out.

The EU went from just two walls after the fall of the Berlin Wall to 15 by 2017, the equivalent of six Berlin walls. These new barriers reflect a general hardening of views against refugees in Europe.

INNUMBERS

* 26.6 million - Refugees globally as of mid-2021.

* 0.6 percent - EU population proportion who are refugees. (UNHCR)

Where once European leaders considered it a humanitarian duty to take in refugees, many now extract political capital from talking tough on illegal immigration. In the process, the issue of migration has become separated from the calamities that caused them to flee.

“It’s dehumanizing to say the least,” Wafa Mustafa, a Syrian journalist, activist and refugee living in Germany, told Arab News. “We can’t speak about refugees without talking about the reasons they became refugees.”

Mustafa’s father, Ali, a Syrian human rights activist, was arrested in July 2013 before disappearing into Bashar Assad’s notorious prison system. About 130,000 people are believed to be held in regime jails, where they reportedly endure torture and sexual abuse.

“We can’t ignore the fact that there are forces that push people to risk their lives, and those of their children and loved ones, that are more difficult than being left to die on the borders,” Mustafa said.

“I think the way the EU has been dealing with people stranded on its borders is a crime. We’ve been hearing about illegal entry as a crime, but I think that not allowing people to cross the borders and leaving them to die is the actual crime.”

Mustafa believes European politicians refuse to engage with the issue because “they would have to face the fact that they have failed at their jobs, and the international community failed to address the problem, in Syria’s case the Assad dictatorship.”




A member of the UK Border Force (R) helps child migrants on a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England, on November 24, 2021 after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. (AFP)

Witnessing this rush to fortify its borders, many could be forgiven for thinking the economic and social burden of the global refugee crisis fell mainly on Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the UN refugee agency UNHCR frequently points out, 85 percent of the world’s 26.6 million refugees (as of mid-2021) are hosted either in neighboring countries or elsewhere in developing regions. 

Turkey, for example, has more refugees within its borders than any other country — more than 3.5 million, or 43 for every 1,000 of its own citizens. Jordan has almost 3 million, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.5 million — more than 13 refugees for every 100 Lebanese.

By contrast, around 2.65 million refugees live among the EU’s population of 447 million.

After the Second World War, European states signed a raft of treaties designed to protect the rights of refugees, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1980 European Agreement on Transfer of Responsibility for Refugees.

Despite these commitments, European leaders and sections of the media have instead created crude narratives of “worthy” and “unworthy” migrants to help justify turning refugees away.

“This is a dangerous narrative,” Mustafa said. “We need to look at them as humans, hear their stories, and provide them with resources to deal with the reasons they came to Europe.”




Migrants aiming to cross into Poland are seen in a camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border on November 17, 2021. (AFP)

Abdulazez Dukhan, originally from Homs in western Syria, arrived in Greece in 2015 when he was just 17. It was there, while confined to one of the country’s overcrowded camps, that a volunteer gifted him a camera.

What began as a hobby soon developed into an illustrious photography career when he eventually settled in Belgium.

An exhibition of Dukhan’s photographs entitled “50 Humans,” held late last year in Brussels, set out to challenge the scapegoating of migrants and refugees, while demonstrating the positive contribution they make to multicultural societies.

INNUMBERS

Top 5 nationalities of first-time asylum applicants in EU (2020)

1. Syrian 63,600

2. Afghan 44,285

3. Venezuelan 30,325

4. Colombian 29,055

5. Iraqi 16,275 

* Source: European Commission/Eurostat

“Their backstories made them who they are, but I don’t dwell on their past,” Dukhan told Arab News. “I focus on their present, answering moral arguments in the most subtle of manners. Forget wars and conflicts and focus on the now. These are their true stories.”

Those opposed to accepting refugees often argue they place a burden on the economy, taking jobs and running down wages or scrounging off state handouts. However, studies have shown that societies with a shrinking working-age population tend to benefit from the arrival of younger migrants.

A 2021 working paper from the IMF, titled “The Impact of International Migration on Inclusive Growth,” outlined some of the longer-term benefits of welcoming immigrants.

“International migration is both a challenge and an opportunity for destination countries,” its authors wrote.

“On the one hand, especially in the short run, immigrants can create challenges in local labor markets, potentially affecting wages and displacing some native workers who compete with them. Their arrival may also impose a short-term fiscal cost.”

However, the report said that “especially in the medium and long run, immigrants can boost output, create new opportunities for local firms and native workers, supply abilities and skills needed for growth, generate new ideas, stimulate international trade and contribute to long-term fiscal balance, by making the age distribution of advanced countries more balanced.”

Nevertheless there is still a widespread perception in many European countries that new arrivals take more than they contribute. In reality, migrants receive little assistance from the state, forcing them to work hard to improve their circumstances.

“EU policies have made it difficult for immigrants and refugees, sticking labels on them. But that has not deterred them,” Dukhan said.




A baby is rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Maydayterraneo on board the Aita Mari rescue boat during the rescue of about 90 migrants in the Mediterranean open sea off the Libyan coast. (AFP)

“Those who are arriving have work experience, degrees and were vital members of their former communities, and they want to do the same in their newfound homes. Though their degrees might not mean anything in the new country, many won’t sit idly by. They will get up, study, work odd jobs and more.”

Despite the potential benefits of immigration, many Europeans remain troubled by the influx of foreigners. Through his exhibition, Dukhan hopes to challenge the myths and misconceptions about migrants and refugees, and show them in a more honest light.

“They’re not miserable people,” Dukhan said. “The media has played a major role in portraying them and downgrading them to a social experiment, placing them in a bubble to scrutinize and ridicule.”

As Europe strengthens its borders and anti-immigrant sentiment continues to find favor, reversing these entrenched perceptions may prove easier said than done.


UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit

UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit
Updated 6 sec ago

UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit

UN rights envoy defends controversial China visit
BEIJING: The UN rights envoy on Saturday said her contentious visit to China was “not an investigation,” and insisted she had unsupervised access during meetings in Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Michelle Bachelet’s long-planned trip this week has taken her to the far-western region, where Beijing is accused of the detention of over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, forced sterilization of women and coerced labor.
The United States has labelled China’s actions in Xinjiang a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” allegations vehemently denied by Beijing which says its security crackdown was a necessary response to extremism.
Bachelet has come under fire from rights groups and Uyghurs overseas, who say she has stumbled into a six-day Communist Party propaganda tour, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping in which state media suggested she supported China’s vision of human rights.
Her office later clarified that her remarks did not contain a direct endorsement of China’s rights record.
Speaking at the end of her trip while still inside China, Bachelet framed her visit as a chance for her to speak with “candour” to Chinese authorities as well as civil society groups and academics.
“This visit was not an investigation,” she told reporters, later insisting she had “unsupervised” access to sources the UN had arranged to meet in Xinjiang.
It is the first trip to China by the UN’s top rights envoy in 17 years and comes after painstaking negotiations over the conditions of her visit, which the UN says is neither a fact-finding mission nor a probe.
Bachelet this week visited the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar, according to her office, but no photos or further details of her itinerary have dribbled out.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said earlier this week that Bachelet’s activities were “arranged according to her will and on the basis of thorough consultations of the two sides.”
She planned to meet “civil society organizations, business representatives, academics,” her office said, but state media has only covered meetings with Xi and foreign minister Wang Yi, during which he gave her a book of Xi quotes on human rights.
Her trip has taken place under a “closed loop,” ostensibly due to Covid-19 risks.
The United States has reiterated its view that Bachelet’s visit was a mistake after the release of thousands of leaked documents and photographs from inside the system of mass incarceration this week, while the UK and Germany have voiced their concerns at the visit.

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law
Updated 28 May 2022

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law

Russian ex-president Medvedev calls for tougher ‘foreign agent’ law
  • Russia has legislation that labels groups and individuals as foreign agents if they receive foreign funding to engage in political activity
  • Dozens of Kremlin critics have been listed as foreign agents

DUBAI: Former president Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday called for Russia to toughen its laws on “foreign agents” and prosecute individuals working for the interests of foreign states.
Russia has legislation that labels groups and individuals as foreign agents — a term that carries Soviet-era connotations of spying — if they receive foreign funding to engage in what the authorities say is political activity.
Dozens of Kremlin critics have been listed as foreign agents, including journalists and rights activists, and many have fled abroad.
Medvedev, who now serves as deputy head of Russia’s security council, said the enforcement of the “foreign agents” legislation needed to be stepped up as Moscow carries out its military intervention in Ukraine and finds itself under unprecedented sanctions from the West.
“If they (foreign agents) are carrying out activities aimed against our country — especially during this tough period — and receive money for it from our enemies, our response must be quick and harsh,” Medvedev wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
He added that the legislation should more precisely classify “foreign agents” and impose stricter consequences for their offenses.
At present, those listed are subject to stringent financial reporting requirements and have to preface anything they publish, including social media posts, with a disclaimer stating that they are foreign agents.
Lawmakers said last month they planned to submit amendments to the law to add more restrictions, including on investing in strategic industries and working with children.
Medvedev also said he supported legislative initiatives to criminally prosecute “people working in the interest of a foreign state.”
His post began and ended with a reference to a 1960s Soviet television series set during the Russian Civil War of the 1920s, in which Medvedev noted that the hero was shot as a spy.


Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country

Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country
Updated 28 May 2022

Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country

Ukraine ex-president says blocked from leaving country
  • Petro Poroshenko, in power from 2014 to 2019, has made frequent public appearances since the war started

KYIV, Ukraine: The former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, said Saturday he was barred from leaving the country, accusing the government of breaking a so-called political cease-fire in place since Russia invaded.
Poroshenko, in power from 2014 to 2019, has made frequent public appearances since the war started, appearing on international television to offer commentary.
His European Solidarity party is the second biggest party in Ukraine’s parliament after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ruling party.
After Russia invaded, Ukraine’s parliament banned several pro-Russian parties, and allowed others to still operate under a so-called political cease-fire — a tacit understanding that all parties would put aside domestic political disagreements to unite against the war.
But on Saturday, Poroshenko’s office said he “was refused to cross the border of Ukraine,” accusing the government of violating the agreement.
“There is a risk that by this decision, the authorities have broken the ‘political cease-fire’ in place during the war... which one of the pillars of national unity in the face of to Russian aggression,” his office said.
Poroshenko was due to travel to a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Lithuania as part of the Ukrainian delegation, and had received official permission to travel.
He was due to meet in Vilnius with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and a group of European parliamentarians.
He was then to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a summit bringing together European political parties.


China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan

China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan
Updated 28 May 2022

China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan

China signs deal with Samoa as Australia vows Pacific Islands plan
  • China is building on a security pact it recently signed with Solomon Islands

SYDNEY: China’s foreign minister signed a deal with Samoa on Saturday to strengthen diplomatic relations, while Australia’s new leader said he had a “comprehensive plan” for the Pacific, as Beijing and Canberra continued rival campaigns to woo the region.
China is building on a security pact it recently signed with Solomon Islands, which has alarmed the United States and its allies such as Australia as they fear a stepped-up military presence by Beijing. Australia’s new center-left government has made the Pacific Islands an early diplomatic priority.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, sworn in on Monday, said on Saturday his Labor government’s plan includes a defense training school, support for maritime security, a boost in aid and re-engaging the region on climate change.
“We will be proactive in the region, we want to engage,” he told reporters.
China’s Wang Yi, on a tour of the Pacific seeking a 10-nation deal on security and trade, finished a visit to Samoa, where he met Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa and signed documents including an “economic and technical cooperation agreement,” Samoa said in a statement.
“Samoa and the People’s Republic of China will continue to pursue greater collaboration that will deliver on joint interests and commitments,” it said.
Also Saturday, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said he had a “wonderful meeting” with Australia’s Penny Wong, who had visited days after taking office to show the new government’s attention to the Pacific Islands.
“Fiji is not anyone’s backyard — we are a part of a Pacific family,” Bainimarama wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of himself and Penny Wong shaking hands.
Bainimarama appeared to be taking a veiled swipe at Scott Morrison, the conservative prime minister ousted in an election last weekend, who once referred to the Pacific as Australia’s “backyard”.
Climate change, which Pacific Island nations consider an existential threat, had been a key issue in the election.
Australia’s Wong has said that Canberra will be a partner that does not come with strings attached, while China’s Wang expressed hope that Beijing’s ties with the Solomon Islands could be a regional model.
Wang was headed to Fiji, where he is expected to push for the regional deal in a meeting he is to host on Monday.


Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east
Updated 28 May 2022

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east
  • A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in full

KYIV/POPASNA, Ukraine: Ukrainian forces may have to retreat from their last pocket in the Luhansk region to avoid being captured, a Ukrainian official said, as Russian troops press an advance in the east that has shifted the momentum of the three-month-old war.
A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in full. His troops have gained ground in the two areas collectively known as the Donbas while blasting some towns to wastelands.
Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said Russian troops had entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest Donbas city still held by Ukraine, after trying to trap Ukrainian forces there for days. Gaidai said 90 percent of buildings in the town were damaged.
“The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days as analysts have predicted,” Gaidai said on Telegram, referring to the area including Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River.
“We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to retreat.”
Russia’s separatist proxies said they controlled Lyman, a railway hub west of Sievierodonetsk. Ukraine said Russia had captured most of Lyman but that its forces were blocking an advance to Sloviansk, to the southwest.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was protecting its land “as much as our current defense resources allow.” Ukraine’s military said it had repelled eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles.
“If the occupiers think that Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian,” Zelensky said in an address.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said while Russian forces had begun direct assaults on built-up areas of Sievierodonetsk, they would likely struggle to take ground in the city itself.
“Russian forces have performed poorly in operations in built-up urban terrain throughout the war,” they said.
Russian troops advanced after piercing Ukrainian lines last week in the city of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have captured several villages northwest of Popasna, Britain’s defense ministry said.
Russian forces shelled parts of Kharkiv on Thursday for the first time in days. Authorities said nine people were killed. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In the south, where Moscow has seized a swath of territory since the Feb. 24 invasion, including the port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to impose permanent rule.
In the Kherson region in the south, Russian forces were fortifying defenses and shelling Ukraine-controlled areas, the region’s Ukrainian governor, Hennadiy Laguta, told media.
He said the humanitarian situation was critical in some areas and people were finding it very difficult to leave.
Police said 31 people had been evacuated on Friday from the Luhansk region, including 13 children.