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Opinion: Europe has lost its soul at the border

Jaafar Abdul Karim
March 5, 2020

More and more migrants and refugees are gathering along the Turkish-Greek border. They are desperate — but Europe seems to have forgotten about its own core values, says DW's Jaafar Abdul Karim.

Jaafar Abdul Karim interviews a refugee in Berlin
Jaafar Abdul Karim interviews a refugee in BerlinImage: DW/J. A. Karim

The events unfolding at the Turkish-Greek border are making me lose my faith in Europe. Whatever happened to those fine European values this continent and its people claimed to uphold — like the principle that human dignity shall be inviolable? A principle that, to me, epitomizes German and indeed European Leitkultur — or "common culture." Germany's constitution, after all, enshrines that every person is entitled to the same rights, no matter their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, identity or ethnicity.

But here, in the small Greek town of Kastanies bordering Turkey, this principle counts for nothing. Whenever I travel to the Middle East, I tell people that Europe and Germany — where I have chosen to make my home — while not perfect, certainly uphold the principles of human rights. But now I'm starting to lose my faith in that claim.

Read more: DW examines new migration tension between EU, Turkey

Europe is losing its soul

I'm disappointed. On the Greek-Turkish border, people's human dignity is being violated. Here, along the EU's southeastern external border, Europe is losing its soul.

Greek border guards are firing tear gas at children and infants. Refugees and migrants have reported that Greek security personnel beat them, forcing them back to Turkey. For some inexplicable reason, we are not affording these desperate women, men and children the human dignity they deserve.

We must not let this inhumanity become the new normal. Preventing refugees from crossing into the EU means crossing over into the realm of the inhumane. Europe prides itself in showing solidarity and tolerance towards people who have lost everything. But do these values count for anything if we only afford human rights to some, but not all of those who are now waiting to enter Europe? Human rights are universal — we cannot be selective. Human rights exist to protect the weak and desperate from despotism. 

Greek security forces use tear gas on refugees and migrants at border between Turkey and Greece.
Greek security forces use tear gas on refugees and migrants at border between Turkey and Greece. Image: picture-alliance/AA/H. M. Sahin

Read more'We have no other choice': Afghans stranded at Greece's gates

Protecting the desperate

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is cynically instrumentalizing the refugees at the Greek border for his own political ends. I'm not surprised that Erdogan, who scorns democracy, would do something like this. But what about the EU, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for its human rights record? The EU is planning to notify Erdogan that he should refrain from using refugees to blackmail the bloc. And EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for his actions, describing Greece as Europe's protective shield.

But here at the border, I see no threat to Europe. All I see are desperate, freezing, poor, hungry people, who left their home countries in search of a better life. We don't need protection from these people — they need ours! 

DW Jaafar Talk Moderator Jaafar Abdul Karim (Teaser)
DW's Jaafar Abdul Karim: "What has happened to Europe's cherished human rights?"

Greece has suspended all asylum applications for a month. The UN has criticized the country, saying it has no legal basis for doing so. Even so, the Greeks insist they won't accept asylum applications. I always thought all EU member states must uphold the rule of law. This step, therefore, leaves me speechless. Claiming asylum is a human right, after all!

People should at least be allowed to submit their applications. After that, it will be processed and decided whether or not to grant asylum. Suspending this right, without legal justification, is a clear breach of human rights. It sends a fatal message to Europe's far-right, especially after right-wing extremists attacked NGO staff and journalists on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Read more: Are Germany and the EU prepared for a new influx of refugees?

Not far off from the far-right

Ostracizing others, and selectively picking people of certain heritage, religion or skin color is inhumane. This approach to immigration means we are essentially doing what Europe's right already advocates — we are, in others words, not far off from what right-wing lawmakers like Weidel, Höcke und Orban champion.

Nobody flees from their home country unless they absolutely have to. Nobody would leave if they had work, if they lived in peace, and if their children could attend school. How can a few thousand people on Europe's doorstep let us ignore or forget the values we supposedly hold so dear?

Germany's Greens have called on the government to take in 5,000 refugees — unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, women without friends or relatives, and seriously traumatized individuals — currently stranded in Greek refugee camps. But the German parliament, the Bundestag, will not even agree to this. We could someday find ourselves in their desperate situation – so why are we not helping them?

'Playing ping-pong with people' – DW's Julia Hahn reports from the Turkish border with Greece

We should provide immediate humanitarian assistance, then carry out identity checks and assess who qualifies for protection. But instead of acting, EU leaders are looking the other way, and transferring €700 million ($785 million) to Greece to bolster its border. Meanwhile, with every day that passes, more and more people gather on Europe's doorstep — among them ill and traumatized children and women.

What has happened to our cherished European human rights? I refuse to lose faith in them. I want to continue traveling to the Middle East and be able to say, truthfully, that Europe does indeed stand up for human rights.

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