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Oxfam: EU border closures worsen humanitarian crisis with people used as bargaining chips

A decision to shift the EU’s responsibility for refugees to Turkey would see the bloc bargaining its core values and abandoning fundamental legal obligations. Such a decision, which leaders may make this week, would set a dangerous precedent that human rights don’t matter anymore. Already European border closures and restrictions are dramatically worsening the humanitarian crisis for refugees and migrants living in desperate conditions from Greece to Macedonia and from Serbia to Sicily.

In a joint letter to EU leaders, Oxfam, the Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and 17 other leading agencies that work directly with refugees and migrants in Europe are asking the member states meeting at Thursday’s summit to respect the fundamental rights of refugees and learn lessons from the last year that a containment approach to migration costs lives. Since 2014, about 7,500 people have died at sea, many of them children.

Oxfam’s migration policy lead, Sara Tesorieri, said: “The decision to ‘end’ the Balkans route is a piece of political theater in which the European Union has pandered to domestic politics at the expense of its values. It doesn’t solve the real crisis of people arriving in Europe. There is no doubt that the European Union and Turkey should work together, and they need each other. However, the proposed horse-trading between Turkey and the EU uses human beings as bargaining chips. When they meet on Friday, EU and Turkish leaders need to put people’s rights and safety first.”

Vincent Koch, Oxfam’s Regional European Migration Response Coordinator, said: “Women and children are sleeping outside in freezing, wet and muddy conditions. Food and clean water are in short supply, and diseases, such as Hepatitis A, have appeared due to the deplorable conditions. These people are driven by a simple motive: the search for safety and the desire for dignity.”

In the Balkans, closed borders have forced tens of thousands of people into makeshift camps without access to essential items for survival such as shelter, food, health care and water. The situation has also made it harder for humanitarian organizations to reach areas quickly. Border guards are reportedly assessing refugee status on the basis of 10 minute interviews and in Sicily, new arrivals are receiving expulsion notices without having access to any information.

Ann Mary Olsen, International Director in the Danish Refugee Council stated “We are witnessing a terrible domino effect in Europe. There is a great risk that large refugee camps will spring up in the countries on the outskirts of Europe. It is a huge problem that people are being denied the chance to have their asylum claims processed and that people are being rejected based soley on their nationality rather than protection needs. The proposal will leave refugees with no other choice than to seek alternative dangerous routes in the hands of smugglers. The refugee crisis cannot be solved by closing borders. We need to stand together to ensure a dignified treatment and protection of refugees in Europe. It is not borders that need protection – it is the refugees.”

Elements of the proposed deal in its current form would potentially violate international law and people’s fundamental rights, including the right to claim asylum. Turkey is already hosting more refugees than any other country, about 3 million people, and is already overwhelmed. Any agreement reached must guarantee basic safeguards and services such as education, healthcare and employment.

Jane Waterman, Executive Director IRC-UK and Senior Vice President Europe, is quoted as saying: “The proposals in their current form risk pushing people into the hands of smugglers and traffickers on increasingly dangerous routes. It is entirely possible to properly manage borders without neglecting basic legal and moral obligations. The EU has the capacity to manage this situation effectively and humanely, but it needs to show the necessary courage and political will. It’s time to focus on protecting people, not closing borders. European leaders need to live up to their moral and legal obligations and do much, much better.”

EU leaders should agree to new ways to provide safe and legal routes for people in need of protection, including issuing humanitarian visas, large-scale resettlement programs and the application of family reunification policies. Europe has a right to control its borders, but above all has an obligation to manage migration in a humane way.

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