March into madness – European chaos, and a tentative Syrian ceasefire

Reading Time: 15 minutes 29 2016 was not the greatest day in European history.

Fewer than two months into the new year, and just six months since the last time a European government’s police fired on unarmed men, women and children at its border, desperate people fleeing violence and terror had, once again, cast the world’s richest political bloc into political, legal and practical chaos.

In its West, police fired teargas at refugees at the Jungle camp, near Calais, in an attempt to ‘clear’ a section of the single worst refugee camp I have ever visited, at the behest of the French government which was, in turn, being leaned on by that of the UK.

In its East, police fired teargas at refugees – once again, innocent men, women and children – at Greece’s border with Macedonia: the second time Macedonian police have been ordered to commit that shameful act in just six months.

In central Europe, the Greek ambassador to Austria had already thrown some possessions into bags and returned home, after the latter nation had organised a meeting at which it and several Balkan states agreed limits on numbers of refugees they would allow to cross their borders – all without even inviting Greece, where the vast majority of those refugees land.

This was a particularly shocking first – the only time an EU member had ever recalled its ambassador from another member state.

And on the same day, UNHCR reported that according to its figures, 130,110 men, women and children had arrived in Europe since 1 January. Of those, 120,565 had arrived in Greece, almost as many as the total number of people to have arrived in Europe between 1 January and 30 June 2015.

Europe is in chaos. Violence at either end, and political mayhem in between, is playing out against a backdrop of an increasing number of desperate people searching for a place to be safe, to shelter from bombs, bullets, torture and terror.

For anyone reading this outside of the UK, this is an extremely sensitive time to talk about European ‘failure’. The country is set to vote in June on whether to leave the EU altogether. Even of those who argue it should remain, many claim it should be allowed to become a more ‘detached’ member, somehow remaining part of the scheme without having to accept some of its components.

But the reason I say that the EU has failed is not because it cannot cope. In fact, no other organisation, including individual states, is better-placed to meet the challenge Europe and millions of refugees now face.

It is because it has not been allowed to cope: because its members have voted against each proposal presented to them. It is because, in short, the EU’s response to the international refugee crisis is the clearest proof possible that individual states, acting unilaterally, are simply unable to respond to international crises. All that approach has delivered is chaos.

It is, admittedly, easy to lose sight of this central fact.

At Calais, for example, where the Jungle houses more than 6,000 people, it can be tempting to focus on the legal background to the clearances which have taken place this week (starting in earnest on 29 February, and continuing the following day) and the violence which has followed.

Because ten ngos and pressure groups – as well as 250 refugees who signed and put themselves forward as part of the motion to oppose the clearance – had argued that not only did the refugees have nowhere else to go, but that the plan would have seen several social areas – at least one youth centre, a mosque and a church – smashed to the ground as well as a vast number of tents crushed.

Their request for a court order was refused, but only when combined with a specific order from the judge that no communal areas could be destroyed under the clearance, raising significant questions both about the legitimacy of the original clearance plan, which had been waved through by the French Parliament, and about what exactly it would mean if a church, a mosque and several youth centres stood, isolated, after all the nearby tents had been ‘cleared’.

Predictably, faced with the threat of being forcibly moved on, many of the Jungle’s ‘residents’ chose to defend their temporary homes. They threw projectiles as police advanced, and French officers attacked them with teargas. Several fires started in tents – shelters which serve as actual homes for whole families at the Jungle – and volunteers were prevented by police from extinguishing them.

There are a number of reasons why people at the Jungle decided to defend their ‘homes’. Among them were a desire to defend possessions – and in some cases children – that they had been given too little time to protect.

But another was undeniably that those who knew their rights well enough to understand it, realised that accepting accommodation in France would be used against them by the UK government in any attempt they made to enter the UK.

However, by far the most serious reason was also the most simple: no-one had anywhere to go.

The French government promised that there would be no ‘forced expulsions’ but the same government’s plan was to evict people who did not want to leave the Jungle – unless to enter the UK – and transport them to another part of the camp, or to other parts of France.

In the first case, by 28 February, there were only 140 spaces left elsewhere at the camp itself, while in the latter, only one bus was on site through the whole of 29 February. The government’s plan – approved by the court – is to evict a minimum of 1,000 people (the government estimate) and up to 3,450 (the estimate offered by volunteers and camp ‘residents’).

The wild divergence in estimates of exactly how many people the French government is working to evict is in itself an indication of a continent-wide problem. Simply, no-one actually knows. No-one is certain how many people are at the Jungle because there have been no efforts made by the French government – or the UK government, whose responsibility comes from the fact that the people at the camp want and are being denied the right even to apply for asylum in the UK – to register and respond to need at the camp.

Nor is the trouble likely to stop once this eviction has been carried out. The French government proposes to clear all but 1,500 of the 7,000 or more men, women and children from the Jungle by the end of March.

The UK government, which has consistently prevented people at the camp from even applying for asylum in the UK, has also been consistent in its pretence that the matter can be solved by ‘improved security’ – armed police, fences and dogs, in other words – and has constantly pressed France to ‘prevent people leaving France’.

The results of that policy have so far been months of horror, including violence, fire, disease and death, for thousands of innocent and desperate people. On 3 March, it announced a policy of ‘more of the same’, pledging an extra £17m to ‘help France’ deal with a ‘migrant problem’ that is at least as much the UK’s problem ass it is France’s.

At the other end of Europe, UNHCR’s estimate that by 29 February just over 130,000 people had entered Europe by sea remains just that – an estimate – because no-one can be certain exactly how many people have made the sea crossing. UNHCR is doing what it can with the figures available to it – the people who wish to be seen on entry to the EU, in effect – but it cannot and should not be counting people in.

The chaos in Eastern Europe, which as noted above has now seen armed police firing on unarmed men, women and children at one border crossing point twice in the last six months, built at the end of February to the Austria meeting, on 24 February.

Representatives from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, met politicians from Austria under the laughably-titled ‘Managing Migration Together’ meeting, to discuss a ‘new’ approach to the crisis.

Though these ten states can justifiably claim to be experiencing several effects of the crisis – making up, as they do, the so-called ‘Balkan corridor’ route by which the majority of people who land in Greece travel to Germany – it is notable and shocking that neither Greece nor Germany were invited to attend. It is also impossible to understand how one can claim to ‘Manage Migration Together’ but exclude the place where most refugees are landing and the destination most travel to.

To put this ‘oversight’ into perspective, not only have more than 120,000 people entered Greece in the first two months of 2016 – and not only do the majority of them hope to reach Germany as their final place of refuge – but the EU’s states have committed to relocate just 66,400 people from Greece. So far, just 325 people have been relocated. Only 1,539 spaces have actually been pledged.

From a Greek perspective, the EU experience – particularly when factoring in also the response to the Greek economic collapse – was already less than positive. The meeting, to which it, as the focal point of entry for 12 13ths of all refugees entering Europe, should have been invited as the central participant, was simply another insult, and signal of what it sees as its isolation and abandonment.

But the actions of the ten states in the days immediately preceding and following the meeting were arguably the fulfilment of its fears.

On 19 February, Austria announced it will limit the number of people allowed to cross its border to 3,200 per day. This is not a policy of welcoming 3,200 people per day to stay in Austria, only allowing them to enter. Just 80 people per day will be allowed to make applications to remain in the state.

Two days later, Macedonia announced no people from Afghanistan would be allowed to cross from Greece and enter the country. It is unclear – short of a deliberate misunderstanding of the threats people face and fear (most refugees from Syria attest that they are not running from IS, for example, but from war and/or the Assad regime) – why it felt justified in allowing Syrians and Iraqis to cross but not people from Afghanistan.

On 22 February, Slovakia proposed to fence its border with Austria and Hungary, Croatia announced it, too, would fence its borders if Austria does so, and Slovenia sent troops to its border with Croatia.

On 24 February, Albania announced it, too, will close its borders – this time if Macedonia does so – while Serbia simply closed its own borders, though it is still not clear whether this is intended as a temporary measure. Bulgaria extended its border fence with Turkey.

Two days later, Croatia and Slovenia both announced that they will allow just 580 people to cross their borders each day, and on 29 February, as noted above, the 7,000 men, women and children now trapped at the Macedonian border attempted to cross – in some cases breaking through barbed wire fences – and were fired on by armed police.

Giorgos Kosmopalos, Amnesty International’s director for Greece, commented: ‘There seems to be more willingness among European countries to co-ordinate blocking borders than to provide refugees and asylum seekers with protection and basic services.’

Heinz-Joachim Barchmann, the deputy-chairman of the Bundestag’s Europe committee, was pithier, describing the state’s announcements and activity as: ‘An affront to EU refugee policy.’

Not only is it morally unjustified, but also, it seems, pragmatically unjustifiable.

Because also on 29 February, though largely under-reported in most EU states, it was revealed that in the first three weeks of February, 1,200 refugees had been arrested while crossing Hungary.

Hungary has had a walled border for five months. Yet more than 1,000 people entered the state in three weeks at the start of February. And they are only the people the police have identified and captured. It is hard to think of a clearer indication that border fences simply do not work, even if they were not an inhuman attempt to turn our backs on people in desperate need.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose state led the EU’s enforcement of Greek debt payments – demanded that the EU did not turn its back on Greece and the crisis. She said: ‘We simply can’t leave Greece alone now. Do you seriously believe that all Eurozone states – and we were the strictest one – fought tooth and nail for Greece to stay in the Eurozone last year in order to plunge the country into chaos one year later?’

It is hard to conclude that she is incorrect.

Europe is in chaos. At either end, violence and repression characterise the world’s richest political bloc’s response to the needs of desperate men, women and children. In between, states are literally attempting to wall themselves in to prevent people crossing their territory.

The ‘policy’ is not only deeply immoral – we can aid refugees, so why should we not do so? – and risks destroying the EU by snapping Europe back into progressively smaller, deeply mistrustful, shards, it is also unworkable.

Not only because Hungary’s attempts have been such abject – and predictable – failures, but also because the only reason why the entry of one million people into the world’s richest political region, already inhabited by 582 million people, has caused such chaos is because states have panicked: acting alone and wildly, where considered and pooled responses would have been far, far better.

The EU can meet the challenge it faces. It is arguably the only political bloc which can.

But to do so, it must act as a co-ordinated and focussed bloc. It has to centralise its approach, and take the following simple steps.

First, the EU must make the Mediterranean crossing both legal, and regulated. More than 4,200 people have died on the Mediterranean since January 2015 and these deaths were avoidable and unacceptable.

Legalising and regulating the crossing will prevent these needless deaths, but it will also do a great deal more.

By legalising and regulating the crossings, the EU cuts at a stroke attempts by terror organisations to force a crisis onto the EU, and their claims that ‘the West’ is fighting against or does not care about people in Muslim regions.

It also ensures it knows how many people are making the crossing, and therefore what it needs to spend and to do, to meet their needs.

Second, the EU needs to speed up and regulate the asylum application process. This doesn’t mean everyone who applies will be allowed in, but that people will be able to find out quickly whether or not they can stay in the EU until matters improve in their homelands.

The clear advantages of this will be: the end of tens or hundreds of thousands of people being ‘held’ in camps which cannot cope with the numbers or demands; a clear indication to people that the system exists and is working – this will affect both those seeking asylum, by helping to encourage them to use the system, rather than attempting to ‘disappear’, and Europeans, who will be reassured that there is no reason to ‘fear’ refugees, who are desperate people the EU is working to help; and that the EU itself will have a clear idea of the numbers of refugees within its borders.

Third, the EU needs to centralise the final stage of its approach – a sensible and considered quota system, in which a certain number of people are welcomed by each state, and ‘bring’ with them EU funding to meet their immediate housing and other needs.

Some of these proposals have been considered at EU level. They have been rejected, with the UK and Hungary at the forefront of those rejections, but with other states adding their own opposition at different times.

It is time those states admitted that their solution – violence and barriers – has failed. That the EU is in chaos because of their blind refusal to allow the EU to do the one thing it is best placed to do – apply itself to an international emergency and engineer its solution.

The unilateral, wild-eyed, defensive and violent response to the international refugee crisis has created death at sea, violence, fear and chaos across Europe, and in some cases, has fed a propaganda myth trotted out by terrorists.

It is time to let the EU do what it is there for – to be bigger, and better-placed to deal with crises, than any single state can be alone.


Also on 29 February, the UK government announced another ‘defensive’ foreign policy measure, this time in Tunisia.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told Parliament that a 20-person training team from the 4th Infantry Brigade has been sent to help Tunisian forces prevent IS members from ‘illegally crossing into Tunisia from Libya’.

As policies go, this is not a terrible step – training Tunisian forces to defend their state against IS both shares and increases skill levels, and enables states to defend themselves, which is far preferable to the effective occupations which UK forces sometimes undertake.

And illegal crossings do take place. On 2 March, the Tunisian government reported that five IS members had entered and occupied a family home in Ben Guerdane, a town very close to Tunisia’s border with Libya, as well as to the former Choucha Refugee Camp, where I lived and worked in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

All five were killed after a battle with Tunisian soldiers. One civilian was also killed, while one soldier was injured.

But it is to be hoped that – at a time when IS is the focus of global security fears despite being only a medium-to-small player in the four states; Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, in which it has any presence – the government will also remember that in Libya, Syria and Iraq, the largest number of ‘foreign’ IS recruits are from Tunisia, and that reducing IS’ capacities and strength is by far the most promising way of preventing attacks in Tunisia and elsewhere.

That is, by working to end the conflicts in which IS thrives, and enable the four states to develop strong governments, military and security services and infrastructure, we can do more to stop IS than any straight military response – offensive or defensive – could hope to achieve.


In Syria, meanwhile, the end of February and start of March may yet be regarded as a rare period of positivity and calm.

A ceasefire – of sorts – began on Saturday 27 February. It has continued – albeit with infringements – for almost a week.

In the run-up to its commencement, I was among many cynical commentators whose main objections were that it was not really a ceasefire (because IS and Al Nusra, the smaller two of the four major combatants in the conflict were excluded from it) and that even on its own terms, it offered too many ‘loopholes’ which might enable violence (it specifically excludes ‘terror groups’ from its conditions: Turkey and most other NATO states regard several Kurdish military groups as terrorists, while Assad and Russia argue that as armed resistors of Syria’s government, all opponents of Assad could be described as such).

Those concerns remain in place. In the first two days of the ceasefire alone, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – the body which at international negotiations represents the Free Syrian Army and other (generally-accepted) non-terror groups which oppose Assad – reported that Assad’s forces had launched seven barrel bomb attacks, 24 episodes of artillery shelling and five ground attacks. It noted 26 Russian airstrikes.

On the other hand, Russia argued that the ceasefire had been breached by opponents of Assad nine times in the first 24 hours alone. The problem with this claim is that once again, it included all groups opposed to Assad as ‘terrorists’ which is certainly outside the spirit – though not the literal wording – of the ceasefire’s terms.

Assad’s state media reported mortar attacks at Latakia, which it claims came from the FSA, and argued that a series of attacks by Russia and Assad’s forces on Daraya were aimed at Al Nusra, even though the FSA claimed they had in fact struck their positions, and that Al Nusra has little to no presence in the area.

Simultaneously, Turkey certainly launched attacks on Kurds in north Syria in the early hours of the ceasefire, which it argued were to counter a threat posed to it as a state – Turkey’s Kurds and its government’s forces are engaged in the nation’s south east in a geographically-limited but increasingly devastating conflict centred on major cities including Diyarbakir.

Simultaneously, reports suggested that Russia and Assad’s forces undertook significant troop and aircraft movements in the ceasefire’s first days, taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities to move both soldiers and ‘planes closer to the frontlines in Aleppo and Homs provinces.

This can only have been done with the intention to be able to strike fast and hard as soon as the ceasefire ends, or at the very least to attempt to offer Assad a decisive advantage at the negotiating table – once again, this is clearly in contravention of the ceasefire’s spirit, if not directly against its letter.

Finally, well within even the spirit of the agreement, strikes have continued unabated on regions where Al Nusra and IS are in control.

Though the desire to continue to strike IS in particular is understandable, the results are clearly that innocent civilians in these regions are still being hammered from above by some of the most technologically-advanced weaponry in existence, and that aid organisations are finding it extraordinarily difficult to reach those people.

It also means that IS and the unconnected (in fact, Al Nusra is a dedicated and consistent opponent of IS in Syria) Al Nusra group themselves launch ‘revenge’ attacks on government- and FSA-held regions, meaning an even greater number of civilians remain at risk.

Despite these undeniable negatives, however, the ceasefire holds.

Though attacks by both sides have not ceased entirely, they have massively reduced in number, meaning not only are far fewer people being slaughtered in Syria (so many have now been killed in the five-year conflict, and so many parts of Syria are effectively unreachable, that the UN has stopped producing estimates of deaths. Other organisations estimate up to 500,000 people have now been killed, and a further one million at least injured), but many people who aid convoys could not reach are finally receiving vital food, blankets, medicines and hygiene kits.

The UN hopes that as a result of the ceasefire, it may be able to deliver aid to 1.7m desperate men, women and children, many of them previously besieged by the Assad regime, (estimates suggest some 450,000 people at least were being deliberately besieged by Assad’s forces when the ceasefire began) others cut off by consistent airstrikes and fighting (UN figures suggest a further 4.1 million people are effectively trapped in such ‘hard-to-reach’ areas)*.

*It should be noted here that in part because of their smaller size, and in part because they do not have to rely on political agreement to act, many other aid organisations have been able to deliver aid to many areas. It is to be hoped the UN’s 1.7 million will be those previously unreached and/or unreachable.

And as a result of the ceasefire, there is a greater likelihood that negotiations to bring a permanent end to the war may take place. The date on which they are set to commence has been put back by the UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, from 7 March to 9 March, but it is far easier to talk when one’s words are not drowned out by the sound of bombs and gunfire.

Of course, those negotiations face a number of extremely serious obstacles, the first of which is that Assad remaining in power is a non-negotiable starting point for Assad and his backers, and an equally unacceptable outcome to his opponents.

I have written at length about how the Syrian conflict can be brought to a peaceful conclusion – as well as why the conflict cannot be truly finished by any one side ‘winning’.

In short, no single ‘side’ commands the support of everyone in the state, and in the case of IS at least, almost no Syrian wishes to live in a state governed by the terror group.

I do not intend to go once again into the detail of what a peaceful Syria must – in order to be peaceful – look like (effectively, a state in which the constitution delivers engagement, involvement and protection for all Syrian groups, regardless of religion or lack of it, racial background or political perspective, and in which elections decide the shape of the government operating within the guidance of that constitution) and I do not agree that the state necessarily needs to be divided, as US Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested.

But it is impossible, I think, to escape the fact that Assad simply cannot remain in charge of Syria. There are moral reasons – he is responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria, including at least 250,000 civilian killings (Russia is estimated to have killed 1,000 civilians since October 2015, the US 700 since September 2014) – which mean he must face trial (though as with any trial, no-one should pre-suppose the outcome. He might be found innocent of war crimes).

But there are also basic practicalities which mean that even if his trial ends quickly, with a not guilty verdict, he cannot return to rule Syria: basically, that not only do most people not want him to rule the state, many have shown that they are prepared to (though some have been forced by attacks by Assad to) bear arms to remove him from power.

But despite the immense difficulties going forward, and the numerous infringements of the ceasefire by all sides so far, the reduction in attacks and resulting ability to reach people in desperate need of aid is to be celebrated.

The task now facing Syrians and the international community is turning that small temporary positive into something far larger, and lasting.

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