Watching inhumanity unfold at refugee camps such as Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos, it is hard not to ask why the situation has become so dire for people fleeing war and desperate lives, and for the countries receiving and hosting them.
The war in Syria has been going on since 2011; how can it be possible that what should be the most simple of tasks still has not been achieved – the provision of decent services and protection for human beings regardless of who they are or where they have come from.
Mostly, this is a logistical and organisational task which can be achieved with the right professional and financial resources; neither of which should be an issue for a continent like Europe.
As time goes on, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria and other war-torn areas of the world is getting worse for refugees from those places. As has been happening on Lesvos, we see images daily of burning refugee centres, desperate people being beaten with sticks and tear-gassed, and angry protesters fearful of more immigration.
It all seems so far removed from the European ideal of open and free societies; a Europe which seemed to be the incubator and catalyst for a modern interconnected and sustainable humanity; a Europe we hoped would finally overcome its dark history of colonialism, imperialism and fascism.
From a humanitarian and professional perspective, you would expect the sort of mess unfolding on Lesvos to happen at the beginning of a crisis such as the war in Syria, not years into a known situation. And it is happening right on the richest continent on this globe.
This is the shameful result of there being no vision or leadership when it comes to managing the refugee crisis; of politicians having succumbed to the most primitive narrative and adopting panicky, short-sighted policies.
Closing borders with repressive measures, deporting young refugees and migrants even when they have learned the language and are working or are in the middle of apprenticeships are actions used to score political points with voters by ambitious populist European politicians and leaders in Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Italy or the centrist parties moving to the right in Scandinavia or Greece.
Their hard line attracts votes from people who feel insecure and have not been shown the benefits of implementing modern migration and integration measures.
Affordable housing or small business support and saving schemes which made Europe so successful in its reconstruction following WWII have been abandoned and neglected throughout Europe.
Europe’s visionless response to the refugee crisis has created the chaos necessary for right-wing nationalism to thrive. Recent newspaper headlines, such as “Illegal immigrants flood in!” and “Migrants rob young Britons of jobs” seen in the UK in 2019, have fuelled this sort of sentiment.
There is a solution
Given the right tools – a team, a sufficient budget, three months to set up proper camps and six to implement the first phase of getting them up and running – and the immediate crisis in Greece and, by default, the European crisis would be over if only it was managed correctly.
Done properly, we could avoid the images of human suffering and abuse, stories of suicidal children, women being abused, human traffickers and mafia thriving.
The conditions on the Greek islands, the reforms introduced by the Greek government resulting in a block on asylum claims – a violation of international law – and the reduction of social support even to recognised refugees will open the doors further to human trafficking and exploitation.
I saw it all when I was manager of the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border in 2013 and 2014. During the initial restrictions strictly limiting the freedom of movement of refugees in the 100,000-person camp, prostitution, smuggling and child abuse were prolific. We were aware that Syrian mafia and business networks linked to the armed opposition were making millions every month. We did not have the resources or intelligence available to do much about it.
This is still going on. Gangs and people smugglers are preying on the desperation and vulnerability of people trying to get to Greece. Recruitment into brothels, sweatshops and farms in Europe is thriving because desperate refugees feel they have no choice.
Documents are forged by international gangs, and children, in particular, have been disappearing without a trace – tens of thousands over the past five years, according to Europol and other child protection agencies.
Quelling our fear of immigrants
For those worried about the effect of refugees coming into their countries, properly managed refugee settlements would also stem any uncontrolled rush of refugees towards northern Europe. Responsible management of sustainable camps developing into settlements could fix all that.
There would be immediate protection and asylum procedures for people in the most dire need and support for victims of violence as well as trauma treatment.
There would be a due process to help people return to their countries in dignity with the right support or be linked to opportunities elsewhere in the world.
This has been done before and can be done again. But Europe must be willing to invest properly in hosting larger numbers of refugees and desperate migrants.
To do this, camps will need to be transformed into sustainable settlements and cities which can accommodate hundreds of thousands of people. That is what communities have managed throughout history when towns and settlements have emerged as the result of arrivals of refugees pushed out by invaders. Many of our cities have grown that way.
Temporary holdings, storage and transit, and emergency camps with tents or portacabins and only communal washing and cooking facilities are not the answer. Those are for dealing with an immediate crisis; here, we face an continuing situation.
My time at Zaatari made this clear to me. The camp residents became angry; they looted, rioted and rebelled against the aid agencies and authorities there for as long as there was no vision or understanding about the space and services they really needed.
Communal toilets and kitchens would be dismantled and used as materials to build individual homes. In Zaatari, once the communal facilities had been dismantled and turned into 14,000 private toilets and kitchens in homes modelled and decorated to the taste of the residents, there was peace in the camp.
All the residents of the camp really wanted was to be recognised as individuals with dignity and identity.
Therefore we partnered with private-sector and government city planning experts from the City of Amsterdam to review and adjust the way camps were being designed and built.
As a result, Zaatari has become peaceful. It hosts a plethora of innovative projects fostering education, technology, arts and entrepreneurship. The refugee camp has become a settlement and an incubator for change.
Europe must be prepared to do exactly what we have been expecting Kenya, Jordan or Ethiopia to do for decades on our behalf. Host, assist and, if needs be, absorb and integrate refugees and migrants into existing communities.
At this stage in Europe, it may be more acceptable for the sake of political peace to begin with establishing new larger settlements, also in Europe, from which integration, return and resettlement can be coordinated and within which humans can develop and grow strength rather than just being stashed away out of sight.