Perspectives | Refugees

Empathy in Europe might not be only dead, but long buried

Will European leaders ever learn their lessons?

By - 13.03.2020

It’s not easy to talk about deep, life-changing trauma. It definitely takes time. You need to process it, to go through the seemingly never ending cycles of powerlessness, suppression, pain, denial, guilt, and then cope with its eventual resurfacing. 

It takes time to accept that it never truly goes away. It just becomes easier to live with. If you’re lucky. 

Even then, you can never be prepared for when it decides to punch you squarely in the face or stab you through the heart, on not much more than a whim.

It was the summer of 2015, and I just had the luck of being invited to join the campaign to reopen the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The institution was at that point on the brink of its dissolution and disappearance, as the domestic political actors circled its soon to be dead carcass in preparation for the inevitable squabble over its remains. 

There we were, all seven of us, sharing a makeshift office on the second floor of the glorious Austro-Hungarian building built to host the entirety of the recorded history of our country, planning how to turn it all around, when a news article on a local portal caught my attention.

I might not remember what the actual words of the article were about. It doesn’t matter now, as it didn’t then. The featured image was all I saw. In it, a refugee boy not more than eight years old, dressed in jeans and a denim jacket, sat on the green in front of the bus station in Belgrade, Serbia. 

Suddenly, it wasn’t 2015 anymore; it was 1992, and the boy sitting there was me.

I was in that same spot on May 2,1992 as an eight-year-old who left Sarajevo hours before the Republika Srpska Army forces, backed by the might of the Yugoslav National Army military, pummelled the city in what was the first of one of many ferocious artillery and mechanized attacks. I was even wearing the same clothes. 

The atmosphere of hostility, the sense of helplessness, and a genuine fear of the scope of the nationalist monster that was ever present was thus laid on my minuscule frame from that moment on.

Of course I broke down in tears seeing that image. Not only because it was so damn reminiscent of my own life-changing trauma; but also out of disbelief that this was happening, again, to someone else.

Criminalization of refugees

Soon after, Alan Kurdi died, a Syrian three-year-old, and the entire world was forced to see the photo of his dead body washed up somewhere near Bodrum, in Turkey. 

Yet, a moment of worldwide empathy was soon replaced by the now famed EU-Turkey Deal from March 2016, that aimed to stop the “irregular flow of migration,” amidst talking points about “illegal migration.” All of which almost criminalized any attempt by those seeking refuge from war — or other disasters, for that matter —  and made sure that they didn’t set their feet, no matter how small, on our coveted continent.

This farce was personified in the unironically self-centered performance by the famed Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who thought it would be a good idea to photograph his own self in the same manner Kurdi’s body was found. 

The true extent of the tragedy for those who found themselves in Turkey, of which 80% are Syrian, however, can be gleaned by the fact that they all live below the poverty line.

The message was clear: Empathy was dead; it’s all about the image from now on.

What the EU didn’t count on in all of the calculations made while bartering with Turkey on the “you keep people out, we give you money,” deal was that by signing off on the dotted line, Turkey and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be given a way to further blackmail and bully Europe into submission whenever it might come in handy.

To be completely fair, the deal itself did put a massive strain on Turkey, which is still hosting some 3.9 million refugees (according to 2018 figures). The true extent of the tragedy for those who found themselves in Turkey, of which 80% are Syrian, however, can be gleaned by the fact that they all live below the poverty line. 

The Help Refugees organization has noted that the Turkish detention infrastructure is constantly growing, while asylum seekers are facing long waiting periods while their demands for international protection are being deliberated on. 

In 2017, Amnesty International rated Turkey as a country not safe for refugees, as it cannot guarantee the basic rights of those in its territory. Even the European Court of Justice concluded that Turkey is not a “safe third country.”

However, little did it matter for the EU and its member states, despite the additional fact that the deal meant a significant departure from refugee protection laws, which all of a sudden became quite flexible. 

As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in 2015, this was a crisis of “politics, not capacity.” As true as it sounds, there’s also the additional aspect of the EU leaders picking and choosing which laws should or should not be respected, and at what times. 

Opening of the gates

By creating a buffer zone in Turkey —  and a minuscule, yet dangerous version of it in the countries of the Western Balkans —  the European Union has decidedly gone against all of the conventions, charters and its own legislation regarding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers; while scaring off those most persistent (who, in many cases, are also the most vulnerable) through the potential “Guantanamo-zation” of any attempt to reach the much desired safety in the Western states.

Then, in the midst of Turkey’s 2020 operations in Syria, Erdogan saw fit to distract and dismay by opening the gates. 

As refugees and asylum seekers move toward EU borders, officials respond to them as if they were a plague.

In 2020, I found myself in Brussels, after a stint as the EU correspondent for the Bosnian national public broadcaster, one of those jobs every journalist aspires to in their career. For more than a year, I witnessed and got to know the system from within to the best of my ability. 

I recently moved on to working on democracy-related projects in the Western Balkans region, hoping to do some good on the ground that goes beyond sheer reporting and the occasional analysis. Again, I got to witness firsthand what things look like —  this time on the opposite end of tragedy. 

As refugees and asylum seekers move toward EU borders, officials respond to them as if they were a plague. 

Five years after the last refugee crisis, we are witnessing the same images —  the barbed wire, the tear gas, the whole works. The videos of parents desperately trying to help their children breathe after being teargassed were yet another painful pointer that empathy might not be only dead but long buried, along with the rest of those who have died in the deep waters of the Aegean, or on the steep mountain passes of the Balkans.

Oh and remember those detention facilities that Turkey has been steadily expanding? It turns out that Greece has been operating at least one secret detention center, where migrants are being held incommunicado and without access to legal help.

Nevermind that some of us, like Democratization Policy Council’s Bodo Weber, have tried to remind our leaders that under international and European law, no country has the right to prevent asylum seekers from leaving or entering a country. Or that under the Geneva Refugee Convention and related European law, there is no such thing as “illegal migration.”

It didn’t make much of a difference as European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen and others watched the atrocious response unfold from a helicopter, and the media widely disseminated the post-visit PR photos showing our leaders posturing “Top Gun”-like in Greece. 

It didn’t make much of a difference that, by president Von Der Leyen praising Greece as the EU’s “aspida,” or “shield,” she inadvertently also labeled it a poisonous snake, the term’s meaning in other languages.

It doesn’t mean much that the pain and outrage of those of us who were once refugees in dire need of help and at least a promise of safety are repeating, time and again: These are human beings with the same kinds of rights like the rest of us.

Citizens vs. political elites 

What should matter to President Von Der Leyen and her colleagues is the opinion of European citizens, however. 

According to data from European Movement International’s Listen To Europe, most citizens of the union don’t have strong negative stereotypes against migrants. 

Even Greece — where citizens felt they were left to their own devices by the rest of the EU at the height of the 2015 crisis — is below the halfway mark on the issue of whether migration weakens the country itself, with most of those polled, 66%, actually worrying that migration might only adversely affect the already questionable social services.

Because history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, tragedy and farce of it aside.

Thus, if citizens of the EU member states had any say about it, the majority of them would be perfectly fine with helping out and sharing what they have as long as there was enough institutional support to help us all equally carry the burden —  even after half a decade of polarizing politics and narratives attempting to paint those seeking refuge as somehow dangerous to our societies.

The point is, we can still turn all of this around: The Union-wide backsliding that has seen us forget that laws are there to be respected and not twisted around as if made of rubber; the lack of empathy by those who should be leading the charge for us to open our arms and embracing those in need; the dreadful subhuman existence of those who in turn need our help, but were condemned to the various hellish existences of the limbo they found themselves in.

Because history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, tragedy and farce of it aside. 

It’s much worse than that, in fact. Whenever we don’t learn from it, the poisonous snake’s venom spreads throughout our souls, until it finishes us off, once and for all. 

Featured image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.