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March 2, 2020
In Turkey, tens of thousands of refugees are huddled at the border following an announcement from Turkey’s president Erdoğan that the border with Greece would be opened. In Mexico, tens of thousands of refugees wait for entrance into the United States, some clashing with border security Friday evening following a Federal Court decision terminating Trump’s “Remain in Mexico.” With over 70.8 million people displaced by violence in the world today - 25.9 million of whom have crossed a border searching for safety - such scenes are increasing aside a rightward drift in nationalist policies in response to global migration. Trump’s rise to power by scapegoating immigrants is part of this global trend.
At the Turkey/EU border
In 2015, European leaders were forced to confront a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere sought safe passage into the European Union. Germany agreed to take in nearly 530,000 refugees, but most of the rest of the EU pushed back. One result was an agreement with Turkey in 2016: For a promise of 6 billion euros in aid, Turkey would stop the migration of refugees into Europe. Coupled with agreements to stem the flow of refugees on the north African coast of the Mediterranean, including the funding of Libya’s coast guard and expansion of detention facilities with some of the worst conditions imaginable, the EU dealt with this crisis much as Trump has sought to manage the Central American refugee crisis: The EU off-shored the problem to neighbors.
Turkey, already home to many of the 5.6. Million refugees from the war in Syria, closed its border with Greece to migrants, and in the years since its refugee population just from Syria has grown to 3.6 million people.
Then in October 2019, Turkey invaded Syria. To be clear, Turkey already had a presence in Syria, supporting Syrian opposition forces north of Idlib to create a buffer against Kurdish areas to the east. In October, Turkish troops entered Syria, from this zone, and from the north, in an effort to push the Kurds back from Turkey’s border and create what Erdoğan called a “safe zone.” At least part of the justification was the planned repatriation of Syrian refugees into this area. What the incursion has achieved thus far, however, is simply more refugees as hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee the fighting between Turkey’s army and the militia’s they support, and Russian-backed Syrian forces. Over the past months the focus of this fighting has been in Idlib, where 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in bombing last week.
In the wake of these deaths, Erdoğan, already angry with NATO allies for not doing enough in his mind to help in Syria, and also arguing that the EU has failed to live up to its agreement for economic support in exchange for halting refugee movements, announced that Turkey would no longer prevent people from crossing through to Greece. In response, over the last two days at least 13,000 people have gathered at the border, with more on the way, seeking passage into Europe.
The Guardian, describes the movement of people to the main crossing in Pazarkule:
Thousands huddled around smouldering pine wood fires, covering their faces from white smoke blowing from the Greek side and buoyed by a chilly wind.
They had torn down the the metal fence on the Turkish side of the border and stood facing a line of Greek police in riot gear. They represented countries torn apart by civil war or unrest: Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, but also from as far as Eritrea and Bangladesh.
Many have been in Turkey for years waiting to cross to Europe, while others were newer arrivals.
Three young Syrian men were in the crowd. “I can’t go back to Syria because I will be drafted to the army,” said one of the men, from Aleppo.
By noon much of the crowd had broken through the Turkish side of the fence on the border and pushed into the no-man’s land between the two nations, where they set up camp, while others stood facing the Greek police. Young men began hurling stones, leading the police to respond by firing stun grenades and tear gas canisters that spiralled into the air before falling among families and children.
CNN Reports that Greece is not allowing people in:
Greece has stood firm, not opening its side of the border and beefing up its presence along it.
Migrant youths often clash with Greek border guards, who fire tear gas when they attempt to storm the border. Others huddle around fires with their children trying to stay warm.
Some refugees attempt to cross the river into Greece. Turkey claims that more than tens of thousands have already crossed into Greece, which is encouraging more people to move towards the border. But Greece says that very few people are making it through.
Some groups whom CNN spoke to say Greek personnel forced them back to Turkey, smashed their phones, ripped up their IDs, and beat them.
The Greek authorities deny this behavior, although this is something that refugees trying to cross into the country have long accused them of.
Greece’s border security is being supplemented with the EU’s collective security/border force called Frontex (which honestly sounds like the silly name of a police force from a Sci-Fi film). The deployment of Frontex units alongside Greek police forces makes it clear that the initial framework of response here is keeping as many people out as possible. Will the EU change course? Greece, which in the last election seemed to be emerging from a period of deep polarization driven in part by the earlier migrant crisis which landed on top of an economic recession, will be reluctant to carry much of this burden alone. Erdoğan is clearly banking on the EU stepping up with deeper commitment of funding, and/or support in Syria. He is using refugees as pawns in his regional power play. He’s been empowered in this role by the EU, which has failed to take responsibility for its membership’s own role for the conflicts people are now fleeing. Europe wants its wars without consequences.
The United States is playing the same game…
The U.S./Mexico Border
It seems that we write about the Remain in Mexico policy a few times each month as new reports emerge about the conditions people are living in, the violence they face, and the farcical “due process” they are given in temporary tent courts on the border. The policy itself is part of a much bigger puzzle, and that is the Trump administration’s effort to extend the U.S. border to Central America, using Mexico as a buffer. Like the EU’s offshoring of refugee and asylum processing to Libya and Turkey, the United States has similarly offshored its obligations to Mexico and Guatemala.
In short, the Remain in Mexico policy, formally called the Migration Protection Protocols, requires people to wait in Mexico for their immigration court hearing. The policy, like much else, was rooted in the Obama administration-era introduction of metering at the border - a practice of generating lists of people seeking entrance to the United States, who were then admitted for processing in small groups. Remain in Mexico took this small scale program and blew it up into the current policy requiring Central American asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, en masse, until their immigration court date. As a result, in the one year the program has been in place, 57,000+ people have been forced into under-resourced shelters or makeshift refugee camps on the Mexico side of the border.
On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court reinstated a lower court injunction with a 2-1 ruling, stating the Remain in Mexico policy “is invalid in its entirety due to its inconsistency with” federal law, and “should be enjoined in its entirety.”
News of the decision quickly went viral, and the predictable result was a surge in people approaching the border seeking entrance. From Reuters,
Word of the news spread on social media and a Reuters witness saw migrants on the Mexican side of the border heading towards the bridge while some U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers were putting on riot gear.
“I’ve been waiting in Juarez for ten months,” said one Cuban asylum seeker, who declined to give his name. “I don’t care how long I have to wait here for them to let us through.”
CBP confirmed on its Twitter account that it had closed the Paso Del Norte Bridge to stop a group of migrants from illegally and forcefully entering the United States and that other ports stayed open.
The court had offered no guidance on implementing the injunction, nor any kind of timeline. As a result, the optics of an emergent crisis at the border complete with teargas and riot gear was exactly what Trump needed. The Court’s stayed their ruling within hours.
In response, the appeals court put its ruling on hold to allow the administration to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue.
“It’s time for everyone to start going home, no one is going to cross tonight,” said Enrique Valenzuela, head of the population council of the Chihuahua state government...
So, Remain in Mexico remains the policy until the Supreme Court decides how to proceed with the injunction, and then the merits of the policy itself.
From Pazarkule to Ciudad Juarez, the message to migrants seeking refuge is that they are not wanted. They are treated as pawns in the political games of two continental super powers, both of whom continue to pursue their foreign policies as though war without consequence is possible. It is a deadly game.