Following a deal reached between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016, Turkey has been taking measures to prevent migrants – many of them fleeing the conflict in Syria – from reaching the EU, in exchange for European aid for migrants and refugees, and for relaxation of EU visa requirements for Turkish citizens.
On Friday 28 February, after military losses in north-west Syria – where Turkey has been trying to create a safe area to resettle millions of Syrian refugees and to serve Turkish interests against the Kurds – those measures were suspended, resulting in large numbers of people attempting to cross into Greece and consequent clashes with Greek security forces.
On Tuesday 3 March, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, together with European Council president Charles Michel and European Parliament speaker David Sassoli, visited the border area, accompanied by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and described Greece as Europe’s ‘shield’.
And on 5 March, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia met in Moscow with the aim of stopping clashes between Turkish and Syrian government forces in Syria’s north-western Idlib province.
“These are people, not projectiles”
“What is lost in this tragic situation”, observed World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, “is that refugees and migrants are not missiles to be launched against adversaries, or to be deflected like incoming projectiles.
“They are people – children, women and men – many of whom have fled for their lives from the horrors of war in Syria.
“As such, many of them have a legal and moral claim to refugee status”, underlined WCC director for international affairs Peter Prove.
“The international community – and especially those states most directly involved in Syria, notably Turkey and Russia – have a responsibility to protect the people suffering the effects of the continuing conflict in Syria, and to bring the violence to a long overdue end.
“We all betray them and our own proclaimed humanitarian principles by ‘weaponizing’ the plight of those displaced by this conflict and by failing to respect and implement long established principles of international law, especially the right to asylum”.
“Greece needs much greater support from Europe”
Tveit affirmed that “Greece needs much greater support and solidarity from other EU member countries in sharing the responsibility of receiving and hosting those who need compassion, care and refuge.
“But while all countries have the sovereign right and responsibility to control their borders, they must not do so at the cost of undermining fundamental international humanitarian law and principles designed exactly for the purpose of alleviating the suffering of victims of such conflicts and crises.
“A more compassionate and principled solution must be found, acknowledging the legitimate concerns of state authorities while respecting applicable international humanitarian law and reflecting regional co-responsibility”.
Cardinal Hollerich deplores “humanitarian tragedy”
Meanwhile, in this tragic situation, Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and president of COMECE, Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union, has pleaded with Europe not to forget its vocation to welcome:
“It is a humanitarian tragedy, a tragedy for people who, by fate, came to the European Union, but cannot enter.
“It is the poor, the weak who knock at our door, and there is also a problem on our part, because if we look at those on the move, the refugees, only as a problem, then we will have another, because we are losing our humanity, we are losing our awareness, because we are against all the values of the European Union, European values”.
The war in Syria, everyone’s problem
“What is happening in Syria is also our problem”, said the cardinal, pointing out that “Syria is a country close to us, to the European Union and the fact that the EU did not have a common foreign policy towards Syria was a factor that produced this situation”.
In this regard, the president of COMECE explained that Europeans have not acted politically in favor of peace and commitment in Syria and now “do not want to welcome these poor and needy people”.
All this “really goes against all of Europe’s ideals”, Hollerich lamented.
Small steps, big results
The Luxembourg cardinal sees an example in that his country will receive 10 unaccompanied migrant children in the next few days.
He explained that this small drop of water is “better than nothing” and if all countries did the same “we could really change the situation”.
The Church must be the conscience of Europe
“The refugees are not a threat to the security of Europe, they are men and women knocking at our door to ask for help”, Hollerich insisted.
The cardinal explained that although he understands that the people of Lesbos do not want to have more migrants, more refugees, because there are already too many, he finds it very strange “that the European Union has money to protect the borders but doesn’t have money to help the people who come to us to live with dignity”.
“The people knocking on our door had a very positive image of Europe, as countries of freedom and a place of well-being”, Hollerich affirmed, but instead “we show them the face of Europe that makes them lose hope”.
That’s why, for the cardinal, in these difficult times, “the Church must be the conscience of Europe”.