(Since this is my very first column with the Guardian, I’d like to first of all say how pleased I am to be writing for such a brilliant, university-wide publication. I’d like to thank the Views Editors, Claire and Floraidh, for giving me the opportunity to write about what I care most about: human rights. This edition will focus on the current refugee crisis in Europe, asking what kinds of rights these refugees have, and whether European countries are respecting these.)
The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011, when protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were met with a violent response. Since then, various opposition groups have been fighting not just against President Assad, but against each other. Meanwhile, neighbouring Iraq has been politically unstable since the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, and the exit of NATO troops from the country has allowed the insurgent group ‘Islamic State’ to flourish, taking control of towns and villages by using extreme force against civilians. IS are now active in both Syria and Iraq, and the region is in a state of chaos.
This chaos, along with civil war in Libya and tyranny in Eritrea, has created a crisis, where hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and North Africa are fleeing their war-torn homes and heading to Europe. Many have died on the way there, but more arrive every day. Europe is left with the difficult dilemma of processing all these new arrivals, many of whom have arrived with very little or are in need of medical assistance. The reaction to their arrival from the European general public has ranged from the extremely welcoming to the downright xenophobic. In Munich, German families were filmed welcoming refugees and handing them bottled water, sweets and toys. In Hungary, a camerawoman was filmed tripping refugees up as they ran from a holding camp.
Our response, as a continent, has been mixed, but what I believe we should be asking is this; what is the correct response, from a human rights perspective? What should receiving countries do to ensure that they are protecting the rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable people?
Asylum seekers and refugees have some important rights to freedom of movement according to the UN’s Geneva Convention. First of all, they must be allowed to leave the country they are fleeing. Then, they are not allowed to be prosecuted for breaking immigration law when they enter neighbouring countries illegally. Even if the host country is not a direct neighbour, and the state wishes to prosecute an asylum seeker whom they believe has passed into their country illegally, the host country is not allowed to deny the asylum seeker protection. This means that European countries are not allowed to simply move asylum seekers along to the next country by force; even if it is believed they entered illegally, they must grant them protection until their case is reviewed. After review, asylum seekers can then be distributed among other safe states and given refugee status, after which they cannot be returned to the dangerous country from which they fled.
Sadly, however, not every European state has granted these rights to asylum seekers. The Hungarian government’s decisions to refuse to accept refugees and erect fences along the Serbian border have been criticised by the UN. Many asylum seekers in Hungary have taken measures to avoid the police, so that they do not have to register there or be kept in holding camps, because they fear that the Hungarian government will send them back to Syria. However, other countries have so far respected the rights of asylum seekers to freedom of movement and security, and have endeavoured to distribute them throughout Germany, Sweden and other countries to give them a safe home. Britain is currently preparing to take 20,000 of the most vulnerable asylum seekers, mostly straight from Syria, and give them a safe home here. Scotland has so far promised to take at least 2,000 of these.
European states have failed to find a proper solution to this crisis, and hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers are living here in unacceptable conditions, either in holding camps or in makeshift camps at borders such as the Jungle in Calais. There, migrants and asylum seekers who have made it all the way across Europe are waiting for their chance to get into Britain. They and many others lack basic amenities. Thankfully, the third sector has developed a somewhat co-ordinated effort to help, and there is much that we can do to ease the pressure and help asylum seekers. The organisation ‘Scottish Action for Refugees’ (SAFR) has several collection points throughout Glasgow and Scotland where people can donate items such as clothing, tents and first aid kits to the refugees in Calais. Other organisations’ targets are more specific. Slings for Kos, for example, is looking for donations of baby slings and carriers, to give to mothers who have just arrived on the Greek island of Kos, having carried their babies across the sea in their arms. I would highly recommend looking up SAFR on Facebook, where they have a list of collection points and urgently needed items which we can donate. There may be little we can do to help the European-wide crisis, but we can always make an impact on the lives of individuals as they await their refugee status.