The UNHCR states that almost every two seconds, somewhere in the world a person is forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution. In the refugee camp Moria on Lesbos, 20.000 refugees house in miserable conditions; in parts of the camp there is one water tap for 1300 people. They are at the mercy of COVID-19.
Hezni Barjosef, who himself came to Germany as a refugee many years ago, is a social worker working as a refugee coordinator for the Archdiocese of Paderborn. He is consultant for volunteers and active in supporting the development of innovative projects and interreligious dialogue. I asked him about his opinion on the current situation.
Despite the issue currently being in the background, the EU countries have to decide soon how to deal with refugees who are in Greece and Turkey. What do you think the EU needs to do now?
There is often talk of learning from past mistakes. But when it comes to a humanitarian refugee policy in the EU, you hardly notice this learning effect. Immediately after the Turkey deal in March 2016, the EU should have worked out other alternatives so as not to remain as easy to blackmail as we have seen in recent weeks. If the EU is unable to operate a common refugee policy, other models are needed. One possibility would be to expand resettlement and relocation, and to thereby provide greater financial relief for member countries that are ready to help and to accept the offer of cities that have declared themselves as safe havens for refugees. C
ivil society is also an important pillar of the coalition of the willing. In the current situation, Greece has to be relieved and Turkey “disempowered”. At the same time, the EU must campaign much more seriously for an end of the war in Syria if it does not want to remain at risk of being blackmailed in the long term. By the way: we cannot just focus on Greece and Turkey. Some neighboring countries of Syria bear a greater burden than Turkey. Just because they have no trump card in hand, they must not be forgotten.
Germany took in many refugees in 2015 without consulting the EU. Can and should the country take the initiative again?
Those who do not carry the responsibility may see it differently. But: Germany’s stance in the exceptional situation of 2015 was correct and consistent. Fortunately, the government did not continue to resolve the disagreement at EU level on the back of the weakest and took responsibility. Giving her thanks and appreciation is due – even if we know that this decision has given other political forces ample opportunity to instrumentalize. I hope that some of the EU countries see the shared responsibility for their blockade and soon act differently.
Whether Germany should take the initiative again: I think it is right and important that Germany should take on more responsibility again, but that does not mean going for it alone, but rather taking the initiative to break the status quo. The next EU Council under German presidency from July 2020 is an excellent opportunity to achieve a common EU refugee and asylum policy.
How do you assess the current situation on Lesbos and what can be a good solution for the refugees at Camp Moria?
Lesbos has become a symbol of catastrophic and inhumane living conditions on European soil. But on some of the other Greek islands and the mainland, unfortunately the situation is not much better. Not only the NGOs and the critical media, but even governments see an urgent need for action to relieve Greece. The other EU countries can no longer avoid the issue and hope for a miracle.
Therefore, it is better to dismantle all camps today and distribute the people to all willing EU countries whilst working on long-term solutions with a concrete schedule that should not take longer than a year. Anything else would be delaying tactics in my view. As we know, so far it has not led to a sustainable solution.
How do you appraise the current situation of refugees in Germany, especially with regard to the spreading corona virus?
In general, I see a lot of positive developments thanks to the many legal improvements and countless helpful people in full-time and volunteer work. But if we want to live and make decisions according to our own laws, standards and values, then it goes without saying that more is required. The core message of the New Testament teaches us just this: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
In the current exceptional situation, I am very concerned about people who are being housed and do not have their own privacy. They often live in precarious conditions, cannot meet the required hygiene standards and have even more limited freedom of movement. I wonder if it is even possible for them to adhere to the ‘no contact order’. Living in shelter accommodation facilities, temporary dormitories and in multi-bed rooms means being particularly exposed to an overwhelming pandemic.
Finally, I believe that stand-by facilities need to be reactivated in order to correct the spatial confinement; that wherever it is possible at short notice, private living space should be made available and the bureaucracy reduced to an absolutely necessary minimum. These are some of the measures that the current situation demands.
Final question: You yourself came to Germany decades ago as a refugee. How do you personally feel when you look at the current situation at the EU borders and here in Germany?
Even if I fled more than three decades ago, I empathize strongly with people both at the EU borders and in Germany. Whether from Syria or from other countries of origin, the people at the gates of Europe have a different, much more positive picture of Europe than we sometimes think. The disappointment is even greater, if they are combated and pushed back with all available means.
On the other hand, I also understand those responsible in the EU countries. With regard to the current political situation in which more and more populistic, racist and nationalist tendencies occur, they think they have to be more cautious. In my view, this concern is unfounded. I personally believe that Europe is strong enough to deal with the challenge. But this is only possible if at least most of the member states work together.
Finally, I would like to remind you that refugees, regardless of where they come from, have a great responsibility for their own lobby and their new home. I cannot and will not relieve them of this responsibility.