Jane Bradley: Politics of the nursery wastes lives

EUROPE'S governments, including Westminster, are failing refugees. What's needed is a co-ordinated approach, writes Jane Bradley

Refugee children watch a cartoon at a makeshift camp of the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni. Many of them have not been to schools for years, their classrooms bombed out. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Refugee children watch a cartoon at a makeshift camp of the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni. Many of them have not been to schools for years, their classrooms bombed out. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

I imagine any Brussels discussion about the refugee crisis to be not dissimilar to story time at a children’s nursery.

They all sit, those European Union politicians, spellbound, while someone speaks at the front, nodding sagely and acting like they are the best behaved bunch of people ever.

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Then once the story is over and it becomes a free for all, they begin to scratch each other’s eyes out, shout and yell, throw toys across the room and end up sitting in a heap, all bawling their eyes out until their mummies come to pick them up and tell them what to do.

Only, the problem is that they don’t have mummies – not ones who can be a lot of help in the global political scene, anyway – and the toys they are playing with are people’s lives.

Europe is still a mess.

This week, the German government announced measures to make sure that refugees settling there – and there are many – integrate into society. At least this is a step in welcoming people into Europe and helping them to assimilate.

However, as chancellor Angela Merkel has admitted, the stream of refugees has all but dried up in recent weeks after countries in the Balkans closed their borders.

The number of refugees entering the country via Austria had dropped off seven-fold, while Swiss officials also revealed this week that the number of people seeking asylum in the country had dropped for the fourth consecutive month, by almost a quarter compared to February.

This, coupled with the latest EU game of “return the refugees to Turkey” – where for each “illegal” migrant sent back to Turkey, the player gets another “legitimate” refugee from Syria to settle in a European country – has not solved the problem.

The route from Greece is like a giant traffic jam. In addition to the 12,000-plus refugees currently stranded at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, many have found themselves stuck at various other points on the route.

In Serbia, in the one-stop centres I visited with World Vision less than two months ago, designed to house refugees for less than 24 hours as they passed along the Western Balkans route, there are 2,000 refugees trapped.

While they are living in far better conditions than many refugees – the Presevo centre has a comfortable dormitory with bunk beds, funded by the Danish government and in Adesevici, in the north, there are tents with makeshift beds and a converted disused motel which offers facilities from “child friendly spaces” to soup kitchens – psychologically, the torture is immense.

These people have no idea when or if they will ever be allowed to go anywhere. Meanwhile, they cannot start a new life in Serbia. They are literally trapped. Aid organisations such as World Vision are trying to keep them entertained, with events such as a football tournament, which saw more than 200 people of the 500 stuck in the Presevo centre in the south of the country, take part.

Meanhwile, the village of Idomeni has been transformed into an enormous refugee camp, with people living rough in conditions that the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, have described as not meeting humanitarian standards.

And it is getting worse by the day as more and more people turn up.

Clashes between refugees and security forces have resulted in a tear-gas battles, with people injured from the gas and rubber bullets.

Understandably, the mood, especially in Idomeni, is becoming hostile. Imagine western passengers whose flight has been delayed, who are stuck in an airport for a few hours.

We’ve all been there. Remember how angry you felt? How helpless? How you just wanted to get home to get on with your life, not stay trapped in this hellish limbo for what felt like an eternity, while some useless bureaucrats failed to update you and let you know when they would allow you to leave?

Now imagine you have been in that situation – but in somewhere far worse than an airport, with its array of food outlets, shops and entertainment – for months. And the bureaucrats are not allowing you to go anywhere.

The EU is counting the refugees as numbers, whereas in reality, they are people. Families, individuals, all with ambitions and hope for the future.

The people I met in Serbia – who will by now have inevitably moved through, lucky not to be just days later when Macedonia and Croatia’s decision to close borders would have left them stranded – were engineers, doctors, lawyers, tailors. Parents. Some of the children now living in the Presevo camp say they want to become doctors or footballers – yet most have not been to schools for years, their classrooms bombed out.

But they cannot wait forever, wasting their lives, while various governments fail to get their backsides in gear and come up with some kind of coordinated response.

The UK has this week been criticised by 13 major aid agencies, which have said the British Government is turning a blind eye to the situation in Europe and needs to “accept its moral responsibility” to help.

Meanwhile, in a further theatre-of-the-absurd-style twist, in Hungary – where aid organisations originally set up before the Hungarian government firmly and controversially put its foot down in early autumn and banned refugees from crossing its borders – I hear that warehouses full of aid are reportedly lying unused and unable to be accessed by aid workers to be transported somewhere more useful.

We as a nation are undoubtedly not doing enough to help. At grassroots level, yes, people are doing what they can in many countries.

In Idomeni, for example, 82-year-old grandmother Panagiota Vasileiadou has reportedly invited refugee children into her home. She deserves a gold star. Or a medal.

But this insane, piecemeal approach which European countries have adopted to attempting to tackle the crisis makes no sense and is not going to resolve the problem. It is just making it worse.