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  • Rory O'Keeffe

A Spectre is haunting Europe; but not the one you may think

The official end of the EU’s refugee relocation programme, begun in September 2015, came at midnight on 26 September 2017.

Despite setting its own target – of 160,000 refugees to be moved from Greece, Italy and Turkey to other EU member states (106,000 in total from Italy and Greece: 66,400 from Greece; 39,600 from Italy) – and giving itself two years to meet the target, only 28,782 people have actually been moved from Italian and Greek camps to other nations.

Finland has accepted 94 per cent of the number of refugees it was asked to, and Ireland has taken 84 per cent.

The next ‘best’ performers are Malta (77 per cent) and Luxembourg, which has taken 68.5 per cent of the number of refugees it was asked to. Germany has accepted the highest number of refugees – 7,852 – but this is in fact just 28.5 per cent of the number it was asked to take.

Before we move onto the worst performing countries, we should note once more that the EU set its own targets on this crisis, and deliberately set the bar extremely low.

For example, ONLY refugees from states with an already high rate of acceptance were to be included: effectively those from Syria and Eritrea.

In Greece, this led almost immediately to divisions and in some cases recriminations between communities in refugee camps, and to the effective ‘disappearance’ of thousands of Afghan refugees across the Greek mainland, as they realised that the door had effectively been closed to them for legal passage to other EU countries – both of these outcomes were in their own way disastrous, and ultimately and easily avoidable, because the EU – as a continent-wide political bloc, and the wealthiest such bloc ever to have existed – is almost uniquely well-positioned to respond and react to a refugee situation such as the one which is still taking place today.

Not only that, it gave itself two years to organise and carry out the programme.

This was far too long, as no-one should live in refugee camps for longer than a month, and everyone from humanitarian organisations, to government health bodies (for example Greece’s KEELPNO) and even the EU’s own advisory bodies, agree that living in refugee camps is detrimental to the mental and physical health of those trapped within them.

But even having given itself a ludicrously long period to respond – a period in which people’s health deteriorated all over Greece and Italy (as well as in Turkey) – it still managed only a fraction of what it had said it would achieve.

In total, so far, 19,747 people have been moved from Greece in the last two years: 28 fewer people moved in two years than have arrived in the state since 1 January this year. And 8,985 have been moved from Italy, where much more than TEN TIMES that number of people (103,297) have arrived in the first nine months of 2017 alone. The official closing date of the programme has now passed. The scheme has been an embarrassing and abject failure.

We can note that Denmark and the UK point-blank refused to take part at all, that Hungary and Poland have accepted a total of zero refugees, and that Austria (15 people in two years), Slovakia (16) and the Czech Republic (12) have made a mockery of the entire process. And of course, the response of those states is a part of the reason that this scheme has so abjectly collapsed.

But that would only address a small part of the point, which is that this is an EU-wide failure. When only three states – one of them Malta, which has accepted 148 people in total – have achieved even as much as three-quarters of a target which was deliberately set at levels where all states could achieve them with ease, there is a serious problem.

The phrase ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’ was originally coined to galvanise people against the perceived threat of Communism. It has, since 2014, been used both by those who wish to help refugees (the ‘spectre’ being the suffering of human beings in Europe in the 21st century), and those who wish to bar refugees from Europe (the spectre being the refugees themselves), to describe the refugee situation.

But in cold reality, if any spectre exists, it is the looming, forbidding shadow of failure. That the wealthiest political bloc in human history set itself targets at a level deliberately easy to achieve, on a timescale it knew would be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the exact people it set out to assist, and that it has failed, spectacularly, even to meet those self-set targets.

Even as we speak, there are more than 63,000 refugees in Greece, and more than 100,000 in Italy, still waiting for a safe place to live.

As ever, it is not yet too late. The EU can meet once again, and agree to new targets. But these must be set to match what is needed, rather than what is easy. And this time, they must be carried out according to timescales that benefit the men, women and children who are in urgent need of decent homes.

We are experiencing the embarrassing failure which results from setting ludicrously low targets. Now, we must target what needs to be achieved, and carry it out within a time limit based on human health, rather than governmental convenience.

The time to act was 2015. But we did not act with anything like the necessary urgency. We must not fail again.

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