In March 2016, The European Union and Turkey made an agreement stating Turkey would keep all asylum seekers who arrived on the Greece border in return for billions of dollars. This deal has put many asylum seekers at risk due to the dangerous environment in Turkey. However, this continues to be accepted and there are no signs of change in the future due to Greece’s incomplete assessment of Turkey as a safe third country. In February 2020, Turkey retracted their statement, saying they would not stop refugees going into Europe. Turkey is the country with the most refugees – 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Since the Syrian government started bombarding their citizens with air strikes, no other European country has tried to host Syrian citizens. When Turkey finally opened its borders into other European countries, the asylum seekers were met by armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets, and razor wires. Turkey opened its borders to force the European nations to stop ignoring the crisis in Syria. If the international community does not step in more unarmed civilians will continue to face violence in Syria, and the situation in Turkey will worsen.
What is the status in Turkey?
Turkey has been home to over 3.7 million refugees, providing them with free public services, health care, and gainful employment; there are many obstacles Syrian refugees have to go through to get these. For example, Turkey adopted a work permit in 2016, but they must be requested by employers, who are often unwilling to cover the costs and face the administrative hurdles of hiring a refugee. As a result, most refugees work in low-paying jobs, such as jobs in small textile workshops and construction.
Furthermore, Turkey does not sign off on international refugee law. Therefore, they do not allow many refugees to obtain legal status. Many Turkish authorities also force the refugees to go back to Syria, leading them to want to flee to a safer place regardless of the conditions, such as Greece.
Greece’s Response to Turkey Opening Borders
Greece has broken European Union and international law. The government is suspending the registration of any asylum claims and deporting anyone for any reason something that goes against Geneva’s Convention on Refugees. The core principle states that a “refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”Close to 40,0000 migrants are being held in camps with short food supply, poor sanitation, and tensions with locals. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency did urge Greece to address its overcrowding and precarious conditions, not much has improved. Once refugees arrive, they are not allowed to leave until their asylum requests are processed, leading to the 90,000 cases backlog.
What about the rest of the European Union?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned NATO allies and European allies that if they “do not share the burned with us, we will open the gates” . President of the European Commission described Greece as Europe’s shield in migrant crisis. They also proposed financial and material support to prevent people from entering Greece, because once they do they will continue to spread in Europe.
What should Happen next?
Europe should take a new approach to safeguarding the human rights of refugees and start sharing the responsibility for allowing them to live in dignity and peace. Many of the people leaving their countries do it out of desperation, and European governments need to ensure asylum seekers have fair procedures. Also, they must control border control and unlawful acts by authorities. Instead of hoping that the problem goes away by having migrants go to different places, the European Union needs to address the reasons why people are fleeing Syria.
On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.
The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.
Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?
After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.
On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.
Ultimately, the differing perspectives of the Islamic Republic and the West demonstrate a crucial question facing the human rights community: Are human rights, in fact, universal? Or, do they differ based on history, culture, and other factors?
At its very essence, the Western conception of human rights contends such rights apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, or creed. But what if a society rejects core aspects of this conception? If a large enough segment of the human population expresses opposition to many of these rights, can the Western conception of human rights legitimately be referred to as “human” rights? Indeed, at its core, the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran represents a struggle between two, often-contradictory, worldviews.
From the very beginning, therefore, the Islamic Revolution represented a categorical rejection of Western values by the people of Iran. Although the majority of the revolution occurred relatively peacefully, protestors regularly assaulted symbols of Western culture, such as alcohol stores and movie theaters. This opposition to Western modernity continues in the Islamic Republic to the current day, according to Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidsaless, who observe:
On the other, the moderate viewpoint, as championed by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, believes in a world organized along the idea that societies and cultures should remain separate, but ultimately equal, based on qualities such as mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs. However, unlike the conservative school of thought, the Reformists do not perceive the necessity of conflict between cultures – instead, they stress emphasizing commonalities in order to minimize conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic societies.
Ultimately, these arguments weaken the underlying assumption that human rights are universal. Critics of this viewpoint suggest the universality of human rights emerges from the various international documents that codify such rights. Yet this ignores the fact that Westerners – specifically, the Western liberal political elite – overwhelmingly participated in the drafting of these documents. Furthermore, the conception of these documents served an explicitly political purpose – buttressing the post-war, liberal world order as conceived by President Roosevelt and American planners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights played a direct role in crafting the appearance of universality for the Western conception of human rights.
Only once the intra-civilizational divides on values and human rights reach a sufficient conclusion can inter-civilizational divides hope to receive adequate attention and a truly universal human rights regime formulated. Ultimately, the implementation of this human rights regime could serve as a veritable Peace of Westphalia for human rights.
After an enormous earthquake destroys the city of Lisbon in Candide, Voltaire poignantly asks the reader, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others” (Voltaire, 26)? Increasingly, the most potent of political earthquakes – nationalism – is enjoying a powerful rebirth following a long and tortuous decline in the aftermath of World War II. People across the globe are beginning to envision a different world, a better world – one in which they possess a nation of their own. Whether this rebirth will result in bloodshed on a scale not seen since the 1930s or in a peaceful resolution of differences is yet to be seen, but in all likelihood it will be determined on the opposite side of the Iberian Peninsula – in Catalonia.
Since at least the 1920s, the issue of self-determination – which can be defined as the ability of a distinct people to establish a nation of their own and exercise unimpeded sovereignty in their own affairs – began to be adopted into the lexicon of human rights. Woodrow Wilson was one of the first to interject self-determination into human rights, claiming that “nationalities … should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development” in his Fourteen Points. Ultimately, this belief influenced nearly every major, Western-produced document concerning human rights. Self-determination is explicitly guaranteed to all peoples in the Atlantic Charter, the Declaration by the United Nations, the United Nations Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights among others.
Curiously, however, the European Convention on Human Rights – which is the most relevant document in this situation due to Spanish membership in the European Union – does not guarantee self-determination. In fact, it states that freedom of expression may be limited “in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, … or for maintaining the authority … of the judiciary” (ECHR, 11). As will be demonstrated later, the Spanish government has employed all of these arguments in its bids to stop the Catalonian independence referendum from coming to fruition.
Aside from the European Convention on Human Rights, the connection between human rights and self-determination – at least until recently – has not been prominently disputed. The question then becomes, how do we determine to which groups the right of self-determination applies? The general consensus is that this right is primarily granted to peoples demonstrating the characteristics of a nation. However, the question of who constitutes a nation, and on what basis, generates considerable disagreement, particularly in the West, which has long attempted to suppress its own nationalism as penance for the destruction wreaked by Nazi Germany.
Some claim that the nation is a figment of the imagination, that it is an invented national tradition, that it is an imagined community (Hobsbawm and Ranger; Anderson). This is not to say that it does not possess meaning – history clearly demonstrates that it does – but that there is very little actual quantitative or qualitative basis on which a nation can be delineated. Others suggest that the nation is real, but that its membership is constantly in flux, shaped solely by economic considerations, individual choices, and shared beliefs (Deutsch; Gellner; Kohn). This “civic nationalism” generally possesses a more cosmopolitan outlook, and it often taken to the extreme by intellectuals, such as Ernest Renan, who claimed that “a nation’s existence is … [simply] a daily plebiscite,” (10) a daily referendum.
Yet others still define a nation as something timeless and primordial (Geertz; Isaacs; Smith). To these theorists, physical characteristics, shared culture, shared history, and shared language – to put it simply – combine to create “a self-aware ethnic group,” which forms a nation (Connor, 279-88; Schmitt). In modern academia, this conception of the nation is generally regarded with scorn as an outdated, primitive view. Among many people, however, it still holds tremendous sway as demonstrated vividly by the universal opposition to immigration by nationalist, as well as by the decline in social trust in multi-ethnic areas of the United States (Putnam). While there exists some genetic overlap between different ethnic groups in border regions, generally speaking, ethnic groups, and the nations they constitute, remain homogenous and distinct from one another. And even if they did not, as Walker Connor notes, “what ultimately matters is not what is but what people believe is” (Connor, 379-88).
In determining if Catalonia possesses the right to independence and self-determination, one must first decide whether or not Catalonia constitutes a nation. As evidenced by the slogan above – which means “We are a nation, we decide” – Catalans clearly believe that they do. And all evidence unequivocally indicates that they are correct.
Indeed, Catalonia has previously experienced independence, existing as an independent kingdom until the fifteenth century when it was divided between the Spanish and French monarchies. Despite this conquest, Catalan culture – and a sense of “Catalan-ness” – survived and even thrived (Sahlins). The people of the region possessed a common language (Catalan), culture, symbols, and history that both united them and kept them distinct from their neighbors and conquerors. However, this distinctiveness was not preserved without a struggle. Various Spanish monarchs, as well as the dictator Francisco Franco from 1936 to 1975, sought to hispanicize the Catalans by banning their language and symbols. Attempts to resist were brutally and bloodily repressed, yet Catalonia’s distinctiveness survived into the current century.
After the death of Franco, the new Spanish Constitution granted Catalonia a limited form of autonomous self-government, and for several decades this largely satisfied the Catalans. Between 2009 and 2011, with the repression of Franco but a distant memory, this rapidly changed as various Catalan towns voted in symbolic independence referendums. In 2014, the first non-binding, Catalonia-wide referendum was held with a result of 81% in favor of independence.
Ultimately, this brings us to the Catalan independent referendum of 2017, which – due to the intransigence of both parties – threatens to engulf the Iberian Peninsula in its second civil war in under one hundred years. There were crucial differences between this referendum and those that preceded it. Unlike the previous referendum, the results of the 2017 referendum were binding. Furthermore, it was administered by a new Catalan leader, Carlos Puigdemont, who refused to swear the customary oaths of allegiance to the Spanish Constitution and monarch, King Felipe VI.
To many Spaniards, the referendum was an illegal act and those who participated were criminals. Following the announcement of the results, millions of Spaniards took to the streets, shouting slogans – as in the video above – such as “I am Spanish,” “No negotiations with traitors,” and “Puigdemont to prison.” It is abundantly clear that the Spanish government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took a similar hardline view of the Catalan independence referendum.
Although the Spanish government was correct in its stance that the referendum was illegal, and it rightly questioned the legitimacy of the vote, it grossly violated the human rights of its Catalan citizens as established in nearly every human rights document. As previously noted, however, it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights, leading – along with no doubt more cynical reasons – the European Union to support Spain’s actions.
Los independentistas catalanes han fracturado la unidad española
Addressing the Spanish nation in response to the Catalan independence referendum, King Felipe VI claimed that the separatists had fractured the unity of Spain, as well as Catalonia itself, and were undermining democracy. In an interview with El Pais, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy admitted that Catalans constituted their own nation, but denied their right to secede. Rajoy professed the belief that Catalans should abandon extremism, and work to coexist with the rest of Spain in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner.
Are the Spanish monarch and prime minister correct? Or do the Catalan people possess the right to secede?
Ultimately, the Catalan pursuit of a pointless independence, possessing little to no basis in human rights or even common sense, could see a return to the bloodshed that characterized the apex of nationalism – the 1930s. Already the signs can be observed. The referendum is serving to polarize both sides of the issue, heightening Spanish nationalism, and encouraging violence. Increasingly, many disillusioned Spaniards – in a last bid attempt to maintain their country’s longstanding territorial unity – will look for example to the last Spanish leader who was able to control the separatist tendencies of Catalonia: Francisco Franco. And if that occurs, Catalonia will certainly have created a different world, but will it be a better world for Catalans?
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