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Not in my back yard: a shameful response to human tragedy

Greek PM Tsipras: 'No solution 2 #refugeecrisis as too many countries say not in my backyard.' UK is one of those.

— Steve Symonds (@stevesymondsAI) October 26, 2015

Indeed. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was reported to have made this observation in Brussels at a meeting of leaders from countries along the main refugee route through the Balkans and Central Europe. I say the main route, but the long path trodden by refugees is often diverted as individual countries adopt the ‘not in my back yard’ approach.

Just three weeks ago, my colleagues were in Zákány, on the Hungary-Croatia border, to witness the passage of refugees through that last remaining gap in the razor-wire fence, and to show solidarity with the people making the journey and the volunteers supplying them with basic necessities.

Barely a week later, Hungary completed the fence – just one of the draconian measures which violate human rights obligations and turn the country into a refugee protection-free zone.

Fenced out: Report on #Hungary's becoming a refugee protection free zone @amnestypress

— Barbora Cernusakova (@BCernusakova) October 7, 2015

So the route diverted to the Croatia-Slovenia border, where Croatian police - trying to justify their actions on the basis that ‘everybody is doing it’ - erected a fence behind the refugees, effectively trapping men, women and children between the two countries, overnight and in dire conditions.

While states wish they weren’t there at all, the back yard becomes literally where many refugees are forced to sleep – out in the open, on bare ground, with temperatures plunging. 

Little care is given to vulnerable #refugees on #Balkans route, despite many in need of assistance. #SOSEurope

— Todor Gardos (@tgardos) October 25, 2015

The one small flicker of hope is that, on 25 October, a commitment was made to increase capacity in all countries along that route to provide shelter, healthcare, food, water and sanitation.

But even the 50,000 reception places promised in Greece falls woefully short and no commitments were made to address protection needs or sustainable solutions to the crisis. The majority of European countries seem intent on securing their own borders, instead of securing the rights of other human beings. 

The UK government is certainly no exception. We’ve reported before on how, whilst the UK has been a generous donor to the humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees still in the region, they have been far more reluctant to offer assistance here in the UK.

It was only in response to the overwhelming outpouring of compassion and outrage at the tragic photo toddler Aylan Kurdi, that the government announced that they would accept on average 4,000 Syrian refugees over each of the next five years. In recent weeks, more than twice that number of people have been arriving in Greece each day.

It shouldn't take a photo to get politicians to do the right thing but new pledge to take 20,000 Syrians is a start

— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) September 7, 2015

A step in the right direction – but it still does nothing to address the needs of those refugees who have struggled to reach Europe, or for those fleeing conflict and persecution in countries other than Syria.

While my colleagues were in Hungary, the UK Home Secretary was making a speech to the Conservative Party Conference, full of myths and inaccuracies, but clear in its message: those who battle against the odds and reach the UK to seek protection here will be met with a hostile reception.

The Immigration Bill, currently going through Parliament, is also full of both provisions and omissions which give great cause for concern. In March 2015, a cross-party inquiry concluded that immigration detention in the UK is used excessively, disproportionately and inappropriately. Since 2011 the High Court has found that the use of immigration detention has actually constituted inhuman and degrading treatment on five separate occasions.

As hostile receptions go, that has got to be up there – yet the current Immigration Bill does nothing to right this.

The hostility and not-in-my-back-yard approach is not just confined to Europe but shamefully widespread around the world. In just the last month, we reported on the horrific abuses suffered at sea by Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, and issued an Urgent Action on behalf of two Palestinian and one Syrian refugees detained in Turkey where it is feared that they may be forced to sign ‘voluntary’ return forms and subsequently be returned to Syria, in violation of a key principle of the international refugee protection system.

Sadly, it feels that almost every day brings a new example of the outrageous lengths states will go to: last week, we revealed that Australian officials are not only tolerating people-smuggling, but are encouraging it – by paying boat crews to take asylum-seekers to Indonesia, and even providing a map of landing sites.

As long as governments persist in this race to the bottom in their attitudes towards and treatment of refugees, there will be no solution to the global refugee crisis. Effective solutions must be grounded in an appropriate definition of the problem.

This problem is a political crisis, which is daily causing many human tragedies and suffering – and the response of too many governments reveals it also to be a crisis of humanity.

Governments must instead take a lead from the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated their humanity through the spontaneous #RefugeesWelcome movement.

Are you listening @david_cameron? Thousands say make #refugeeswelcome

— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) September 12, 2015

In Hungary, the volunteers my colleagues met came from Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the UK and the USA.

Think what could be achieved if governments collaborated in the same spirit. And they must. Because just in the course of writing this blog, we heard yet more tragic news: more shipwrecks off the coast of Greece in which 22 people, including many children, are said to have drowned.

Email your MP now to call for the UK to do its part

We must approach this crisis with humanity. Why? This cartoon says it all. 

This poignant cartoon captures why we should care about what is happening at sea. By @simon_kneebone. #SOSeurope

— S.O.S. Europe (@SOS_Europe) May 29, 2015

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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