Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1401, (12 - 18 July 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1401, (12 - 18 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Displacing the problem

It’s not the Middle East and Arab countries only that are currently going through a state of turmoil and instability. Indeed, the situation is far more tragic in several Arab and Middle East countries, with civil wars resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and an unprecedented flood of displaced and refugees, but European countries and the United States are also undergoing radical changes that are bringing into question values that the Western world has claimed to champion over the past seven decades, since the end of World War II.

Populism and nationalist rhetoric now dominate the political stage in countries that have long defended democracy and human rights, bringing into confrontation strategic allies within the European continent, and Europe and the United States. The rise of populist and right-wing parties is changing the political scene in key European countries, if not all of them, including Italy, Germany, France, Britain, Austria and Spain. 

The drama of the rescue ship, Aquarius, and several other ships carrying hundreds of immigrants, including women and children, that were left stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea for many days while the new populist-right wing government in Italy was trading charges with other European countries on who should allow them in, was only an ugly example on how basic human values are being sullied.

The situation is even worse in the East European nations, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, whose governments openly promote racist rhetoric, refusing to receive any refugees, describing them as a “threat to European democracy and values”, especially if they come from Muslim countries, and who strongly reject to apply European conventions that call for an equal distribution on refugees across all EU nations. Countries in southern Europe overlooking the Mediterranean, such as Spain, Greece and Italy, cannot bare alone the responsibility of the thousands of refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East that are trying to escape wars or dire economic conditions in their homelands. That’s not to forget the hundreds of refugees who lose their lives in wrecked boats and ships while trying to make the long journey to Europe.

Even respected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was close to winning the Nobel Peace Prize for the humane stand she took after the escalation in Syria’s Civil War, allowing more than one million Syrians into Germany, was forced to adopt a more hardline policy on refugees after the rise of right-wing parties in latest elections and a threat to resign by her interior minister and partner in the fragile ruling coalition.

These inter-European differences and changing politics should not be solved at the expense of North African countries, such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, who all have their own problems and economic challenges. Recent proposals circulated by the European Union include establishing so-called “refugee centres” in North African nations for immigrants trying to reach Europe until their cases are reviewed, instead of establishing such centres in their own territories. In reality, European countries are asking North African countries to establish Guantanamo-style detention centres for immigrants who are escaping miserable conditions in their own countries.

Even a war-torn country such as Libya, which has two governments, two parliaments and many militias, is being asked to host such detention centres. That’s not to mention recent reports that indicated inhumane conditions in which thousands of refugees are being already kept in Libya after their detention by naval authorities supported by European countries, particularly Italy and France.

Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt have also indicated that they would not accept establishing the proposed “detention centres” on their shores while European governments look through immigrant cases, most likely turning them down and asking the governments of those North African countries to forcibly deport them to their countries of origin. Such a proposal is absurd, and there is no human or legal basis for making it in the first place.

Ironically, such European proposals are coming at a time when the number of refugees reaching Europe has gone down by more than half, mainly due to the effort of North African countries, including Egypt. In his recent visit to Germany, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri noted that almost not a single boat has departed from Egyptian shores on the Mediterranean, stretching over 1,200 kilometres, to Europe in more than two years. This has been a very expensive and difficult mission, but Egypt agreed to carry it out in respect for its international obligations, and partnership with key European countries. Therefore, no North African country should be asked to bare more responsibility at very difficult times. It would have been much better if such illogical and absurd European proposals were not made in the first place.

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