Don’t make us ashamed to be European
Article by Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, Giuseppina Nicoli, Mayor of Lampedusa, and Spyros Galinos, Mayor of Lesbos, originally published in El Periodico on 16 March 2016
Two and a half thousand years ago, the islands of the Western Mediterranean were the cradle of the sciences, the arts and democracy. Today, they’re where the survival of Europe is at stake. We find ourselves facing a dilemma: either we assume our responsibility and strengthen the founding principles of the European project or we allow it to sink irreversibly.
There is hope. Over recent months we’ve seen thousands of citizens, volunteers and aid workers working to save lives by helping those fleeing from war. We’ve seen local governments with hardly any legal powers carry out herculean tasks to receive refugees, investing the resources that state governments have refused. Nevertheless, we’ve also observed, with sadness, not just the inability of European states to offer a dignified solution to the humanitarian crisis, but also transit routes being choked off; increasing border controls and repression, and the aberration of a deal with Turkey that contravenes all international law regarding asylum and fundamental rights.
Local initiatives stand in stark contrast to the lack of sensitivity demonstrated by European states. While state governments haggle quotas, we cities make contingency and awareness-raising strategies that, with adequate resources, we have a greater capacity to take in refugees than has been recognized. While state governments agree to repressive measures, we municipalities are working in networks to reach deals, like the agreement between Lesbos, Lampedusa and Barcelona that will allow the exchange of knowledge, resources and solidarity between the three cities. With state governments are incapable of thinking beyond their national context, Barcelona and Athens city halls are working together to put pressure on them to meet their ethical and legal obligations.
We, the cities of the Mediterranean, urgently call for other European cities to put an end to the inhumane policies of state governments and to force them to change course in response to the greatest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. The families that have lost their homes will not rest in pursuit of a place to live in peace, however many obstacles are put in their way. Each new impediment will simply increase the risks to human life and be another incentive for those wishing to profit from people-trafficking.
We call for the rejection of the deal with Turkey, which flouts international law and fundamental rights. Human lives cannot be traded for economic and commercial agreements. The right to asylum is a basic human right that cannot be subject to discounts and bartering. We also call for an end to the criminalization of refugees, and of the aid workers and volunteers collaborating in their reception. Their work should be a source of pride, and be supported and incentivised by public institutions. Events in recent days at the border of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the xenophobic rallies seen in various European countries, and their subsequent electoral exploitation, are a display of indecency that should embarrass us as European citizens and as human beings.
In the face of this situation, we urge the European Union to develop a common asylum policy that goes beyond the narrow-mindedness of state governments, and acting in accordance with the cities that have demonstrated their willingness and ability to welcome refugees by providing them with resources. This will require state governments to take on their responsibilities and follow through on agreements on the relocation and settlement of the refugee population. Safe passage must also be guaranteed so that the refugee population in transit can move without putting their safety and lives at risk. Thousands of people, including many elderly people and children, are adrift on a journey through Europe. They have names, histories and life-stories. They need care, services and protection. They need us to act.
The founding values of Europe are at stake and the choices we make now will define the future of the Union. For this reason, we call on state governments not to take decisions in our name that make us ashamed, and to support the work of networks of cities so that the Mediterranean can become, once again, a bridge of civilization, democracy and hope.