Who is ‘weaponising’ the Syrian refugees?

The refugee influx began well before the Russian bombing and it’s not just their bombing that creates refugees.

Refugees gather as they try to get products from a truck Idomeni
If Europe had provided safe, legal, collectively coordinated routes for refugees, there would be no crisis, writes Shabi [Reuters]

Of course, it was a comment too good to resist. When a NATO commander accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “weaponising” migrants, it was picked up by media outlets everywhere. Because that is exactly the sort of thing the dastardly Russian president would do, in cahoots with the murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, isn’t it?

And because migrants are such a horrendous inconvenience, if not an actual daily danger, so it makes sense that they would be deployed as a “weapon” against us, right?

The comment came from United States General Philip Breedlove, a senior Nato commander in Europe, who said: “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

Well, first of all, exactly how self-absorbed do you need to be to make the refugee crisis all about you and your region of responsibility – to the extent that you see refugees fleeing war as an actual attack on resolve?

Second, whose structures are in fact being “overwhelmed” by the migration crisis? Are we seriously supposed to believe that it is Europe, with a total population of around 500 million, taking in some 135,000 migrants who have reached its shores by sea?

Or perhaps it is countries such as Lebanon, currently home to 1.2 million Syrian refugees within a total population of 4.5 million. Or maybe Turkey, where there are 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees, amid a population 75 million. Or how about Jordan, which has up to 1.2 million Syrian refugees living in a country with a population of almost 8 million?

Bargaining chip

If you need further clarity, here’s how writer, author and broadcaster Kenan Malik put it to me: “Refugees are the inevitable by-products of warfare. The refugee influx began well before the current phase of Russian bombing. And it’s not just Russian bombing that creates refugees.”

On top of which, it isn’t just bombing in Syria that creates refugees: when US-led coalitions bombed Iraq and Afghanistan, those invasions also forced people to flee their homes.

Turkey isn't holding the EU to ransom; the EU is holding itself to ransom by its failure to formulate a collective response to the crisis and by looking to outsource all its responsibilities to Turkey.

by Kenan Malik

But it is true, meanwhile, that countries are cynically manipulating the migration issue – or, as journalist and author Daniel Trilling, who has reported extensively on the refugee crisis, puts it, “using refugees as political bargaining chips”.

An unwillingness to take a collective approach to the refugee crisis has resulted in a free-for-all, in terms of countries issuing threats and ultimatums.

Turkey is the latest and most prominent case in point – and not least because the European Union has just spectacularly buckled in talks with the country. According to a Greek news website, Turkey was threatening to flood Europe with migrants back in November last year.

Now, desperate to stem the large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe, with Greece as a major entry point, the EU has agreed a “one in, one out” policy with Turkey.

The agreement, yet to be finalised, is that trafficked migrant to Greece will be sent back to Turkey, while a Syrian refugee from Turkey will in return be taken in by a European country. That deal, apart from being practically unworkable, is a breach of the UN convention on refugees.

And in return, Turkey is to receive concessions such as the promise of accelerated accession to the EU, $3.3bn for refugee relief and $3.3bn more until the end of 2018, plus visa-free travel to Europe – and, of course, the EU turning a blind eye to its various human rights violations, not least the suppression of free speech and a free press.

Refugees as political footballs

But is Turkey really doing anything so very different, so uniquely cynical or manipulative, when it comes to refugees? In February, Greece threatened to torpedo a deal that the UK was trying to reach with the EU, if other member states closed their borders to refugees.

It would be hard to get all moral and uppity with Greece for using this tactic, given that Europe has done little to help with the crisis that the country is facing, as the main gateway for fleeing refugees.

OPINION: The dark side of the EU-Turkey refugee deal

Also in February, Austria threatened to extend its border controls if Turkey didn’t take back refugees picked up at sea, en route to Greece.

And a month earlier, EU ministers threatened Greece with exclusion from the Schengen zone if Greece didn’t do more to control its borders.

OPINION: The EU-Turkey refugee deal and the Kurdish issue

Meanwhile, the governments of France, the UK and Germany have all variously used migrants and refugees as political footballs in domestic disputes.

Just weeks ago, for instance, the British Prime Minister David Cameron accused the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of telling a “bunch of migrants” in Calais that they could come to Britain – yes, such is the tone of the debate over refugees that the offer of shelter to refugee kids gets portrayed as a bad thing by a prime minister.


We want to be outraged at Turkey for blackmailing the EU but as Kenan Malik clarifies: “Turkey isn’t holding the EU to ransom; the EU is holding itself to ransom by its failure to formulate a collective response to the crisis and by looking to outsource all its responsibilities to Turkey.”

Just like the suggestion that migrants are being “weaponised”, the focus on Turkey is detracting from the central issue: which is that the refugee crisis has been caused by Europe, certainly neither by refugees who are fleeing war and persecution, nor by the countries that are, through pure geographical necessity, their first port of call.

If Europe had provided safe, legal, collectively coordinated routes for refugees, there would be no crisis. In all the talk of who is blackmailing whom, let’s not lose sight of that.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.