The EU’s ambivalent response to the February earthquake and migration

By Colombe Tricaud

On February 6, Turkiyë and Syria experienced this century’s most devastating earthquake. Three days later, the European Council held a special meeting to strengthen the E.U. to face current crises. While the timing of the meeting was coincidental, it prompts reflections on the way European aid is allocated in the Levant and Middle East’s long displacement crisis.

The meeting’s report is organized into three sections, beginning with “Ukraine” and ending with “migration” – and the gap between these sections is vast. The Council vowed to stand by Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” and boasted of the 67€ million it had sent to support Ukraine. In the “migration” section, the Council demanded “increased action [and] more effective control of E.U. external borders” just three days after the earthquake that claimed over 55,000 lives and rendered approximately 1.5 million people homeless in the two countries that are most affected by forced displacement.

Although E.U. officials mentioned the importance of  “compliance with international law, E.U. principles and values, and the protection of fundamental rights,” this promise was undermined by the mention of increased support for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex. Since 2005, Frontex has been accused of a multitude of human rights violations that have largely been overlooked by E.U. institutions.

Investigations by respected human rights organizations have shown how Frontex conceals and supports push-backs of migrants at European borders to places like Libya, where immigrants are kept in harrowing detention. Even the most concrete charges, such as the 2021 OLAF report that concluded that Frontex permitted violations of “fundamental rights as enshrined in the Chapter of Fundamental Rights of the E.U.,” failed to motivate reform.

The Council’s report does include a subsection titled “Earthquake in Turkiyë and Syria,” that expresses “deepest condolences to” and “stands in solidarity with” those affected. It details the 1,600 rescuers who were deployed to Turkiyë and commends the March 16th Donors’ Conference organized by the European Commission. This only highlights the ambivalence of the E.U. regarding Middle-Eastern migrants.

When disaster struck, the E.U. activated the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) to coordinate support for earthquake victims. Following requests on February 8 and 9 by Syrian authorities and the World Food Programme in Syria, the E.U. also activated its civil protection mechanism and sent one of its largest rescue missions – with staff from 23 countries – to Turkiyë and Syria.

More typically, the E.U. relies on encouragement and praise for humanitarian efforts that do little to relieve distress or outweigh the E.U.’s hostile measures. For instance, the E.U. donors’ conference, held a month after this disaster, ignores the urgent nature of earthquake relief.  At the same time, Frontex’s annual budget was increased to 800€ million to add 10,000 guard posts to European borders by 2027.

Despite the likelihood of good intentions, E.U. efforts to assist after the February 6 earthquake and its policies to stymie immigration are at cross-purposes.  While the earthquake’s aftermath will be another obstacle to stability in the Middle East, the special European Council’s actions show the dichotomy between stating principals human rights and respecting them.



Published on April 10, 2023


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