by Kiri Kankhwende 

Ahead of this week’s Brussels summit between EU leaders and Turkey, the UNHCR published a six-point plan to address the refugee crisis in Europe, which he UN High Commissioner for Refugees said was “as much a crisis of European solidarity as it is a refugee crisis.”

He pointed out that Europe had dealt with large movements of refugees in the past, such as during the Balkan wars, “and can deal with this one, provided it acts in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility sharing.”

The six-point plan included measures such as ensuring compliance with all the EU laws and directives on asylum and, crucially, “making available more safe, legal ways for refugees to travel to Europe under managed programmes – for example humanitarian admission programmes, private sponsorships, family reunion, student scholarships and labour mobility schemes – so that refugees do not resort to smugglers and traffickers to find safety.”

“There is really no other option than working together to solve this,” the High Commissioner said.

Well… it depends how you see the crisis. The UNHCR sees the rapidly deteriorating situation of tens of thousands of people in Greece and near the border with Macedonia, who “are sleeping in the open without adequate reception, services, aid or information” amid mounting tensions.

Looking at the outline of the deal that was struck in Brussels, though, it seems that the EU (and yes, that includes us for now) would rather not be forced to look.

Under the proposed refugee exchange programme, any more asylum seekers who come on boats to Europe will be returned to Turkey and exchanged for some who are living in camps there. People will be traded like chess pieces on a board. The desire to break the traffickers’ trade is laudable, but there are no moves to tackle root causes of war, instability and poverty which are pushing people to flee in the first place.

The UN has since cautioned that the blanket return of asylum seekers to a third country without any safeguards to ensure that they will not be returned to the country they fled, and without other guarantees such as access to social care, education and healthcare, is a potential violation of international law.

And the unquestioned assumption underpinning this cynical deal appears to be that getting into so-called “death boats” is somehow the easy option in a range of choices, rather than an act of desperation.

Disability and other Lifestyle Choices

The House of Lords is many things (the adjective that most often springs to mind when political appointments are announced is “problematic”) but it has to be said that recently it has become the last chance saloon for deflecting or halting some of the cruellest cuts of austerity. Last year the House of Lords fought tax credit cuts, prompting dark mutterings of a constitutional crisis.

This week it was the £30-a-week cut to disability benefit, which charities warned will actually make it harder for disabled people to find work. It was left to members of the House of Lords to bring their expertise to bear, but the measure was forced through on a matter of parliamentary protocol and without an impact assessment.

Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson said: “This may be the end of the legislative process, but it is the start of the negative impact the Bill will have on thousands of people’s lives.”

Baroness Campbell, herself a former Disability Rights Commissioner, said she was left “speechless” by the government’s justification for the cut – that it would force the sick and disabled into work. She pointed out that “attitudinal and environmental discrimination that really prevents this group from accessing employment.”

Never mind the fact that corporations (hey, Google!) get to cut sweetheart tax deals. The axe falls on the most vulnerable. In austerity Britain, you only have value if you work. If you’re not working – regardless of whether you’re ill or otherwise unable to for whatever reason – that’s a lifestyle choice.

And as with asylum-seekers risking their lives in unseaworthy vessels to get to Europe, the language of choice is cynically twisted to mask the fact that, for some, their “choice” is anything but.

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 White Men Dancing is a weekly column. Kiri Kankhwende and Maurice Mcleod keep an eye on Westminster. Politics is too important to leave to politicians.

Kiri Kankhwende is a Malawian journalist and blogger specialising in immigration and politics. She has a background in French and Chinese language studies and holds an Msc in International Political Communications, Politics and Human Rights Advocacy. An accomplished public speaker, she has also written for the Guardian and the Independent, and has been a contributor to BBC TV and radio, Al-Jazeera and Fox News. Find her on Twitter @madomasi 

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