European nations are setting a new benchmark for neglect in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.
“With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city” – the fabled city of Omelas. It was a marvelous city, the ornament of the world – as it were, with joyous people and brightly colored houses with “red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings…the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing.”
Similarly, Europe, too, is fancied. Perceived as a fairy-tale land of freedom, equality and hope – loved, by some, the way mothers are. Understandably so, by those with empty stomachs and sad, longing eyes.
Yet, Ursula’s novella offers a ghastly twist; a moral outrage, necessary for happiness to stay in the city. The wondrous, imaginary city of Omelas, conceals a beastly truth below its foundations. Nothing less than a stark-naked, skeletal, imbecile child, who is confined to a dark, reeking, subterranean room beneath the city.
The doomed child, under no circumstances, must be allowed to leave or, even, be treated kindly – for that would remove the peoples’ joy. In that Faustian bargain, concerning a glorious metropolis and its wretched underbelly, are striking parallels between the imaginary dreamland of Omelas and present-day Europe. Both utopias – if you will, whether fantasy or real, conceal dystopian undercurrents and painful, ugly truths: either as an unclothed, sickly young child immersed in its own excrement, or, in actuality, as child refugees in Europe, who are victims of rape, sexual exploitation and slavery.
Essentially, at the heart of the matter is an ethical dilemma, originally posed by philosopher William James: If all could be made blissfully happy on the account of another’s misery, would we accept it?
Both, the city of Omelas that tortures a stunted adolescent and Europe with its abhorrent disregard for child refugees, shakes our moral foundations to its core. Either by questioning the ways in which vulgarity is normalized or how ethical protestations, eventually, give way to pragmatism – no matter the cost.
Throughout the European Union, whether in Italy, Greece, France or elsewhere, child refugee abuse involves a wide-range of crimes; trafficking, sexual exploitation, enforced prostitution, organ trafficking, benefits fraud, forced labour, slavery, begging, drug running, pickpocketing and theft.
Even worse, credible EU reports indicate children are being sold and pregnant women trafficked to sell their unborn child. More shocking yet, is the organized crime specifically targeting child refugees, while European authorities seemingly turn a blind-eye. This is the tragic irony of children who have lost their parents, homes, escaping war, poverty or disaster, only to end up in unspeakable conditions in the EU, which, according to Europol, is getting worse.
A 2016 study by UNICEF, entitled “Neither Safe nor Sound,” highlights the plight of child refugees living in France, across the English Channel, while they torturously await their asylum request in the United Kingdom.
Based on direct interviews with child refugees, it was revealed that those in the best conditions, still suffer from cold and fatigue, difficulty in accessing meals and showers, nervousness, symptoms of depression, and no access to regular schooling.
There are even cases of “entry fees” being extracted by traffickers, and how most children lack access to proper communication services. All of this takes place under the ever-watchful eyes of French authorities.
The situation in Greece is more disturbing, according to an alarming report published in April 2017 by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. The report highlights the physical, psychological, and sexual violence faced by minors in refugee camps in Greece, particularly sexual exploitation. Although cases of boys and girls being targeted by sexual predators—whether individual actors or part of criminal networks are many—most children are afraid to come forward for fear of reprisal. This means the crimes against child refugees are significantly higher than documented.
At present, there are 170,000 unaccompanied and separated child refugees (UASCR) throughout the European Union. Yet, this astounding figure does not relay the entirety of the catastrophe, since these are just those that have been documented. Nor does it reflect the terrifying manner in which hundreds of thousands of child refugees—homeless and without parental or guardian support—are being mercilessly abused.
This is Europe’s nightmare.
In fact, the “ECHR has held against several Member States for violating the EU’s legal regime on refugees on issues of detention, status of reception facilities, and lack of legal remedies.”
Moreover, according to Claude Moraes, the chair of the European Parliament’s Justice and Home Affairs committee, “the amount of child abuse, rape and smuggling that is going on is horrific…If the EU is to have any sort of value it has to care for unaccompanied minors when they arrive in Europe.”
It’s as if Europe’s dirty secret has now been exposed. As that of the false utopia of the city of Omelas, where the naked child waits to be kicked by curious onlookers to ensure that it is still there – and paradise protected.
These unfortunate child refugees, also, are being kicked: either out of boats by traffickers afraid of getting caught; or while being held in their parent’s arms desperate to reach an illusory paradise; or by a broken European system that just does not want them – but is too afraid to admit it.
The European Union has a manifest responsibility to child refugees, as outlined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Both instruments bind EU Members, who must also comply with the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union(CJEU) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Moreover, as a signatory to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Union must act in the ‘best interests of the child.’ Yet, law is only effective if not just its writ, but spirit be followed.
Unfortunately, a monumental failure in fulfilling these obligations has led to tens of thousands of children in appalling, exploitative and criminal conditions. Likewise, in the make-believe city of Omelas – the hopeless child must remain outside the celebrated laws of the city. And, today in Europe, as stated by Baroness Shas Sheehan, the pleas of child refugees fall on deaf ears.
This the tragic paradox of European border policy, while claiming to champion the rule of law, tolerance and human rights, it remains incapable of creating legal entry channels for those refugees – even deliberately creating obstacles that make their journey as burdensome as possible. Consequently, a morally disastrous version of some dystopian Hunger Games emerges, where, as Bruno Macaes poetically writes “refugees are rewarded with the promise of generous social benefits and security if they are lucky enough to survive.”
It is not without reason that Frantz Fanon roars, unforgivingly, “Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them.”
Others, too, are scolding Europe’s cowardice in the face of the formidable global child refugee crisis. Now, former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, laments that this humanitarian crisis is being grossly obscured by the “sight of our leaders squabbling as to who is not going to do their humanitarian duty towards these people—this is going to remain as a stigma upon Europe.” Indeed, not just stigma, but a deep, irremovable blood-stain – a plague on all their beautiful houses.
Admittedly, all nation-states inflict varying levels of oppression – some more unjust than others; India’s treatment of Kashmiris; Israeli treatment of Palestinians; or Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. Yet, enduring questions remain: Will the European Union act and fulfill its obligations to these child refugees? Will Europe live to its lofty ideals and the inherent dignity of all peoples? Or, will it be counted among the ones who walk away?