What 2020 did right in the Middle East and Europe

In a year of darkness, there were patches of bright sunlight

A migrant uses a blanket to warm himself in a field near Edirne, at the Turkish-Greek border on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Migrants and refugees hoping to enter Greece from Turkey appeared to be fanning out across a broader swathe of the roughly 200-kilometer-long land border Tuesday, maintaining pressure on the frontier after Ankara declared its borders with the European Union open. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
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Remember the refugee crisis?

It seems like a lifetime ago now when thousands of hopeful asylum-seekers and other migrants were boarding dinghies in Turkey headed for the Greek islands. But it was just this past March when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Greece and the EU that he would "open the gates" once again and encourage millions of refugees in Turkey to head for the frontier.

Clashes took place at Greece’s land border with Turkey, and migrants taking to the Aegean Sea to reach the EU also faced adversity, with Greek border guards shooting live fire and threatening to ram their boats. Then the coronavirus pandemic emerged and many refugees chose to stay put rather than venture out and put their lives doubly at risk.

In the end, 2020 saw the lowest number of refugee crossings from Turkey to Greece in seven years (15,482) – a nearly 80 per cent drop from last year (75,000). The number of migrant deaths also fell sharply, though watchdog groups say both Turkey and Greece have taken problematic actions, such as pushing migrant boats into the other’s territorial waters.

But as our year of the plague mercifully comes to a close, I'd like to point out some patches of sunlight hiding underneath 2020’s vast blanket of darkness.

These are the things I’m thankful for as we head into a shiny new year.

A man holds his three sons as migrants from Afghanistan arrive on a dinghy on a beach near the village of Skala Sikamias, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      SEARCH "GLOBAL POY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2020 PACKAGES.
A man holds his three sons as migrants from Afghanistan arrive on a dinghy on a beach near the village of Skala Sikamias, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece. Reuters

The other end of the migrant journey also saw a bit of good news. Since the great waves of migrant arrivals in 2015-16, many EU states saw far-right groups and political parties gained ground, spurring fears that the backlash to a lasting and growing refugee population might bring far-right parties to power and destabilise Europe.

A few months ago, Germany largely began to lay those fears to rest, announcing that more than half of the 1.7 million migrants it has welcomed in the last five years had jobs and were paying taxes. More importantly, over 80 per cent said they feel a strong sense of belonging, and Germany has seen no increase in crime or terrorism, contrary to what nativists predicted.

What's more, the couple that may just be 2020's persons of the year are German immigrant success stories. Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are the husband-and-wife co-founders of the German health research firm BioNTech. With backing from American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, BioNTech was the first to announce successful  Phase 3 trials for a coronavirus vaccine. It marks one of the great achievements in medical history.

Mr Sahin was born in Turkey and moved to Cologne with his family when he was four, while Ms Tureci’s Turkey-born father moved to Germany shortly before she was born. The couple’s success proved humanity’s stunning capacity for innovation amid crisis and the enduring value of remaining willing to help outsiders in need.

This dovetails with a broader global embrace of immigration in 2020. Since 1965, US polling firm Gallup has been asking the same question: “Should immigration be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?” In July, for the first time in the survey’s history, more Americans expressed a desire to increase immigration (34 per cent) than decrease it (28 per cent).

Italy updated the “security decree” of anti-immigrant former interior minister Matteo Salvini, enabling arriving refugees and migrants to apply for humanitarian protections and obtain work permits. Mexico also changed its immigration law, banning the holding of migrant children in detention centres, earning praise from the UN.

This year also saw a handful of positive steps closer to home. The annual terrorism index of the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace found that deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, and have now fallen nearly 60 per cent since 2014.

The Abraham Accords spurred friendly relations between Israel and at least four Arab states – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – with the possibility of more to come. Speaking of Sudan, that country ended 30 years of Islamist rule and took a powerful step toward gender equality by outlawing female genital mutilation.

Bloomberg Best of the Year 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, from left, U.S. President Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Bahrain's foreign affairs minister, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, United Arab Emirates' foreign affairs minister, during an Abraham Accords signing ceremony event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg
The Abraham Accord was signed in September and could become the platform for peace across the Middle East. Bloomberg

The region saw several advances for women. Saudi Arabia and Palestine formally banned child marriage. Pakistan approved a new anti-rape law, barring the disclosure of victims' identities and creating a sex offenders' register. The UAE enacted harsher punishments for men who harass or assault women. And the #MeToo movement has made a major splash in Turkey's cultural circles in recent weeks.

There was also good news on the climate front. Thanks to Covid-19 lockdowns, carbon emissions fell 7 per cent, or nearly 2.5 billion tonnes – the largest drop ever. Unsurprisingly, renewables accounted for nearly 90 per cent of electricity installations in 2020 and the cost of producing wind, solar and lithium-ion energy continued to fall.

I’ll close with a personal note. I lost my mother in the early days of the pandemic, and then my home, after travel restrictions forced me to stay in the US beyond the end of my apartment rental in Berlin. Being unable to gather with my siblings, their families and my mother’s many friends to celebrate her 84 wonderful years was devastating, while spending several months living with my brother and his family was an unexpected delight.

Together, they drove home to me the fragility of our social lives, as well as the value of happenstance. If we carry any lesson with us into 2021 and beyond, I hope it’s a greater appreciation of the frailty of our relationships, and our societies, and a renewed commitment to strengthening them.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National