A year later (29 October 2016)

A year ago I wrote an article, entitled ‘Greek aid worker busts seven refugee myths’: http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2015/10/13. I am now going back to see how things have changed in relation to these important aspects of the refugee crisis in Greece over the past year. I put down first last year’s ‘myth’ and then today’s update.


Myth #1: Refugee arrivals to Greece are only from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan

While the majority of arrivals to Greece are from Syria and Afghanistan, there are also many Palestinians (who had been living in Syria), Pakistanis, Algerians, Moroccans, Yemenis and smaller numbers of Sudanese, Somalis, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. Knowing that Syrians are often given priority, many Arabic speakers try to pass for Syrians, including many Iraqis. Meanwhile, some Iranians pretend to be Afghans when they arrive in the hope that they will be treated more favourably. During the initial registration that takes place on the Greek islands, false nationality claims may not be caught, but they are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny once refugees reach northern European countries and try to claim asylum.

 Update: A year later, the registration of newly arriving refugees and migrants in the Greek islands is much more rigorous, everyone is fingerprinted and identified against the EURODAC system. New arrivals are separated from the existing residents in the hotspots and FRONTEX is present at the registration phase conducted by the Hellenic Police. Following the EU-Turkey statement which came into force on 20 March, all new arrivals are geographically restricted to the islands until the Greek Asylum Service determines whether Turkey is a safe third country. In those cases where Turkey is not deemed safe, refugees are allowed to continue to the mainland where the substance of their asylum claim is examined.

The composition of nationalities has changed from last year. Since the closure of the Balkan route and the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement in March, the percentage of refugees and migrants arriving from countries other than Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran has increased from an average of 2.5% to 25% (based on UNHCR’s monthly data). From direct observation in the past two months, there is a definite increase in the number of Africans. In Moria for example (Lesvos), Africans constitute roughly a third of all refugees and migrants. They come from Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Chad, The Gambia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. There is also a number of Dominicans. The changes in the nationality composition increase the needs for interpreters (French, Spanish) in all aspects of the response and analysis of asylum cases. Interesting to note at this point that the ‘tariff’ for the crossing from Turkey to Lesvos has gone down from 1,500 USD last year to 200 USD as of October 2016.

Myth #2: If humanitarian assistance to countries neighbouring Syria was increased, arrivals of Syrians to Greece would decrease 

The idea that more humanitarian assistance will keep Syrians in the region may be convenient logic for countries such as the UK, which would rather increase aid contributions than take in significantly more refugees, and for humanitarian organisations trying to fund their operations in the Middle East, but it is incorrect for several reasons. Firstly, those Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq who are dependent on international aid are the poorest. Secondly, most new arrivals say they left Syria and Iraq less than a month ago, after selling everything they owned, or getting money from a relative abroad. Most who make it to Greece are from the middle classes and came directly from Syria.

Update: The flows continued unabated through the winter of 2015-2016 and have reduced since February-March because of the closure of the Balkan route and secondarily Turkey’s control of the flow from its coast after the EU-Turkey statement. The fact that Turkey frequently threatens to ‘flood Europe with refugees’ is evidence that the flows are at least permitted from the other side of the Aegean, if not managed, as is politically convenient. Increased assistance to Turkey, in the form of humanitarian funding as well as political concessions regarding Turkey’s relation to the EU, has turned refugees and migrants into pawns in a complex international chessboard.

The concept that assistance to neighbouring to Syria countries would reduce the flows has been taken a few steps further with the EU-Turkey deal, the various deals made between EU member states and African countries and the agreement with Afghanistan for the return of refugees.  

Myth #3: All Syrians and Iraqis are running away from ISIS (so-called Islamic State)

Syrians are fleeing fighting in all parts of the country, including those regions still under government control. Most say they will return as soon as the war ends, but for now they see no alternative but to come to Europe, where their children can go to school and they can practise their professions while having some quality of life. Even those living in more stable areas are making the decision to leave based on fears about the future, lack of services (including water and electricity in many towns and cities), and the presence of relatives in Europe.

Update: In the last few months more Syrians are coming who had spent some time in Turkey, under very difficult conditions. Turkey seems to be blocking Syrians from crossing its territory freely as they did last year. Additionally, travel by air is now visa regulated for Syrians. Despite the fact that Syrians can now work in Turkey under certain conditions, the salaries are usually too low to survive on. The vast majority of Syrians that had been in Turkey for some time, were living outside camps.

Myth #4: All single men leaving Syria are fleeing mandatory military service

While many young Syrian men want to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army, this is not their only reason for leaving. Many are students who want to complete their studies in Europe because in Syria it is no longer possible. There are also young professionals and artists who tried staying in Syria for the last four years of the war, but in the end could no longer survive.

Update: In general, new arrivals are less affluent, urban or educated. Many women are traveling with their children in the hope of being reunited with their husbands who are already in some other European country. The family reunification process takes more than a year, mainly due to the delays from the side of the receiving country. Men and families have often been internally displaced in Syria before crossing the border to Turkey, having also crossed from one controlling faction to another, including government.

Myth #5: Afghans, who make up the second largest nationality arriving in Greece, are all fleeing conflict in Afghanistan 

Based on interviews with many Afghan refugees and their interpreters working in Lesvos, it is clear that the vast majority of Afghan arrivals are from the ethnic Hazara minority that have long faced persecution in Afghanistan and have lived as refugees in Iran for many years or were born there. After years of being discriminated against in Iran, they are taking advantage of the route that has opened up into northern Europe via Turkey and Greece. It is unclear how their asylum claims will be treated once they reach their destinations and whether their vulnerability in Iran will be recognised as sufficient basis for refugee status.

Update: This is the myth most difficult to bypass. Afghans are still coming in their majority from Iran and are mainly Hazara. Many men ran away from Iranian conscription that would oblige them to fight in Syria. Others were just fed up with the lack of rights over decades as refugees. With the new EU-Afghanistan agreement, deporting them to Afghanistan would be sending them to a country they don’t know.

Myth #6: Foreign volunteers are doing the bulk of the work receiving new arrivals

A number of volunteers have come to Greece to combine a holiday with doing something useful, joining foreigners already resident on the islands who are contributing to relief efforts. This has been widely covered by European media, giving the impression that gaps in government assistance to the refugees and the initial slowness of the NGO response were being filled only by foreign volunteers. In fact, Greek volunteers and local citizens of the islands have been and continue to be the first responders. Fishermen, for example, often come across stalled or sinking dinghies and bring the refugees to shore or alert the coast guard.

Update: The first responders are always the host community and Greece is no exception. Many foreign volunteers have been very supportive of the response and new NGOs have been formed in other countries from organised volunteer groups and have partnered with larger established NGOs and UNHCR to operate in Greece. On the other hand, many individual or loosely linked volunteers have created problems in the response, due to lack of understanding of the context and language, their political positions or lack of experience in humanitarian crises.

 This year, the Nansen award was given to the Hellenic Rescue Team and Efi Latsoudi for her work at the PIKPA camp in Lesvos, Siniparxi (local NGO in Lesvos) received the European Citizen’s Award and the proposal to award the Nobel Peace Prize to local residents in Skala Sikammias in Lesvos brought attention to the locals.

Myth #7: The economic impact on the islands has been negative

It is a fact that during the summer in Kos, tourists complained about seeing refugees arriving at the beaches where they were sunbathing. It is also true that a number of cruises to Lesvos were cancelled and that there were negative impacts on tourism in the town of Mytiline when thousands of refugees were sleeping rough without adequate toilets. But the refugees have also boosted business for many local hotels, taxis, shops and restaurants. The more entrepreneurial have started stocking tents, mats and sleeping bags and providing phone charging facilities. A thorough assessment of the overall economic impact on the islands remains to be done.

Update: The final account has not been made, but the fact is that the islands on the frontline of the response (mainly Lesvos and Chios) had a drop in international arrivals by air of up to 70% the summer of 2016. Part of the problem has been the misinformation by mainstream media who were using pictures from last year, with thousands of refugees landing on the beaches, when referring to these islands, with the situation was very different. At the same time, parts of the islands have benefited from the influx of NGO workers, FRONTEX, EASO, additional police and other public servants that boost the local economy.

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