EU-TR deal – a view from Lesvos (presented at the 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association, Athens, 31 August 2017)

Stranded, languishing, stuck… these are some of the words we frequently hear to describe the conditions of refugees on the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean, where the hotspots are located and the EU-Turkey (EU-TR) deal is implemented. How does the deal (a mere statement, without any legal weight and, which as a result cannot be challenged in courts) create those crowded conditions?

What we have on the islands is a tug of war, between an asylum service trying to give proper attention to procedure, according to international obligations, on the one hand, and, political commitments to return people to Turkey, as a safe third country, on the other. In the middle of this, are human beings, coming not only from Syria/Iraq/Afghanistan, but many from Africa and even Latin America, who are traumatized and have the right to be heard and live in dignity while waiting.

The decrease in the flows in 2016 is credited by the government and the EU to the deal. However we do not have a clear, detailed factual analysis of the reasons behind the upsurge in 2015. The war in Syria has been going on since 2011 and in Iraq since 2003. Afghanistan has had on and off war for 30 years. Unless we have clarity on what happened in 2015, not only in Europe, but in Turkey and beyond, we cannot conclude with certainty on what happened in 2016. We do know however, that the Balkan route closed gradually from November 2015, thereby paving the way for the EU-TR statement.

The debate in Europe is only about numbers of asylum seekers and how to reduce them, without looking at the push factors. There is a deep misunderstanding of refugee movements, despite the fact that Europe imposes human rights approaches on developing countries struggling with war, poverty, natural disasters and post colonial political instability.

Less people are attempting the cross due to a combination of deterrence factors: the borders closing and the Turkish authorities making some effort to stop dinghies from leaving. But let’s have no illusions: the deal was not made to ‘save lives’, it was made to stop refugees from making it to central and northern Europe.

An immediate implication of the EU-TR statement is that virtually ALL refugees apply for asylum in Greece. Turkish refusal to accept as deportees people who had moved from the islands to the mainland led the Greek government to impose geographic restriction to new arrivals and a system of two phases of asylum processing: first on the admissibility of the case (to determine whether Turkey is a safe third country) and once this is accepted (meaning, no return to Turkey), then on the merits of the case (eligibility assessment), in the mainland. Vulnerable cases are exempt from this restriction and can move to the mainland once they lodge their asylum request.

Asylum seekers remain on the islands until their admissibility case is determined, in many cases for more than a year. This has created a suffocating feeling of de facto prisons or islands of exile. As a result there is increase of signs of deteriorating mental health, with past trauma coming to the foreground and new trauma adding up. People are institutionalized and see themselves trapped. However, many manage to escape to the mainland, even to other member states.  Using small airports especially in the summer to travel to northern Europe with forged papers has proliferated and the Ionian route is used more and more towards Italy.

Admissibility interviews can be absurd. For most refugees staying in Turkey for any length of time was a necessity not an option. Many only stayed for a few months. For them, the real story is how and why they left their home country and not under what circumstances they lived in Turkey and for how long. When they reach their asylum interview they are often unprepared (as legal assistance is not required at the first instance).

In the past couple of months, interviews are taking place on the islands (merits not just admissibility). It is hoped that this will lead to more asylum seekers moving on to the mainland. Quicker asylum procedures shouldn’t mean more rejections though. It should be noted that since the EU-TR deal came into effect, nobody has been returned based on the concept of Turkey as safe third country. However, there is a push to accelerate returns even vulnerables, as outlined in the common action plan of the government and the EU coordinator for the implementation of the statement.

At the admissibility phase, a number of refugees have exhausted the first instance and appeal procedures and went to the Council of State and Administrative Courts, thereby further burdening an already dysfunctional justice system. The landmark cases of two Syrians who challenged the appeal level decision at the Council of State, that Turkey is a safe third country had the following development. One of the appellants managed to be smuggled out of Lesvos while waiting for the decision of the Council of State, made it to Germany and got asylum there. The other, was detained for several months in Lesvos. At some point he asked the police to be allowed to return to Syria but was encouraged to keep waiting for the court decision. He was released a few weeks ago, because of his mental health and moved to the mainland. Both are still waiting for the decision of the Council of State.

The absurdity and contradictions of these two cases demonstrate the difficulties the EU-TR deal is putting asylum seekers in, as well as the asylum system, which is relatively new in Greece and has grown several times over in the past two years. It further shows that the burden is put again on the country of first arrival, Greece, without corresponding procedures in northern member states which are not tied to the EU-TR deal.

The overcrowdedness of the islands has led to overstretching of government capacity, including medical (eg primary health care, dentists, baby delivery facilities) and led to increased petty crime and frequent rioting, impacting also the local population. Population that no matter which island I visit (Lesvos, Chios, Samos) has a feeling of being abandoned by the central government, is treated as a dumping ground for asylum seekers unwanted by Europe and looks for ways of self-protection that may often be unorthodox.

Europe has given all the keys of the refugee crisis in the Aegean to Turkey. The list of ‘under table’ or ‘unofficial deals’ is enriched every day, following the example of the EU-TR deal. Belgian EASO staff who left the hotspots because of ‘security concerns’ after several riots, returned to the islands (except Moria in Lesvos which they still fear) in exchange for Dublin returns. Germany Dublin returns in exchange for possible acceleration of family reunifications (which are currently at 70 a month) seem to be underway. The slippery slope continues, with Italy paying Libyan militias to stop people boarding boats and the recent mini-summit in Paris, where four EU member states decided on behalf of the union to set up ‘hotspots’ in Chad and Niger (and pay these countries handsome amounts of money, in the model of the EU-TR deal). These shameful deals create a distraction from real solutions needed: opening up consulates for asylum seekers to seek protection in their own countries or where the nearest diplomatic representations exist (eg Turkey).

Delays in relocation/reunification lead to delays in transfers of vulnerable cases from islands (and often used as an excuse by UNHCR) while new arrivals are registered daily. Wishful thinking that people will stop coming if conditions are not optimal on the islands have proven wrong time and time again. Theories that people attempt the trip in good weather are equally wrong. The Turkish coast guard allows refugees through when they wish to apply pressure on Greece and the EU.

Quicker processing of vulnerable cases’ move to the mainland is needed by UNHCR. The possibility of changing initial vulnerability (mainly for mental health cases, which are not captured at the initial vulnerability assessment) is becoming a reality and needs to be continued by the government as it provides the opportunity for better care in the mainland once the geographic restriction is lifted.

Let me borrow from mr Varoufakis, who said last night, referring to the Eurozone crisis, that the EU was not prepared for crisis. The same applies to the refugee situation (which shouldn’t be a crisis). Europe has proven unable to react rationally. It reacts dramatically, in denial and ignorance. The real drama, beyond the human, is that countries in other continents, much poorer and facing real challenges for decades, have changed their tactics in the past year, taking their cue on refugee response from Europe. Kenya is returning Somalis to a warzone and Pakistan returning Afghans. The attitude prevailing in Europe to ‘stop the boats’ has set the precedent.

Greece, because of its geographic position, at the crossroads of three continents, will always be a country of reception or transit for asylum seekers in Europe. Therefore it needs to be prepared, in terms of physical infrastructure and legal procedures. The current policies stand in the way of Greece developing such preparedness and, in the long run, apart from harming those in need of protection, they are an obstacle to Greece’s capacity to respond to their needs, despite good will.

Turning Kara Tepe green (presented at the Refugee Studies conference, Oxford, March 2017)

The island of Lesvos has a population of 90,000 and the capital, Mytiline, 30,000. There are two main camps near Mytiline: Moria, falling under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Migration and, Kara Tepe, which comes under a municipality-appointed site manager. The town of Mytiline suffers from frequent electricity cuts, due to the antiquated grid and increased demands by the two camps, which at times host up to 6,000 people. While the west of the island has solar and wind produced energy, the capital depends on electricity produced from fossil fuels, provided on a weekly basis through pumping from a cargo ship which comes to the island.

Kara Tepe has a capacity to host 1,000 refugees and another 500 in a new extension, which is currently under construction. Since 2015, when the camp started operating, efforts have been made by the management with a volunteer-based Dutch NGO, Movement on the Ground (MoTG), to decrease dependence on the electricity grid and increase the energy self-reliance of the site. Over 2016 solar panels were installed to provide hot water for showers and light and a charging station for each of the refugee housing units (UNHCR provided), which were heated with gas heaters. Since January 2017 the units are being replaced by UNHCR with isoboxes, with the aim to reach a total of 300. The isoboxes will use air condition units for heating and cooling and expanding the existing system will be needed. The system installed by MoTG is modular and hybrid and can be powered by solar, wind, diesel generators and connect to the grid. The objective is to make Kara Tepe a ‘green village’, that doesn’t load the electricity grid and provides the energy the guests need for their daily needs.

Current situation and some lessons from Lesvos (presented at Chatham House on 27 July 2016)

DSC_0153During 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, the Greek islands of the Eastern Aegean were the main entry point for refugees and migrants crossing from Turkey making their way to Central and Northern Europe. Following the closure of the Balkan route, the flows reduced considerably while with the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement, asylum seekers no longer transit, but remain stranded in Greece. Those that arrived before 19 March –prior to the implementation of the deal- had to move to the mainland, while new arrivals –post 19-March- remain on the islands. They only move to the mainland when they have an interview related to their asylum application (virtually everyone has expressed interest in asylum), serious medical conditions or other vulnerability foreseen in the law. The challenge before the EU-Turkey statement was reception capacity, post-statement it is also integration.

There are currently around 50,000 refugees and migrants from this wave in the mainland and 8,000 in the islands. Lesvos is still receiving 58% of the total arrivals. The refugee crisis which is a European policy crisis at heart, has come at a time of extreme hardship in Greece in the midst of the worst economic crisis in time of peace. The response was possible without major incidents due to the resilience and generosity of the majority of Greek people that facilitated a million people to transit safely and remain in the country for as long as they need to. Shortcomings and failures indeed have taken place, but these were the result of overwhelmed systems, inexperience and perhaps ineptitude, but not bad faith towards the refugees from the side of the Greek government. Greece has saved the face of Europe in this crisis by responding according to humanitarian and solidarity principles while racist rhetoric is abundant in our continent.

EU policies have put Greece in the corner: the relocation scheme has been applied to just over 2,000 people and the EU-Turkey deal implementation overwhelmed the asylum system (asylum is a prerequisite to stay in Greece, for relocation and family reunification).

Under the deal, so far no refugee has been returned to Turkey that had an asylum application rejected (the ones returned had not applied for asylum). Even so (or because of that), the Greek government under EU pressure hastily passed a law recently to replace the independent committees with judges.

Accommodation has to be different now that people are not in transit but staying for several months at least. The government is planning to move all refugees out of tent camps by the onset of winter (October-November). This seems like an ambitious plan but should be supported. In Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos wooden structures are supposed to be put in place.

There is a particular challenge for the shelter of unaccompanied minors: 690 new children were identified during the pre-registration in the mainland and others are still under protective police custody for lack of shelters on the islands (over a hundred in Moria, Lesvos alone).

The education of refugee children is on top of the agenda at the moment. In Lesvos (and several camps in the mainland) informal Greek, Arabic, English and German language and other informal classes are held. The plan is for the refugees to join the national curriculum in September so knowledge of Greek at least is needed. The University of Athens is organizing a summer school in Olympia to introduce potential students to Greek language, history, human rights and English. Many of the refugees are waiting for family reunification which may take a year and others don’t have anywhere to go and will end up remaining in Greece. Indeed, they want to stay, despite the difficulties, because they feel they have been welcome in the country.

Mental health of refugees, frontline workers (humanitarian and government) and local population is becoming an issue. Humanitarian and other –local- responders, are faced with the fatigue of a year of this crisis, with little respite. Little support is given to these workers. While refugees were on the move, there was little time for such issues to surface, but now, with idle time and uncertainty for the future, the needs are increasing. They do have access to basic mental health attention, at least in some places, including Lesvos.

One of the new features of this response was the contribution of international volunteers that initially quickly and flexibly filled the gaps the government and NGOs had left. This contribution was remarkable but is not without problems. Volunteers are supposed to fill a genuine gap, not obstruct the response, or try to replace those that have the primary responsibility (government). They are expected to be self-less and not create businesses for themselves in the form of NGOs.

I don’t want to generalize because there are many foreign volunteers that show respect and do real work, without whom this response wouldn’t be possible. But, many are very young, do not have technical skills needed for the work they do (rescuing or working with children), understanding of humanitarian and ‘do no harm’ principles, do not know the political issues behind decisions (and don’t care to know) and consider the response in Greece a field to experiment and learn. Often they behave as if the refugees are under the occupation of Greece. We discovered that volunteers can also be racist and exclusionist, often behaving arrogantly towards the host community and in particular those who do not speak English (including locals and authorities).

At the same time, there are new NGOs that rely on volunteers and do fantastic work which comes from their heart and channel most of their funding to refugees.

ECHO funding, which is significant, channeled through NGOs, means administrative costs are high and the response is not in the hands of the government. This model is appropriate for failed states and complex emergencies, not a European country with a functioning administration (similar problems we faced in the Philippines). The government is thus weakened in its humanitarian response (though the Ministry of Migration Policy). After all these months, it is only now that IOM and NRC are providing seconded staff (some IRC to the municipality started a few months back).

The implementing partner model (where a large NGO contracts a smaller one to implement) is costly and time consuming. Large NGOs keep rosters which are meant to speed up recruitments in sudden onset emergencies. In this case it presents some new challenges: many of those on the rosters are non-EU nationals, the NGOs are not (or were not in the beginning) registered in the country. The human capital exists in Greece and is largely unemployed. It is much easier, faster and cheaper to recruit locally and support the local economy and our youth. We are not in a conflict situation where internationals are needed to protect local staff and keep the response neutral.

Legal assistance is fast becoming the new niche of interest for international assistance. As the asylum processing is implemented at the moment, there is fast tracking in the islands in implementation of the EU-Turkey statement (which means that only the question of whether Turkey is a safe third country for return is examined) while in the mainland the regular process is applied. Legal assistance and representation at the second level of appeal is foreseen (following nearly universal initial rejection, except in vulnerable cases). What is needed are Greek lawyers who know the law and can represent. Paralegal work (identification of potential clients, drafting of the presentation of their cases) can be done by field staff or volunteers who speak Greek (as the transcript of the initial interview is in Greek) with the help of interpreters of the languages of the refugees. Foreign lawyers or volunteers create an additional layer of translation.

‘Support’ is needed in the form of funding for lawyers who can do the job without burden to the refugee. So far only Syrians have been processed through the two levels in Lesvos and Pakistanis started early July with North Africans more recently. These cases are considered weak for asylum as the persons themselves say they are in Europe for economic reasons. This in turn puts lawyers off, who do not want to take cases they know they will loose. If these cases are rejected, they will be returned to Turkey where they risk falling prey to trafficking or cheap or unregistered labour.

The EU support agencies (EASO and FRONTEX) operating inside the hotspots are at times showing little trust in Greek authorities. In particular EASO bypasses the Greek Asylum Service (refuse to allow GAS hand first level decisions on asylum, which in theory are the prerogative of the GAS, who also decides on the outcome). Volunteers who don’t know the system contribute to this by informing one another that EASO is the decision maker without needing to go through the GAS. In fact at the second level of the asylum process, which is the more important one, EASO has no involvement. GAS is in need of translators, case staff, equipment, to process faster. Asylum processing by nationality not date of arrival creates frustrations and misunderstandings among nationalities.

FRONTEX varies in its behavior but a few times ugly episodes have taken place at sea during rescue operations. The fact that different EU nationalities use different uniforms, including weapons is creating suspicion among the local population.

The closure of the Balkan route has led to a proliferation of smuggling, returning the northern border of Greece to the obscurity of early 2015. Forging of documents is very profitable business in the islands and the mainland and refugees are arrested daily trying to hide in trucks travelling from Lesvos to Piraeus or at the airport trying to use false travel documents.

The main lesson learnt from Lesvos and Greece in general is that ‘small is beautiful’. The camp of Kara Tepe which takes up to 800 people comfortably is well managed and provides services. Greece being a small country with half the population in Athens needs such infrastructure. This is what is being implemented, although slow, by the government. Small camps scattered around the country means that the small communities in the mainland or the islands and neighbourhoods of Athens and Thessaloniki can support and that land issues are easier to overcome. The flipside of this is that costs are higher (increased transportation costs, logistics challenges) and coordination more difficult.

It should be considered a mistake to mix registration, asylum processing, accommodation, temporary detention and unaccompanied minors under police custody in one camp (eg Moria). Tensions run high and whatever their starting point end up in fist fights between nationalities. The response is all the more challenging because of the number of nationalities, languages and cultures of the refugees and migrants.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey revealed the fragmentation of the armed forces in the neighbouring country, which was a relief to many in Greece who understood it is not the overwhelming force we thought it to be for decades. On the other hand concerns are rising on how rogue elements or even the new status quo might externalize the internal crisis. It remains to be seen how the ensuing situation will affect Greece and the islands of the Eastern Aegean in particular, so far though there is an increase in the flows, attributed to a break down in discipline in the Turkish coast guard after the arrest of its head.

The arrival of eight Turkish officers in Alexandroupolis seeking asylum and the mass arrests, lay offs and restriction on travel in the armed and public services of Turkey are adding more question marks on the concept of ‘safe third country’ but also show a face of Turkey which to Greeks is not new, but seem to shock other Europeans that had convinced themselves Turkey was a democratic country. Many fear that, while refugees from the countries that formed the majority of the flows up to now, know the Balkan route is closed and do not try the travel, it may be Turkish citizens (including Kurds) who will try the crossing. And given the defiant mood of the leadership in Turkey, using Syrian refugees already hosted in Turkey (whether in camp or outside) to put pressure on Greece and the EU, cannot be excluded.

In conclusion I would like to say that 60,000 refugees stranded in Greece are not too many to integrate. 25 years ago we, in Greece, integrated a million from Eastern Europe, mainly Albania and the former Soviet Union. The complications are due to the diversity of political actors with a say in the situation, the fact that most of those people didn’t come to Greece with the intention of staying and that if the principles of international protection are to be respected a number of those asylum applicants will have to be rejected.


Refugee Highway: (Chronis Pechlivanidis)

Janus’ Legacy: Refugee Passage to Europe (Dimitris  Papageorgiou)

Agora: (Giorgos Avgeropoulos)