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.