Making Refugee Aid Add Up in Greece (co-authored with Glada Lahn, first published in on 13 July 2017)


As other countries affected by the refugee crisis are finding, only by taking the long view can Greece make sure that some of the aid leaves a legacy.

The well-built, sanitized housing at Pipka camp illustrates how a more humane approach to providing shelter for refugees can challenge established preconceptions. The well-built, sanitized housing at Pipka camp illustrates how a more humane approach to providing shelter for refugees can challenge established preconceptions.

While receding from the headlines over the last two years, the human and political costs of the refugee crisis in Greece have only risen. This summer, thousands of people in Chios and Samos island encampments remain exposed to disease, violence, mental deterioration as well as searing heat. Athens is suffering from growing homelessness, abuse and trafficking problems as people’s asylum or relocation claims are rejected or they avoid registration in fear of deportation to Turkey. Charities working on the ground including Medecins sans Frontieres refer to conditions as ‘dire’ and ‘inhumane’.

Yet the humanitarian response in Greece beginning in 2015 is considered one of the most expensive in history. One investigation puts aid at $803 million – around 90 per cent of which came from the European Commission. As EU states again fail to agree on relocating refugees from ‘frontline states’ and Italy threatens to close its ports to ships of rescued asylum seekers in protest, it’s worth asking how so much aid has added up to so little in Greece and how approaches need to change.

Aid, which flowed chiefly to the UN and international NGOs, has been subject to administrative losses and profiteering, encouraged by the ‘implementing partner’ system of contracting coupled with government bureaucracy. In addition, the lack of trust and coordination between the larger humanitarian agencies, and the volunteer movements which had developed valuable networks of assistance from the outset has led to expensive duplication.

All of this was compounded by the consequences of a devastating economic downturn – and a policy vacuum. Greece still has no policy to manage either additional pressures as a transit state or to prepare for longer term integration.

The number one priority remains for EU states to fulfil their relocation pledges and to work towards common asylum rules for the longer term. But in the meantime, relief efforts can and must contribute to Greece’s longer-term social and economic stability. Failure to do so will only worsen conditions for both Greeks and those taking refuge.

Hope in the city

The government estimates that 20–25,000 of the current 62,000 seeking refuge may remain long term. In order to contribute to Greek society, these people will need to learn Greek and access accommodation and opportunities for employment. There are few humane forms of accommodation in urban areas and many live in illegal squats in Athens, without access to health or legal services. For this group, a two-step transitional approach to accommodation may be appropriate.

Successful models of humane housing have been pioneered by NGOs Lesvos Solidarity (Pikpa), HOME and Elpida. People’s resourcefulness, when allowed to flourish, also saves money – food for example has proven cheaper and more nutritious than the large-scale army run distribution, where people are allowed to cook for themselves. In addition to the basics that humanitarian agencies normally provide, residents receive tools for living in Greece such as language-learning and information on access to services and training for work.

Athens offers scope to scale up this model. The value of rents in the city has fallen by some 50 per cent since 2007 and landlords must continue to pay property tax even if their properties are uninhabited. A leasehold contract which enables upgrading, alteration and renovation of properties to provide appropriate living facilities could offer to return the property in better condition to the landlord. This housing could be designed to connect with ‘community centres’ that would cluster services (medical, psycho-social, legal, language learning, etc.), reducing duplication and making it easier to serve those that would otherwise slip through the net.

Some local NGOs are already taking advantage of the low rents to provide small livelihood projects. The migrant women’s network Melissa plans to set up pop-up shops for crafts and cooking, thereby helping to rejuvenate the area around Victoria Square while providing income for the refugees it works with.

Islands of sustainability

On the islands, local governments are desperate to turn around a situation that has hit tourism badly. Makeshift responses to unplanned migration have also taken a heavy toll on public services from energy to waste disposal.

Lesvos has a population of 90,000 and the capital, Mytiline, 30,000. There are two main camps near Mytiline: Moria, a hotspot under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Migration and, Kara Tepe, under a municipality-appointed site manager. Mytiline suffers from frequent electricity cuts, due to an ageing grid and increased demands by the two camps, which at times host up to 6,000 people. The capital depends on electricity from fossil fuels provided by cargo ship, docking at the island on a weekly basis. This is an inefficient and expensive solution.

The Moving Energy Initiative of which Chatham House is part makes the case for investment in energy and water services in humanitarian situations where it can contribute to host community sustainability and in turn greater social cohesion. Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos is one of the few refugee camps in the world taking this approach.

Since 2015, when Kara Tepe opened, the management worked with a volunteer-based Dutch NGO, Movement on the Ground (MoTG) to decrease dependence on the grid and increase energy self-reliance. In 2016 they installed solar panels to provide hot water for showers and lighting and a charging station for each of the UNHCR-provided housing units. As UNHCR replaces these units with isoboxes, containing electric heating and cooling devices, more electricity supply will be needed. The system which MoTG installed is appropriate for this as it can be powered by solar, wind, diesel generators or connected to the grid. The objective is to make Kara Tepe a ‘green village’ that provides enough energy for its 1,500 guests without overloading the grid and increasing running costs for the camp administration.

As several Middle Eastern countries affected by the Syria crisis are finding, only by taking the long view can host governments and municipalities make sure that some of the aid leaves a legacy. In this sense, Greece has an opportunity: to regenerate mainland urban areas and to turn some islands into beacons of sustainability as first points of reception. After all, with conflicts to the east and south and the onset of climate change, this will not be the last wave of migration to Greek shores.

This comment draws on discussions at a workshop held in Athens in November 2016.

Punish the smuggler or reward the smuggler? (first published in on 10 July 2017)

Media coverage of the refugee situation in Greece focuses heavily on the Syrians and secondarily on Afghans and Iraqis. While these are indeed the three most highly represented nationalities among asylum seekers in Greece, the past six to twelve months have seen a gradual shift.

The vast numbers of Syrians that came through Greece in 2015 only passed through Turkey. Many were well-off urban educated professionals and had left Syria only days before reaching Greek shores. The European Union responded to the refugee flows in 2015 with a relocation programme, which aimed on paper to share the responsibility of hosting refugees between member states. With the Balkan route open, refugees would continue from the Greek islands by ship or plane and bus or train, even walking towards central and northern Europe. The need for smugglers (imperative to be able to reach the Turkish border, travel through it and cross the sea to Greece) ended once they had reached the islands.

The relocation plan was devised for those arriving and registering in Greece to convince them to stop taking the Balkan route, thereby – according to its planners – curbing the profits going to the smugglers. In fact this plan rewarded smugglers who continued their business in Turkey and beyond, in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, only providing a solution for some nationalities, chiefly Syrians. A year and a half later, the smuggling business remains alive and well.

Turkey’s land border with Syria was virtually open to refugees until early 2016 when the pushbacks to Syria started. At the same time a visa requirement for Syrians was implemented for travel by land and ferry. As a result the ferry from Lebanon to Turkey was no longer an option for Syrians trying to reach Turkey. The closure of the Balkan route began gradually in late 2015 and the EU-Turkey deal was implemented in March 2016. All these measures reduced the number of Syrians coming to Greece.

lead lead lead

Fast forward to 2017, taking the period from 10 May to 27 June 2017 as an example, a total of 982 asylum seekers reached the island of Lesvos. The top nationalities were: Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC (202), Syria (160), Iraq (116), Afghanistan (61). The rest were from Iran, Kuwait (Bidoon), Palestine, Guinea, Eritrea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Yemen, Togo, Gambia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria. One person each came from Bolivia, Cuba, South Africa, Haiti and Uganda. Similar trends are noted on the other islands which act as the entry point to Greece.

Those of us acquainted with Moria reception and identification centre in Lesvos have noticed the nationality change among the  new arrivals over the last two years: many more Africans and less Arabs. Groups of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are still coming grouped together, while Africans from different nationalities arrive in different groups with other nationalities. The smuggling fees vary according to nationality.

One may wonder why people  from Africa, whether northern or sub-Sahara, take the route to Europe through Greece, rather than the intuitively more direct route to Italy or Spain. A look at flight routes and visa regimes provides the answer. One may reach the Greek islands from as far away as central Africa, using Turkish Airlines, a Turkish visa and a smuggler picked at Istanbul airport or the Aegean coast, for less than 1,500 dollars total and at considerably less risk than the Libyan route.

Turkish Airlines has 200 destinations worldwide and at reasonable prices. For example, one way flight from Kinshasa to Istanbul costs 833 dollars, Abidjan to Istanbul, 709 dollars and Casablanca to Istanbul 458 dollars.

Turkish Airlines is close to President Erdogan in more ways than one: in ‘humanitarian missions’ particularly in Somalia and Qatar, as well as political purges in the airline, following the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016. Reaching the Aegean coast is easy, whether by bus, taxi or smuggler. These days, smugglers charge less than 500 dollars – even as low as 200 dollars – from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands these days.

Secondly, visas for Turkey are generally easily obtained. From the nationalities arriving in Lesvos in June, all except Cubans and Palestinians, depending on where they were registered, are exempt from any visa requirement or need only an electronic visa, easily obtained online for the cost of 20 dollars.

The question why some nationalities may need refuge often comes up. Without going further into individual cases, whereby people may be facing persecution for reasons that go beyond nationality (religious, professional, sexual orientation, other), we can sift through some general push factors.

The Bidoon of Kuwait are a group who used to live a nomadic life and are not accepted as Kuwaiti citizens. The reasons they have started coming through this route, is because they have family in the UK but are no longer given visas to travel there. Instead they come to Greece illegally and apply for family reunification.

Palestinians arrive in Greece mainly from Syria, but also Lebanon and the West Bank. The fate of those from Syria is similar to Syrian citizens but these people are choosing to come to Europe illegally, because they are refused visas to any European country where they may have family or where they want to study.

Eritreans are often rejected asylum seekers from Israel, deported to Rwanda with cash, which they use to escape again through the Aegean route. Women from the Dominican Republic are usually trafficked to Turkey and once they manage to escape to Greece, seek assistance to return to their country. Citizens of sub-Saharan Africa come from a number of conflicts in the region, both internal and cross-border, including purges in the DRC and by the Boko Haram. North Africans face chronic instability in their countries.

The complexity of the cases facing the Greek asylum service is obvious. With virtually all the new arrivals since the EU-Turkey deal applying for asylum in Greece, even if the ultimate goal is to leave the country, there are currently around 70 nationalities among the asylum seekers, with the corresponding needs in interpretation and context analysis as well as careful consideration of individual circumstances. This is time consuming and costly.

The international community has been under the false impression that providing assistance to the countries around Syria and putting up with Turkey’s demands for more funding  – the latest being twenty million euros for the Turkish coastguard – will stop refugee flows. This approach ignores many realities, for example the facts that people flee wars and unsustainable situations all over the world, that smugglers are available and provide a service when there are no legal routes and that there are states that facilitate them.

As its northern and western neighbours close their doors to asylum seekers through policies, borders and distance, Greece continues to welcome them to the best of its ability. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, easily accessible from Turkey, which has an interest in keeping Greece on its toes, there will continue to exist a need for Greece to be prepared to respond. Preparedness in the form of a legal framework, institutions flexible enough to scale up and respond to a suddenly increased influx, infrastructure and stocks, shouldn’t be seen by the Greek government as a pull factor or a luxury but as a necessity. And the EU should support them in this approach.

Refugee response in Greece: A flawed system (first published by on 9 December 2016)

Conditions in Greek refugee camps have been widely criticized but, given the funding being received by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations as well as the Greek government, there is no justification for the delays in addressing these problems.

Despite its interest in having a clear view and control over the response to the crisis so as to avoid gaps and overlaps, and recognizing its responsibility as the lead player in the crisis’s management, the Greek government does not possess the human resources needed and shows slow reflexes when offers for secondments are made.

The legal framework and existing structures are not in the position to register, coordinate, monitor and evaluate the multitude of actors and their work in the refugee response. For example, the hot spot in Moria, Lesvos, serves as a registration center, accommodation, and a place of custody for unaccompanied minors and detention for criminals. All have one thing in common: They are waiting for their asylum cases to be processed. There is not a single coordinator for the camp, but rather responsibilities are fragmented between the Reception and Identification Service, the Asylum Service (including EASO), Police (including FRONTEX), the Army (infrastructure works) and an array of NGOs loosely coordinated by UNHCR.

The system of implementing partners adds layers of administrative costs. There are too many coordinators and funders and too few hands on deck. Local NGOs are becoming overwhelmed by the demand for implementing partnerships, many pushed to expand at an unsustainable rate.

The lack of coordination and appropriate services leaves gaps which are often filled by volunteers, who are usually not experts in any field, are not accountable and are able to raise funds on their own – and fast – online without having to report back. Furthermore, most volunteers come from abroad and ignore the context and reality of Greece (including political and geographic) and are often at odds with local populations.

UNHCR declared a Level 2 emergency internally for the response to the refugee influx in Greece in 2015. This meant the huge expansion of a previously very small office during 2015. According to UNHCR’s monthly Greece factsheet, in May 2016 there were 122 international staff, the majority on emergency deployment, and 329 national staff, including in support of authorities. As of October 30 there were 83 international staff, only one of whom was on mission, and 273 national staff. Such a turnover of staff on mission does not bode well for institutional memory and good coordination of the refugee response.

There is a widespread perception in government circles that UNHCR and international NGOs are not used to working in countries where there is state administration and that policies and modi operandi used in failed states or countries in complex emergencies and conflict are also implemented in Greece. The lack of trust between government and humanitarians is palpable, and the situation is not going to improve unless this is addressed.

At this point in time, we need to separate advocacy from protection and response. Daily reminders in the media to the government of their responsibilities and the conditions in camp A or B, or the situation of unaccompanied minors have lost their value. The UN and NGOs need to respond to those well-known needs of the refugees, in collaboration with the government, offering their expertise and the government needs to be open about their needs. The country is not in conflict, where humanitarian principles impede closeness to the state. This is not a failed state where there is no interlocutor to bounce ideas off. Funding is not a problem, security only becomes an issue at the micro level because of the living conditions and uncertainty over the future, the climate is favorable, travel is easy, daily life for humanitarian workers couldn’t be better, the number of refugees is manageable. The only real obstacle is the blame game.

For example, UNHCR can offer site management to build the capacity of government staff over a fixed period of time, the government should be part of the planning for the 2017 humanitarian response plan, and, in a collaborative effort, registration should be carried out at accommodation sites to have a clear picture of who remains and what their needs are.

At the end of the day, better collaboration and coordination can work miracles to quickly respond to a situation that shouldn’t be called a “crisis” and involves a mere 60,000 refugees and migrants.

The Eastern Aegean is becoming Europe’s Nauru (first published by on 28 November 2016)

A 66-old Iraqi Kurdish woman and her six-year old grandson were burnt to death on Thursday night when a cooking gas canister exploded in their tent at Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. The boy’s mother and his four-year-old brother, who were in the next tent, suffered severe burns. The fire was quickly put out, but as the camp was evacuated, some of the refugees started fires in their wake that caused widespread destruction.

As the winter cold begins to bite and many of the 16,000 migrants and refugees stranded on the Greek islands continue to be housed in temporary shelters, more fires are inevitable. Some will be the result of the migrants trying to keep warm or cook in their tents. Others will be set deliberately in a desperate act of protest.

Fires at Moria, usually the result of riots, have become frequent since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal in March. The agreement envisaged that migrants arriving to the Greek islands would be briefly detained until they could be processed and returned to Turkey, given asylum in Greece, or relocated elsewhere in Europe. In reality, few migrants have left Lesvos. Most are still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, even as small numbers continue to arrive.

The capacity of Moria is 2,000 people, but the camp now has around 4,500 residents. Other facilities on the island host another 1,500. Several other Aegean islands are experiencing similar levels of overcrowding and an increasingly tense atmosphere. Violent clashes between refugees and locals also broke out recently on Chios.

Several refugees I spoke to on Thursday night after the deadly fire asked me the same question: “Will this help open the borders?” But the European policies that keep them on the islands are not determined by humanitarian considerations. They are driven by a desire to keep the migrants as far from the centre of Europe as possible. And Lesvos is at one of the furthest corners of Europe.

Fotini Rantsiou/IRIN
The morning after the fire at Moria camp, refugees sift through the charred remains of their belongings

Meanwhile, local residents feel increasingly threatened. Cases of petty theft and other crimes have risen in line with the numbers of asylum seekers. On Lesvos, refugees now make up more than 20 percent of people in Mytilene, the capital city where the camps are located. In Chios town, they represent 13 percent of the population, on Samos 38 percent.

The real culprit?

All of these funds are available to improve living conditions, both on the islands and for some 46,000 refugees stranded at various camps on the mainland. Better coordination and trust between the government and humanitarian partners would greatly help, but the real issue keeping refugees on the islands isn’t money or bureaucracy. It’s a lack of solidarity from the other EU member states that over the past year have closed their borders and backtracked on commitments to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Instead, Greece – where a total of 62,000 migrants and refugees are now stranded – has been left to deal with the consequences of bad decisions made in Brussels.

Even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly threatens to end Turkey’s migration deal with the EU, the Greek government is keeping it alive by insisting that refugees must remain on the islands. The morning after the deaths at Moria, the minister for migration reiterated in parliament that no transfers to the mainland would take place, despite repeated requests by the islands’ mayors.

Talking to government officials, humanitarian actors and local residents, whether in Lesvos, Chios, Athens or Thessaloniki, one thing is clear: urgent advocacy is needed, in Brussels and in EU member state capitals, to overturn EU policies that are keeping people hostage in Greece – a country that because of an accident of geography has become a frontline state for Europe’s refugee “crisis”, and at one of the most difficult economic times in its post-war history.

Australia has been roundly and rightly condemned for its policy of processing asylum seekers at remote offshore detention centres like the one on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Allowing the Greek islands to become Europe’s Nauru is an inhumane solution that should put us to shame as European citizens.

Humanitarian consequences of the dysfunctional Lesvos hotspot (longer version was published on 23 October 2015 by under the title “EU hotpost ‘solution’ deepens refugee crisis”)

This week, Greece opened its first hotspot on the island of Lesvos which has received nearly half of the 508,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived in Greece this year.

The site for the hotspot is Moria, a reception centre near Mytiline, the capital of the island, which in recent months has turned into an ad-hoc camp for the thousands of migrants and refugees arriving daily. During the summer, registration of Syrians had been moved to another site nearby called Kara Tepe, but the opening of the hotspot meant that all registrations were moved to Moria, with one area reserved for Syrians and another for non-Syrians. As the Kara Tepe site emptied on 15 October, huge queues formed outside the registration centre in Moria.


Inaugurating the hotspot at Moria on 16 October, EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos declared it was functioning well, although there was still work to be done. But visits to the site by IRIN this week revealed a system that is not up to receiving the numbers of refugees currently arriving in Lesvos.

Registration is taking place around the clock, but there is a lack of interpreters, police officers and fingerprint scanning equipment. Germany has donated 12 scanning machines, but commitments made by Germany to provide more equipment and by other member states to provide Frontex with an additional 600 border guards have not materialized. Only 291 officers have been committed by EU member states out of a total of 775 requested by Frontex for Greece and Italy (

By Thursday, the registration of Syrian families had moved back to Kara Tepe, which lacks any scanning equipment, and according to UNHCR there were 16,000 people on the island still awaiting registration. Some people had already spent up to five days in the open, struggling not to lose their position in the queue.

At Kara Tepe, UNHCR and the International Rescue Committe implemented a ticketing system for registering Syrian families and together with other NGOs and volunteers groups are providing tents, food and other basic services. But at Moria the situation is chaotic with all non-Syrians and single Syrian men having to wait in line without water, toilets and shelter from the elements.

There is no system for managing the queue at Moria meaning that the most vulnerable frequently lose their spot in the line, families become separated and extortion is taking place by people with the language skills to communicate with the refugees giving false information that registration has a cost. At night, when NGO workers go home, crowd control becomes even more difficult. Scuffles frequently erupt which has resulted in riot police using tear gas and beatings to try to impose order.

The resources for the hotspot to function well are clearly not available. From NGO to local volunteer workers have expressed frustration at coordination meetings knowing their existing resources could reach more people, if only there was a consistent and functioning registration system that didn’t change frequently. Grassroots volunteer groups find themselves confronted with violence and serious restrictions to human dignity during the night. These frustrations have not been answered in an adequate way, as Greek authorities express helplessness at the situation without external assistance with the registration.

During a visit to Lesvos on 10 October, UNHCR Chief, Antonio Guterres, told the local humanitarian community that UNHCR supports the hotspot approach, which includes registration and asylum processing, while at the same time praising the efforts by overstreched authorities and local community and recognizing the lack of resources. According to local authorities, UNHCR’s support for the hotspot approach has compounded fears among government officials and the local community that those migrants and asylum seekers who do not qualify for relocation to other member states will be stranded in Greece which has no capacity to process large numbers of asylum claims or return those deemed to be economic migrants.

Stop scapegoating Greece (published in on 02.02.2016)


As the Greek islands continue to receive around 2,000 migrants and refugees every day, despite treacherous winter sea conditions, many other European countries are trying to prevent their onward movement. Greece is increasingly isolated and under pressure.

Last week, the European Commission discussed the findings of an evaluation reporton Greece that found serious deficiencies in its management of Europe’s external borders and rekindled a debate about whether Greece should be suspended from Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

If after three months “serious deficiencies persist”, Greece could face suspension from Schengen for up to two years. Not only would such a scenario have disastrous implications for Greece’s already fragile national economy – with potential impacts on tourism and the movement of goods through the Balkans – but it would also create an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants would be stuck here for an indefinite period.

The possibility of suspension has been vehemently denied by the EU commissioner for migration and home affairs, but last week the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, asked its humanitarian partners in Athens to start working on a contingency plan for up to 200,000 people being stranded in the country in the coming months.

Greece does not share borders with any other Schengen member state, putting it in a particularly vulnerable position as it can be sealed externally through unilateral actions. In fact, the border between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM), which is the main gateway to the Western Balkan migration route, has been closed to all nationalities besides Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans since November, and in recent weeks it has been sealed entirely for days at a time, leaving thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to sleep outside in freezing temperatures.

FYRoM’s border restrictions, which include a new fence, are a reaction to similar restrictions imposed by European countries further north. They have contributed to a sense of urgency among refugees to reach their final destination before Europe (or Greece) is completely sealed off, and may explain the continued high numbers of arrivals to the Greek islands, even during mid-winter.

Austria’s minister of the interior recently suggested that Greece could do more to protect its sea border with Turkey by making use of its navy. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected,” Johanna Mikl-Leitner said. But using the navy to patrol and prevent migrant boats from landing on the islands would be equivalent to treating refugees as invaders.

A spokesperson for Frontex, the EU’s border agency, pointed out that sea borders are almost impossible to fully control and that pushing boats back into Turkish seas would be illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention’s principle of non-refoulement.

Greece has also come under fire for failing to scale up the use of ‘hotspots’ – an EU initiative to screen and fingerprint all migrants and refugees arriving in Greece and Italy. So far, only one in five hotspots is up and running on Lesvos – the island that receives 60 percent of new arrivals. The rest of the islands can only do basic fingerprinting as they lack the technology to do biometric registration despite the government requesting the necessary hardware from the EU six months ago.

The current pressure on Greece stems in part from the false assumption that the movement of refugees to Europe could be significantly slowed by channeling aid to Turkey to improve conditions for the 2.2 million Syrians estimated to be living there. The reality is that most Syrian refugees arrive in Greece after short Turkish stop-overs and there is little or no incentive for other nationalities to remain in Turkey.

Refugees will continue to rely on smugglers to reach Europe via Greece unless the EU comes up with a viable alternative for them. As Francois Crepeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights for migrants has said: “’Fighting the smugglers in isolation is useless; the irregular migration market is created by the barriers to mobility.”

Residents of the Greek islands have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of a relentless flow of migrant boats coming on top of the economic crisis. They have had to watch helplessly as the Aegean has brought dead bodies to their shores almost daily.

The lack of a coherent EU policy has created a humanitarian crisis for those seeking sanctuary and for those responding on the frontlines. It has allowed individual European politicians to develop extreme positions on migration, creating an environment that threatens to close the door on refugees in need of protection.

Writing about the crisis recently, Maria Stavropoulou, director of the Greek Asylum Service, concluded that “the EU’s member states must start to perceive Europe as a single asylum space with a common European asylum status and work towards these goals.

“Until then the dominant attitude will continue to be ‘not in my back yard’, forcing states and refugees alike to adopt irregular practices,” she said.

Europe urgently needs to have a credible policy on the large-scale resettlement of refugees, and member states must start accepting asylum applications at their consulates in countries of first arrival like Jordan and Lebanon. For the ‘survival migrants’, whose main reason for mobility is the search for employment and decent living conditions, a separate visa system needs to be established. For both groups, we have to be mindful of the triggers that cause people to move: wars and poverty resulting from social inequality and climate change, for which Europe bears some responsibility.


Refugee and migrant arrivals in Lesvos island, Greece, August 2015 (published in Forced Migration Review, January 2016)

Greece (population 10 million) has received 250,000 refugees and migrants this year, mainly in the islands of Lesvos, Kos, Samos, Chios, Leros, Kalymnos. Lesvos, population 85,000, has 13 million olive trees, 17 brands of ouzo, an island of poets, writers, painters, ceramics, sardines, cheese. More than 85,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Lesvos this year up to the end of August.

They reach here from the coast of Turkey, around Ayvalik. They get there through a variety of routes. They concentrate in Izmir, from eastern Turkey, Istanbul or Mersin by bus. In Izmir they are distributed to get to different islands. They get to Mersin by ferry from Trablus in Lebanon, to Istanbul by plane from Beirut or Amman, or walk across the south eastern borders from Syria, Iran and Iraq. Syrians in their majority, recent refugees most of them, among them many Kurds and Palestinians. But also Iraqis from Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, who have passed through Jordan and by the time they get to Lesvos they register as Syrians hoping for ‘priority’ treatment. From Afghanistan, through Iran, walking and taking buses, taking a long time to get to the Turkish coast. Few Africans, from Eritrea and Somalia, through more complicated smuggler routes. Most people spend time waiting on the Turkish coast for their turn, often paying twice to cross, spending nights in the forests. Pakistanis –and some Syrians- that often have been smuggled into Greece before, worked for several years and are now returning, speaking the language. Most people know Greece is in crisis and that jobs are scarce.
The Syrians and Iraqis in their majority are graduates or artists, that found it hard to be torn from their homeland to, either a new life for them and their families, or to avoid the army draft. You will hardly hear the words Al Qaeda, Assad regime or ISIS, so popular in European and American analyses of the situation, when they speak about what drove them to take theperilous journey. There are people who have tried legal channels to reach the wealthier countries of Europe and North America: Canada, US, Germany. There are Palestinians from the West Bank, who cannot get visas to anywhere, joining the Syrians, who are obliged to register as such in order to make it out. There are people who book hotels through the internet to stay after they get their papers and while they wait for the ferry to leave and there are those that barely have enough to get to Athens. Improvised camps have been set up all over town in Mytiline (capital of Lesvos) and outside the three allocated areas. It is a huge pressure for the local population and authorities, already low on resources due to the economic crisis. No doubt, some make money from this situation. The sale of tents has skyrocketed. Fruit and water sellers at the camps charge inflated prices. But there is an outpour of volunteers from the villages together with foreign tourists, helping people when they disembark and are disoriented from the trip and traumatised from their experiences.
They land at the north and east coasts of Lesvos where the distance from Turkey is at five nautical miles. They then have to walk the 45-60 km to town where the registration takes place. It is prohibited for private vehicles to give them a lift before they receive their registration papers. Even so, many locals do take old, injured or families with babies (often a few days old) and pregnant women, at the risk of arrest for violation of anti-trafficking laws. And there are taxi drivers that charge hundreds of euros to bring the refugees and migrants into town.
The road is lined with people, families, old people, sick and handicapped, young and strong. They arrive in the camps with blisters on their feet, dehydrated, having stepped on sea urchins when coming from the sea to the shore, some chronic diseases, pregnant women, small babies, head lice.
At Sikamnia, one of the main entry points, a village of 200 people in Lesvos, a dingy arrived in front of us. People disembarked, all Syrians. Most spent some time at the shore to get their bearings. Smiling, hugging, taking selfies with the Turkish coast in the background. They had had a smooth crossing, less than two hours. Three young men (shabbab as they say all over the Arab world) came to us with huge smiles. One asked me: is this Ithaca? I was so absorbed by the scene, that I answered stupidly, ‘no, this is Lesvos’. Many refugees are not sure where they land in Greece and also do not trust what the traffickers tell them. He was referring to the allegory, of reaching your Ithaca, your destination, that you had started doubting even existed after long and tumultuous travels. He didn’t stop smiling. He asked me if I am from here. I said no, from Athens. They all let out a big ‘oohhh’. He said, Athena, goddess of knowledge, referring to the ancient Greek deity, protector of Athens. I said yes, goddess of wisdom. Then another guy told us they were students of English literature and were hoping to get to Germany to finish their studies. I wished them all the best with their long trip, starting with the 45 km walk to Mytilini under the baking sun. They were grateful to reach this historic country, even under the most stressful of circumstances. They were adventurers on the road, they had found their safety, their Ithaca.
We met the family from Haleppo; the father a teacher of music missing all the instruments he left behind in their home, his daughter of 12, whose school was bombed but who still was longing for home, the son of 16, a piano student trying to behave like a grown man and the mother, with tears telling us as soon as she disembarked that they had tried for four years to fight it out but in the end there was no life left in the city. Everyone there depends on international assistance. They left a home without electricity or water. And without even taking a shower said her daughter. They didn’t know where they were heading, maybe Sweden, they had heard asylum is given there, but the girl wanted to stay in Greece, relatively close to home.
The refugee arrivals in Europe is not a huge influx. It is a fully manageable situation with some resources. It is however a huge strain on an island the size of Lesvos, which is a main entry point into Europe for refugees and migrants.
As of 4 Sep, UNHCR reported 366,402 arrivals by sea in the Mediterranean (244,855 to Greece). The population of Germany, Sweden. Netherlands, Denmark (most popular destinations for the refugees) have a total population of 114 million. Jordan with a population of 7 million is hosting one million Syrians and Lebanon with population 4 million is hosting 1.5 million Syrians. These countries receive international assistance, from the very countries where refugees would like to go to. But the impact of the numbers is important especially for the demography of those small fragile countries. Europe can take the people reaching its shores. Three quarters of them are Syrians and skilled or willing to study (I have met many young Syrians doing the perilous journey by sea because they will not get a student visa). And if the war came to an end, many of them will return.
Europe again has shown how conservative it is and what slow reflexes it has, allowing the situation to unfold with its own dynamic. Denial is not the way forward. Greece has been under this pressure for at least five years but it is only in the summer of 2015, when the refugees and migrants moved on and reached Hungary, Austria and Germany, that the issue became a significant debate. It is expected that once the weather deteriorates, the flows to the islands will diminish but will increase through the Evros crossings in mainland Greece’s border with Turkey.
• Increase international assistance offered to Greece. The country is expected to remain in political instability while the economic crisis lasts.
• The European Union has to decide quickly on its migration policy related to this crisis. The criteria for asylum applications and acceptance or not of economic migrants have to be agreed. Potential returns have to be clearly planned and accompanied by reconstruction programmes in the countries of origin.

Five ways Europe could save refugee lives this winter (a version of this was published by on 3 November 2015)

As the death toll mounts in the Eastern Mediterranean, with stormy seas claiming the lives of at least 70 refugees in the last week of October, many of them children, the EU’s slow and fragmented response to the refugee crisis is looking increasingly ineffectual.

Months of summits and action plans have still not provided refugees with an alternative to putting their children in flimsy boats and handing over large sums of money to smugglers.

In a speech on Friday, following a series of fatal shipwrecks in the Aegean, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told his parliament he felt “shamed as a member of this European leadership, both for the inability of Europe in dealing with this human drama, and for the level of debate at a senior level, where one is passing the buck to the other.”

The EU plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states was supposed to relieve pressure on frontline states and restore some order to the registration of asylum seekers, but so far it has only increased the chaos on the island of Lesvos – the only official “hotspot” in Greece where people can be fingerprinted and registered for the scheme.

Beyond the failure to properly manage its implementation – thereby creating additional humanitarian needs – the relocation plan has also done nothing to save lives. To claim asylum in Europe, refugees must still rely on smugglers to get them to Greece or Italy, exposing themselves to dangers before and during the crossing. Prior to boarding boats on the coasts of Turkey or Libya, refugees and migrants are often threatened, robbed and extorted, while the crossing itself is a harrowing experience with too many people crammed into rubber dinghies and rickety wooden boats that cannot withstand winter sea conditions.

By forcing refugees to reach Greece or Italy before they can register asylum claims, the EU has greatly increased demand for smugglers and boosted their profits.

Alternative solutions that would protect lives and dignity do exist:

1. Register asylum seekers in Turkey and transfer them directly to asylum countries in the EU

This would require the EU to work with Turkey on setting up reception and registration centres. However, it is not one of the elements of a cooperation plan on irregular migration that Europe has been negotiating with Ankara. That plan instead focuses on boosting aid to Turkey In return for its cooperation in intercepting boats and cracking down on smuggling networks.

2. Open the official border crossings between Greece and Turkey for asylum seekers

This would involve registering asylum seekers at Greece’s land border with Turkey in Evros, where there are two official crossing points. Greek and Turkish authorities would need to cooperate on the building of infrastructure to receive and accommodate large numbers of people as well as organising their transportation to the next border, with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, around 500 kilometres west. The border fence could be retained to discourage people from crossing at dangerous points, such as where the Evros River floods in the winter or where there may still be minefields.

3. Make it easier for asylum seekers to apply for European visas in neighbouring countries

More asylum seekers could be allowed to apply for humanitarian or family reunion visas or even asylum at European embassies and consulates. Syrians should be able to access visas at embassies in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, while Afghans should have the option of applying from Iran. Such actions have been taken in the past with the involvement of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, for example to facilitate the movement of Indochina refugees in the 1970s.

4. Admit so-called economic migrants to the EU according to a points system

EU member states could set yearly migration targets worked out on the basis of their need for particular skills. Potential migrants would then apply and be granted work visas according to how many points their skills are “worth”. Various countries including Australia, Canada, and the UK already use such systems.

5. Significantly boost the humanitarian response

Until alternative solutions can be implemented, the EU needs to find ways to better manage the movement of migrants and refugees into and through Europe if it is to avoid an inevitable loss of life on European soil over the coming winter.

Greece needs support to beef up its health and emergency relief services, coast guards, police and asylum processing capacities. The current efforts of NGOs, volunteers, and UN agencies are simply not enough to respond adequately to the enormous and growing needs of the arriving refugees. National authorities must coordinate with the EU and international agencies to come up with response plans. The needs of host communities in places like Lesvos, which have depleted resources because of Greece’s economic disaster and face considerable trauma due to the refugee crisis, also need to be taken into account.