Greece, the Humanitarian Dead-End

The spread of the coranovirus crisis has diverted attention from another human tragedy, that caused by the European management of the “refugee crisis” that began in 2015. After the announcement that Turkey would open its borders to refugees wishing to come to Europe and the Greek reaction of suspending the right of asylum in its country, the already fragile situation, particularly on the Aegean islands, is at a breaking point.

Moria Camp, Lesbos Island, March 8, 2020
© Sylvain Mercadier

The crisis in Greece has its roots in European policies that have long sought to externalize, contain and deter migrants from seeking protection in its territory. Since 2015, the European Union has instrumentalized Greece as the continent’s border, but it has failed to provide sustainable or humane solutions for either the refugee population or the host communities.

In the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016, currently under renegotiation, Turkey was offered a lucrative financial package in exchange for acting as Europe’s border guards and preventing the refugees on its territory from traveling onward to Europe. In doing so, the EU commodified the asylum seeking population, which has been repeatedly weaponized by Turkey to achieve its political goals - including to quiet EU disapproval of its invasion of North-Eastern Syria last October, and last week, to pressure European NATO states for support in its present confrontation with the Syrian regime.

The Turkish declaration that it would no longer prevent refugees from leaving the country—and its active support for them to do so, as manifest by the government organization of buses to the northern border with Greece—was made on the same day that it called for NATO consultations, utilizing the pressure that this would place on the borders to serve its political goals. “Refugees are at the same time the most vulnerable and the most instrumentalized people on the planet,” commented Gracelin Moore, coordinator for Lesvos-based NGO Refugee Rescue, which conducts sea surveillance and rescue missions at sea.

A “deliberate collective punishment”

Back in 2016, the EU-Turkey Statement transformed the Aegean island into open-air detention centers overnight. Prospects for onward movement, to continental Greece or elsewhere in Europe, got strictly limited. There are currently more than 20, 000 asylum seekers forced to live in and around the notorious Moria camp in Lesvos—a record high in the largest refugee camp in Europe—where conditions are so dire that they have been referred to as a “deliberative … collective punishment” by NGO Médecins Sans Frontières. Indeed, the dystopian nature of living conditions are not the result of neglect: they are deliberate policies aimed at deterring refugees from coming to Europe. “This is not a humanitarian crisis,” maintains Apostolos Veisis, head of the Medical Operation Unit in Greece of Médecins Sans Frontières, “it’s a political one”.

This quixotic situation has been recently exacerbated by the New Democracy government, elected in July 2019 on an anti-migrant platform. Shortly after his election, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis closed the Ministry of Immigration, and decreed that refugee affairs would be handled by the Ministry of the Citizen Protection - the same ministry responsible for internal security and policing, thus reframing a humanitarian crisis as a question of public order. In January, however, the government was forced to reverse its decision - unsurprising given that Greece has one of the largest refugee and migrant populations in Europe.

Mistotakis’ government has stripped back already-minimal guarantees for asylum seekers, and in October, introduced a new International Protection Bill—with just a week of public consultation—that was explicitly aimed at restricting the framework for requesting and granting asylum. Special guarantees to vulnerable individuals, such as unaccompanied children (which, it must be said, were rarely implemented in practice) have been removed, in favour of a fast-track procedure that tramples on migrants’ rights and allows little opportunity for legal support. “Everything is done to make conditions harsher, to send a message [to potential future asylum seekers],” said Elias Elser, coordinator of the Refugee Law Clinic in Samos, an NGO that assists asylum seekers in their legal procedure. “There’s a clear policy of discouragement.”

Mass expulsion lens

The presentation of the new law was accompanied by a government announcement that it would deport 10, 000 people this year. It has since celebrated the number of rejections delivered under the new law, and the refusal of 95% of asylum appeals - many of which are deemed inadmissible, due to the procedural hurdles imposed by the new law, or are lodged, despite asylum seekers’ right to legal support, without the assistance of a lawyer that could guide them in this complex procedure conducted in Greek language. (which asylum seekers have the right to.) In brief, the scarcity of legal aid for vulnerable people, within a system stacked against asylum seekers, is being exploited by the government for its own political cachet to boost its popularity among the most reactionary fringes of the Greek society. Yet despite the government’s fiery rhetoric, the number of arrivals has continued to increase, and little has been done to solve either the dire conditions faced by asylum seekers or the pressures felt by the national population. In reality, both EU’s pressure (being resentful at implementing a real reception process for the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers), and the Greek government’s initiatives are symptomatic of a progressive reconstitution of the asylum structure in Greece at every level.

In Lesvos, the main landing island in Greece, the deterioration of living conditions is felt by refugees upon arrival. Recently, the West Lesvos municipality council voted for the closure of “Stage 2
» camp, which was a preliminary station for the identification and medical treatment of refugees on their arrival. “The disappearance of Stage 2 makes both the humanitarian assistance and the identification process upon arrival more difficult and chaotic, which particularly impacts on vulnerable people’’ details Gracelin Moore. Last week, the abandoned site was deliberately burnt down, reportedly targeted by those hostile to the presence of refugees on the islands and who feared that it might be reopened, following an increase in new arrivals and the renewal of this deep crisis in Greece.

High tensions in Lesbos

Tensions were on the rise long before Turkey’s declaration that it would open the borders for refugees to enter Europe. In recent weeks, demonstrations have been organized and attended by groups across the political spectrum—including both those in solidarity with, and hostile to, refugees— in opposition to the government’s plans to build new detention centres for asylum seekers on the islands, and the deployment of riot police squads to ensure their construction. Violence towards protestors only inflamed tensions, and the riot units were subsequently recalled by the central government. However, preventing the construction of new detention centres did little to resolve the underlying tensions. In fact, certain factions of the local population expressed that if they were able to expel the riot police, perhaps the same could be done to refugees and those who work in solidarity with them.

The Turkish declaration pushed this fragile situation to implosion. In Lesvos, far-right vigilantism has sharply risen. Refugee boats have been attacked by masked groups, civilian roadblocks have been set up to target migrants and those in solidarity with them, journalists have been beaten, and a migrant community centre—in addition to the aforementioned Stage 2—has been burnt down. Recent attacks have seen limited intervention by local law enforcement, who have been unable or unwilling to intervene in, or willfully ignorant of, in acts of violence by far-right groups.

Humanitarian criminal impasse

Meanwhile, the Greek government—with EU political, financial and personnel support—has violently fortified its borders with its military apparatus: army units have been deployed; the use of live fire has been permitted on both land and maritime borders; pushbacks at sea—illegal under international law— have been widely documented, and boats reportedly damaged by the Coast Guard; boats in distress have been denied timely assistance; and at least three people have been killed while trying to gain access to the territory.

Furthermore, on 1 March, Mitsotakis’ government suspended the right to seek asylum for one month and criminalised those who attempt to access the territory irregularly, in clear violation of its international and regional obligations towards asylum seekers. At least forty-five people have been convicted of illegal entry, which is—for those who are seeking asylum—not a crime. In fact, European asylum procedures require the individual to be present in the territory before lodging their application, and therefore force people to take such illicit routes. Moreover, the government has announced that those who do reach the territory will be deported without having their asylum claim heard - therefore placing them at grave risk of refoulement. Those arriving to Lesvos after the government’s decision have been detained at their arrival sites, including on beaches in the middle of winter, and subsequently transferred to a military vessel in the island’s main port. On it, conditions are dire.

Food and water are inadequate, particularly for the many children who are detained; there are only eight toilets, for over 600 people, and no showers; and access to medical care, including for heavily pregnant women, is limited. There are no safe spaces for vulnerable groups, meaning that unaccompanied children and single women are forced to sleep in a space with hundreds of unrelated adults. In Samos, no toilets were provided for people detained in the port, who were instead forced to defecate on the beaches. The phones and possessions of arrivals there were reportedly confiscated. Those detained do not know where they will be taken next.

Rather than sanctioning or even condemning the Greek government for these multiple violations of international law, the European Commission has asserted that ‘our top priority at this stage is to ensure that Greece … [has] our full support.’ It has pledged €700 million in EU funds for Greece, with €350 million available to immediately upgrade border infrastructure, and thanked the country for acting as the ‘shield’ of Europe. Such rapid political and financial commitment, particularly when compared to the ongoing and deliberate neglect of the refugee population in Greece, again exposes the EU’s willingness to privilege an exclusive concept of its own security over the lives of those seeking sanctuary.

These events are the latest instalments of an ongoing humanitarian crisis created and sustained by European policies. As MSF stated in one of its latest press releases: “The emergency measures announced by the Greek government will have devastating consequences as they remove the right to claim protection and aim to push people fleeing war back to Turkey. This will only lead to more chaos, deaths at sea, escalating violence and a worsening humanitarian disaster”. Europe’s credibility has finally been trumped by its migration practices and put its hypocrisy in sharp view once again.