Since the start of the migrant crisis across Europe in 2015, and no less today, Greece has been a focal point for refugees in Europe. Up until March 2016, thousands of asylum seekers were arriving on Greek shores every day before attempting to continue their journeys through Europe.
Things changed in March 2016, when the EU struck a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants entering the bloc. In basic terms, the deal meant that anyone arriving irregularly to the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. In return), EU member states committed to taking one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned from the islands, alongside a pledge of €3bn to help Turkey manage the humanitarian situation for refugees in Turkey.
The deal was deeply flawed. Overnight, reception facilities and temporary accommodation in Greece became detention centres. Refugees began being held indefinitely on the islands and conditions in some camps such as Lesbos became vastly overcrowded and deteriorated rapidly.
According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Greece currently hosts around 50,000 refugees. As of June 2020, 31,203 of these refugees are living in camps on the Aegean islands built to house 6,000.
The situation took another turn late in February 2020, when Turkey reneged on the EU deal and reopened their borders to enable refugees to continue to Europe. The Turkish government’s action was in response to the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in Syria and the European bloc not condemning the actions leading to the event. All of a sudden the route into Europe was open to potentially all of the 3 million refugees residing in Turkey. The Turks actively sought to drive refugees out with multiple reports suggesting that Turkish authorities were even giving refugees lifts to the Greek border and forcing them across.
Back at sea
The turn in policy towards refugees across Europe came in September 2015 with the photograph of the drowned body of the refugee toddler Alan Kurdi, who became known as “The boy on the beach” and symbolised the plight of thousands of refugees risking their lives to make the torturous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.
Records from 2016 revealed a further 4600 refugees died in the Mediterranean, although the number of actual deaths is certainly higher. Now with the U-turn by Turkey to enable refugees to cross its borders to reach Greece, the sea routes reopened. Desperate refugees in over filled boats are once again putting their lives in the hands of people traffickers to make the crossing to try and find a better life in Europe.
In June 2020, Greek coast guards were accused of deliberately sabotaging refugees’ boats in an attempt to push them back to Turkey.
A harrowing video posted on Twitter showed a panicked child screaming “Mama, Mama, we’re going to die!” as masked men board a tiny boat in the middle of the Aegean. The strait between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos is currently the most active route for migrants attempting to reach the European Union.
This is happening NOW at Europe’s borders! Masked men attack people in distress in Greek waters, making waves before leaving again. Listen to their voices: ‘we will die’, ‘mama, mama’.
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) June 4, 2020
The video was posted by AlarmPhone, a hotline for migrants in trouble at sea, calls are then forwarded on to the nearest coast guard agency. Lorenz, a volunteer for the organisation, relays how the men destroyed the engine of the boat, disabling it, then left it stranded out at sea. Lorenz said:
“These attacks are completely illegal by any legislative standard, and clearly demonstrate the outrageous force currently being used against refugees along the Greek border,”
The lack of videos coupled with the fact that these masked men do not wear a uniform and use unmarked boats make it hard to prove that they are in fact Greek coast guards. However, some amazing investigative work analysing the superstructure and distinguishing features of the boat, carried out by Bellingcat and Lighthouse Reports, confirmed without doubt that the rigid inflatable boat was in fact the Greek coast guard vessel ΛΣ 080, and this ship has been proven to have been deployed off Lesbos that day.
Greece has denied all accusations but UNHCR have demanded an investigation, with Boris Cheshirkov, the spokesman for the refugee agency in Greece confirming that since March, it had documented dozens of incidents like these, before adding:
“Greece has the legitimate right to control its borders and manage irregular migration… [but only] while respecting international human rights and refugee protection standards.”
Echoing the approach to border walls of US President Donald Trump, the Greek government has also promised to build a floating sea wall in the Aegean to keep refugees from reaching Greece and its islands.
Recognised refugees face eviction
Alongside these external developments, Greece has also changed domestically. The Mitsotakis government took power in July of 2019 on a tough law and order platform. This new tough approach extended to the treatment of refugees in Greece and among his policies was a controversial plan to replace the sprawling island camps with “closed” detention centres, despite mass objections from human rights groups.
The most recent policy has seen a drastic shift in the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) scheme, which has placed refugees temporarily housed in Athens apartments.
On 1 June 2020 a change in the law came into effect to reduce the maximum period refugees can be sheltered from six months down to just one.
UNHCR told EuroNews that at least 8,500 confirmed refugees would be affected by the change. These people will be evicted with little to no safety net, with UNHCR spokesman Cheshirkov explaining that most of these people will face barriers accessing help even when available:
“In theory, they are entitled to assistance but in reality for those who do not speak the language, navigating the Greek bureaucracy can be extremely difficult…We need to see credible programs that are effectively allowing people to stand on their own feet before they’re leaving on such short notice.”
Many fear that evicting so many refugees at once will lead to a humanitarian crisis in the city, with Greek newspaper Efsyn saying the outcome will be “devastating and not just for the refugees”.
The ESTIA is an EU funded scheme, but the Greek government remains in control of who can access it.
Efsyn stated that, the Greek Immigration Minister, Panagiotis Mitarachis, only took this action because of “the urgent need of alleviating (migrant pressure) on the islands, where most of his voters are based”.
The government claims the shift in policy has been taken to speed up the process of integrating those remaining in camps into Greek society. However, this position has been widely challenged, with Zoe Kokalou of the Association for the Social Support of Youth (ARSIS) saying:
“It’s true that the people in the camps need to be taken from the mud, the makeshift tents, the trash, the unsanitary conditions, and be put in a safe housing environment..But it’s not right to take out the already-vulnerable so that we can bring the people from the islands. It needs to work another way.”
Unsafe camps and a global pandemic
The Greek islands refugee camps have long been unfit for purpose. Vastly overcrowded, with inhabitants living in precarious, unsanitary conditions for indefinite periods. Add on top of that a pandemic that thrives in those same conditions then you have a recipe for disaster.
In some corners of the Moria camp, located on the eastern coast of Lesbos, 1,300 people are left to share just one tap. When washing your hands is consistently prescribed as the most efficient way of tackling the Coronavirus, easy access to running water becomes essential. With every camp vastly over capacity, the ability to socially distance is impossible.
Camp resident Hasan told the Independent:
“In here, we cannot behave like you guys in your country. You’re staying at home, washing yourself, you don’t go to the crowded places – we have to go to the food line, we have to stay in the line for a shower.”
Should Coronavirus seriously take hold in these camps, it would spread like wildfire, leading to the camps being described as a “tinderbox waiting for a single spark”.
And while Greece has largely returned to normal on the mainland, with the coronavirus lockdown being lifted in May 2020, restrictions on the thousands of asylum seekers and migrants living in camps on the mainland and across Aegean Island camps have remained in place.
Lockdown measures for these facilities were supposed to cease June 7, but they were extended to “limit the spread of Covid-19 in areas of overcrowding”. While it is important to ensure that these camps take precautionary measures, human rights watch claim:
“They must be based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in their application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review…The camp lockdowns do not meet these criteria”
The European Commission is providing the Greek authorities with financial support to protect these camps from the coronavirus. Despite the fact that there have not yet been any cases in these facilities, critics suggest this is more down to luck than effective countermeasures. The authorities have not addressed the issue of overcrowding (with only 3,000 people relocated from the camps to the mainland), there has been little to no increase in healthcare capacity and access to adequate water remains scarce.
Turkey has used the ongoing “Supporting the future of Syria’ conference” to accuse the EU of turning a blind eye to the Greek authorities’ human rights abuses towards refugees. Despite the obvious political motivations behind Ankara’s claims, it is hard to disagree.
In March, Greek authorities on the mainland camps arbitrarily detained nearly 2,000 new arrivals.
It remains clear that Greece is falling short of its obligations to protect refugees, both morally and lawfully. Under the context of a global pandemic that is proven to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable, compassion and targeted measures to help refugees is more important than ever. Instead, the Greek government seems to be actively persecuting and harassing refugees.
The European Union should also not stand idly by while these abuses take place, and at the very least should ensure that any funding ring fenced to protect refugees is used to do exactly that.
The International Observatory of Human Rights calls on the Greek authorities to:
- Cease the illegal harassment of asylum seekers and migrants attempting to cross the Aegean.
- Ensure that those affected by the change to the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation scheme are adequately looked after to avoid a humanitarian crisis, this includes providing the necessary assistance to ensure they can access what help is available to them. Ideally, we would like to see this scheme returned to the initial six-month period.
- Prioritise ensuring the camps as well equipped as possible to counter the threat of coronavirus. This includes relocating more asylum seekers and migrants onto the mainland and using the EU Commission’s funds to properly improve living conditions and access to water, sanitary provisions and healthcare.
Now more than ever #RememberRefugeees