Greece on edge, as Turkish coup prompts surge in new arrivals
By Omaira Gill
After dropping for several months, the numbers of refugees pouring through Greece have started to increase again in recent weeks.
When an EU-Turkey deal was hacked out in March 2016, it was hailed by EU governments as a success. The massive numbers that had transited through Greece in 2015 and early 2016 quickly whittled down to almost nothing.
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But people have not stopped coming, and the failed coup in Turkey on 15 July seems to have had consequences.
The EU-Turkey deal came into effect on 20 March 2016.
In February, UNHCR data showed 55,222 arrivals in Greece. This had fallen to 26,623 in March and 3,419 in April. The numbers for May and June were more or less steady at 1,465 and 1,489, respectively.
But in July, the pattern began to change.
There were 1,855 arrivals recorded for the month of July. This could be written off as part of the settling down period for the deal, until the numbers are broken down and matched with events which took place that month.
On 15 July, an attempted putsch took place in Turkey. The number of arrivals from 1 July to 14 July came to 560. But that number jumped to 1,295 for the period 15 July to 31 July - an increase of 131 percent.
Taking a step further back, between 15 June and 14 July, 1,438 arrivals were registered in Greece. But from 15 July to 14 August, the number was 2,675, representing an 86-percent increase in arrivals.
No Turkish police
In the face of this data, it is hard to ignore Turkey’s current instability as a driving factor behind refugee flows. Between 1 and 28 August, the latest available date for arrivals by the UNHCR, 2,810 refugees and migrants arrived on Greek shores.
The EU-Turkey deal, already a precarious arrangement and widely condemned by human rights organisations, has many working parts.
One is a convincing image of Turkey as a safe third country to return refugees to, something that Syrian refugees, and particularly Syrian Kurds, are not buying.
The second is a stable Turkish government that does not have its attention taken up by internal unrest, and more recently, boots on the ground in Syria.
The disarray left behind by the coup attempt has been seized upon and, in the fair summer weather, refugee numbers have begun climbing up.
The third factor is Turkey’s cooperation, and it is this factor which could undo the deal.
The UNHCR’s director Vincent Cochetel recently told the Guardian that parts of the deal are already de facto suspended due to the post-coup absence of Turkish police at the Greek detention centres.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government has plainly stated that if there is no agreement for visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the EU by October, as promised under the EU-Turkey deal, they will stop upholding their part of the bargain, and Greece could once more see record numbers flood across the sea.
Confusion in asylum process
As for those who do make it to Greece, the prospects are grim.
Claiming asylum in Europe has been designed as a two-step process as of June this year under the approval of the UNHCR and the European Asylum Support Office.
It was meant to ease the unrest growing among refugee populations and give authorities a more complete picture of who and where they are in order to process their claims fully.
It was also meant to streamline the asylum process, but has caused confusion instead. Pre-registration comes first, after which the applicant receives an asylum seeker’s card granting them basic rights such as education for their children.
The design of the process has left many convinced that the first step is the only one which needs completion, only for them to find there were still many more hoops to jump through before their dreams of life in Europe came closer to reality.
There are currently more than 58,000 refugees in Greece. Around 10,000 of these are crammed into camps on the islands.
It is a figure that has stubbornly refused to go down in any meaningful way thanks to a painfully slow relocation programme. Only around 4,000 of the 160,000 which EU member states pledged last year to take from Greece and Italy by September 2017 have actually been moved.
Mayors from the Greek islands have spent the summer months making increasingly desperate appeals for something to be done about the backlog and the crawling pace of the relocation programme, citing the highly tense atmosphere both inside and outside the camps.
Several communities do not want the refugees there, no more than the refugees want to be there themselves - an explosive combination.
Fear and confusion
Stuck in sub-standard, or as in the case of unofficial camps, non existent, accommodation, the refugees in Greece find themselves in limbo. In this environment, the ground is ripe for exploitation, which is already happening.
Various groups who might not necessarily get along have been grouped together with little thought about the consequences.
There is little by way of security, meaning that both religious fundamentalists and mafia groups prowl the camps looking for easy pickings.
Cut off from viable work options, prostitution has become a means to survive for some migrants in the streets around Victoria Square, in downtown Athens.
In Petra, under the shadow of Mount Olympus, a camp exclusively for Yazidis, a Kurdish minority, was set up after activists received reports that they were being constantly harassed and attacked by other refugees.
Resentment is also growing between various refugee and migrant communities over who gets better treatment - Afghans, for example, are convinced that the Syrians are treated more favourably than they are, while Pakistani Christians are amazed at the lack of knowledge among Greek authorities about the persecution they face in their home country.
Fights between Afghans and Pakistanis at the Elliniko camp in Athens are a regular occurrence (one such fight led to a fatality).
Women and girls in particular suffer from being exposed to lack of adequate accommodation and lack of privacy. Reports of sexual harassment targeting women and children in official and unofficial camps in Greece are rife.
In Greece, a climate of fear and confusion has taken hold.
Several frontline islands, which rely heavily on tourism, have reported drops in tourist arrivals. Lesbos was hit particularly badly, with bookings down nearly 60 percent compared to last year.
The battered infrastructure of these islands will not be able to withstand a repeat of the numbers seen last year.