Friday

18th Oct 2019

Opinion

Greece needs to face reality about asylum seekers

  • People are sleeping in tents in makeshift camps around government-run facilities, or just out in the open. (Photo: Save the Children)

The Greek islands are under the spotlight again, as a new wave of tragic events has hit asylum seekers trapped there.

On 29 September, a big fire broke out in Moria - the notorious camp on the island of Lesbos - killing one woman, and injuring at least nine more people, including a baby, the health ministry reported.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Margaritas Schinas, the likely next EU commissioner for migration, and former EU commission spokesman, is himself Greek (Photo: European Commission)

On 24 September, a truck killed a five-year-old Afghan boy who was playing just outside Moria.

The number of asylum seekers crossing the Aegean from Turkey is also increasing.

With camps already overcrowded, conditions are horrific for asylum seekers and migrants trapped there. According to the government's most recent figures, 26,753 women, men and children live in camps designed for about 6,300.

The number has almost doubled since June.

But while the numbers have increased, neither the horrible conditions nor the flawed policies that cause them are new. Underinvestment, a poorly functioning asylum system, and a deliberate policy choice to confine asylum seekers to islands has left thousands trapped there for months or years in inhuman and degrading conditions.

Forcing migrants and asylum seekers to remain on the islands was ostensibly to expedite their return to Turkey under the March 2016 EU-Turkey deal.

But on 11 September, Gerald Knaus, head of a research organisation whose ideas inspired the EU-Turkey deal, wrote that: "The situation on Greek islands is unacceptable, the asylum system on the verge of collapse. This is a moment of truth."

This is indeed a moment of truth.

And the real challenge is not the number of arrivals by sea on the Greek Islands, but the unjustified suffering of thousands of people.

The crisis narrative leads only to security-driven responses that put asylum seekers' rights and dignity second.

The reality is that very few of those stuck on the islands have been returned to Turkey or to their countries of origin. Most can't be returned as Turkey is not a safe country for them.

And while Greek authorities have transferred some people to the mainland, they have refused to change the containment policy, even after a high court ruling.

Meanwhile, many people are sleeping in tents in makeshift camps around government-run facilities, or just out in the open.

They face severe unsanitary, unhygienic conditions, and don't have access to most basic services such as water and food. Medical care, trauma counselling, and mental health support are inadequate. Physical and gender-based violence are quite common.

Almost 1,300 unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children are living in this insecure environment. Along with thousands of other school-age children, they are out of school, effectively denied education.

This has been going on for four years now.

Deliberate chaos

Aid groups say that about 7,000 people have received the green light to move to the mainland but transfers are extremely slow due to the lack of organisation, and of available accommodation.

But even when they are able to move, it won't solve the problem. The lack of a permanent relocation system for asylum seekers to other European countries as well as the long delays in processing family reunification requests only makes the situation worse.

The chaos on the Greek islands is not the evidence of Europe's inability to manage migration - but of its deliberate unwillingness to do so.

The Greek government needs to improve how it meets its legal obligation toward asylum seekers, including improving reception conditions and procedures.

It needs a long-term strategy that takes into account both the benefits of refugee integration and the needs of local host communities.

And European leaders need to take on their share of responsibility with a permanent system for receiving asylum seekers, processing their asylum applications and speeding family reunification to alleviate the burden on Greece.

Last week's discussion on the 'central Mediterranean route' in Malta should offer inspiration to Greece and EU leaders.

What Greece needs is for its new government to have the courage to say what everyone knows needs to happen, namely that the large-scale returns to Turkey are off the table, that the island containment policy is unsustainable and that the asylum system needs to be properly resourced.

And Greece also needs its fellow EU member states to work together to create a meaningful responsibility-sharing system to treat people with dignity and provide them with fair and efficient asylum procedures.

Author bio

Eva Cossé is the Greece researcher, and Philippe Dam is Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, both at Human Rights Watch.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Can Schinas put EU values back into migration brief?

Margaritas Schinas at his hearing before MEPs on Thursday has an opportunity to put the core values of the EU – peace, sustainable development and human rights – back at the heart of EU migration policy.

'Migration' is now 'protecting European way of life'

The upcoming European Commission has shuffled migration policy into a euphemistic new "Protecting our European Way of Life" European commissioner portfolio, headed by former spokesman Margartis Schinas. Some MEPs are not happy.

France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants

French president Emmanuel Macron is pressing for an automated distribution of rescued migrants at sea - but also stands accused of tightening asylum rules in his own country as a response to the far-right.

Europe's empty fortress

It is too easy only to criticise the rightists and their fixation with barbed wire, Trump for his wall on the border with Mexico, Orban for his xenophobia.

News in Brief

  1. EU: US can expect counter measures after tariff move
  2. Almost 7,500 people forcibly returned to Libya in 2019
  3. Puigdemont released after responding to arrest warrant
  4. Commission: Facebook's Libra needs international approach
  5. Italian PM: denial of accession talks a 'historic mistake'
  6. Catalan president blames clashes on 'infiltrators'
  7. US imposes €6.7bn new tariffs on European products
  8. G7: Libra should not operate until all risks addressed

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  2. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  3. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  4. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  6. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  10. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  12. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  2. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  3. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  9. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  12. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us