Refugees in Greece: Change is coming, but for better or worse?
The influx of refugee presence, speculation of illegal migration, and political pledges to tackle these ‘issues’ often take centre stage in the media. Even by typing the word ‘refugee’ into Google will show you commonly searched phrases such as ‘refugee camp’ or the more familiar ‘refugee crisis’. After the election of the right-wing New Democracy party, a new government led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis was formed; with this formation the phrase ‘refugee crisis’ has reached new peaks for both refugees and Greek citizens. Mitsotakis’ election promises to accelerate the refugee application process and send rejected applicants back to Turkey, suggesting that the situation for refugees in Greece is still far from the finish line that promises a positive resolution.
The main influx of refugee population is rooted in the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, causing over 5.6 million Syrians to flee to neighbouring countries such as Turkey or Jordan (UNHCR, 2019). However, with Turkish refugee camps reaching their capacity soon after, many refugees continued their journey to safety into Europe. Asylum applications soared as many still hope to start a new life in Europe, or to be safely united with their family, travelling by land or sea to reach countries such as Italy, Spain, and more often Greece. Other refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq are also included in this influx, fleeing war and aspiring for the same security, albeit in a smaller number (BBC, 2016; UNHCR, 2019).
Since the emergence of the 2015 ‘crisis’, the Greek government and large aid-organisations have spent the last 4 years attempting to provide suitable standards of temporary living for between 80,600 and 118,000 refugees across mainland Greece and its islands (figures respectively from UNHCR, July 2019; Koraki organisation 2019).
Even prior to 2015, the 2011 case of MSS v Belgium & Greece in the European Court of Human Rights exposed the degrading conditions faced by one Afghan asylum seeker, and deemed both Belgium and Greece as violating Article 3 (inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) by transferring him to Greece (European Database of Asylum Law, 2011).
Despite this court ruling, 8 years later there remains evidence that authorities continue to disregard national and international law by continuing to lock up children in overcrowded, unhygienic and ill-equipped detention centers for an average of 40 days. These children receive no medical care, psychological treatment or access to interpreters (Tasos Kokkinidis, March 2019; Eva Cossé, June & April 2019; Human Rights Watch, 2016).
For children living in Greek camps, the chances of accessing the education system are worryingly low: only 11,300 children out of an estimated 32,000 were recorded as enrolled in education, with the UNHCR citing the distance of camps from schools and racism or discrimination as key barriers to education (UNICEF, UNHCR, and IOM, 2018; UNICEF, 2019). As a result, the younger generation of refugees and asylum seekers are seeing a marked increase in physical and mental health problems without access to adequate treatment. They are spending their formative years in containers, or indefinitely inhabiting areas intended for temporary living.
Equally atrocious are the accounts recorded by Human Rights Watch which describe illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities to Turkey. Illegal pushbacks are the forced removal or return of people - in this case to Turkey by boat across the Eros river - without any opportunity to challenge their return, or request asylum in Greece. Victims of these pushbacks have identified Greek border authorities and ‘unidentified, often masked, men who may or may not be law enforcement officers,’ with many also reporting the theft of money, identification and other possessions, together with physical abuse (Human Rights Watch, 2018). The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 2018 (CPT) urged the Greek government to prevent any more pushbacks on the grounds of Article 3, specifically so-called chain refoulement - the transfer of a person to another state that may not effectively protect the person against further transfers that would breach the principle of non-refoulement (European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 2018; Tilman Rodenhäuser, 2018). However, while the EU fails to fulfil its promises over relocation and reunification, there is little incentive for the Greek government to prevent these illegal pushbacks.
Despite numerous other investigations and reports by the UNHCR and EU commissions, institutional bodies have knowingly neglected the most vulnerable populations by failing to properly enforce their own laws or follow through with their own inquiry recommendations. While disappointing, it is hardly unsurprising that the self-interest of European politics dictates the situation for thousands of refugees, with countries only prepared to feign interest in the suffering of thousands through half-hearted, aimless and routinely tame accounts.
This only begs the question, what effect will the newly elected Greek government have on refugees?
In an attempt at searching for a sustainable, long-term solution, I spoke to Mimi Hapig from the German organisation Soup and Socks. Hapig currently works with refugees in northern Greece as leader of the maker space project Habibi.Works.
How would you judge the Greek authorities' commitment to ensuring refugees have, at least, basic human rights and acceptable living conditions in Katsikas?
“To start with, it is extremely important for me to point out that this crisis or challenge has been dealt with in a really short sighted and incompetent way not only by the Greek authorities, but also by big international aid organizations and by the EU as a whole. I would definitely not want to only blame the Greek authorities for the situation people are facing. However, there are things that the Greek government and authorities have failed and are failing to do.
For example, offering language classes or other measures for integration here in Katsikas. There is no special language class put in place so people can learn Greek. While this might not have been essential in 2016, when people were still waiting to transfer to other European countries through the Relocation Program or family reunification, authorities missed the moment to change their approach on integration measures: when it became clear that Greece was going to be the final destination for people who arrived after a certain date.
By pretending that the arrival and existence of refugees in Greece is a short term situation that will disappear by itself, that it doesn’t require the investment of resources for sustainable solutions, a series of very inhumane situations and practices have come about.
A practical example from the early days in which actors, including international aid organisations, definitely failed, was the fact that most of the camps in Greece were, and in many cases partly still are, places where people have to live in tents. People, sometimes families of 8 or 9, had to live in a tent. This is absurd if we consider the fact that we are not in a country that lacks infrastructure. We are in Europe, the richest continent in the world, - there was just no need for anyone to live in a tent for months and months. Overall, we are clearly seeing that people arriving to Greece is not an intermediate, or short-term phenomenon; it requires sustainable, dignified and humane long-term solutions. And no one is offering them.”
With the new Greek government elected last July, have you witnessed any positive or negative changes made to the refugee situation? How would you predict the new government will change the lives of refugees in Greece?
“I actually believe we are facing even more challenging years in Greece than we have seen so far, at least regarding the migration policy. The new government has already made notable changes within their first two weeks in power.
For example, the ministry of migration was dismantled and its responsibilities and bodies allocated under the ministry of citizen’s protection, which is the ministry that is also responsible for the police.
There were announcements that border controls were to be increased, of reducing the time the asylum procedure in Greece takes which, contrary to what some might think, would not be a positive development because individual cases would be checked less thoroughly, risking some people who have good reasons to be accepted as refugees, instead being sent back to countries where they face persecution, torture, and even death.
In this first fortnight, the new government has made clear which direction they are heading in.
It is not a direction that will make life easier for refugees that [have come] to Greece.”
BBC. (2016), ‘Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts’, Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911
BBC. (2015), ‘Migrant crisis: Arrivals to Greece top 500,000’, Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34585088
UNHCR, (2019) ‘Syria Refugee Crisis Explained’, Retrieved from: https://www.unrefugees.org/news/syria-refugee-crisis-explained/
UNHCR, (2019), ‘Fact sheet on Greece‘, Retrieved from: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/70447
Kokkinidis, T. (2019) ‘European Court Condemns Greece for Treatment of Child Migrants’, Retrieved from: https://greece.greekreporter.com/2019/03/02/european-court-condemns-greece-for-treatment-of-child-migrants/
Cossé, E. (2019) ‘European Court Condemns Greece’s Migrant Kid Lockups’, Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/15/european-court-condemns-greeces-migrant-kid-lockups
Cossé, E. (2019) ‘Greece in Denial About Police Detention of Lone Kids’, Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/04/11/european-court-slams-greeces-police-detention-lone-kids
Human Rights Watch. (2016), ‘Greece: Migrant Children Held in Deplorable Conditions’, Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/08/greece-migrant-children-held-deplorable-conditions
UNICEF. (2018). ‘Latest statistics and graphics on refugee and migrant children’, Retrieved from: https://www.unicef.org/eca/emergencies/latest-statistics-and-graphics-refugee-and-migrant-children
UNICEF. (2019). ‘Access to formal education for refugee children’, https://www.unicef.org/eca/media/7686/file
UNICEF. (2019). ‘Refugee and migrant children statistics’, Retrieved from: https://www.unicef.org/eca/sites/unicef.org.eca/files/2019-04/EducationENG%20January%202019%20Urban.pdf
‘Preliminary observations made by the delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’. (2018), Retrieved from: https://rm.coe.int/16808afaf6
Rodenhäuser, T. (2018). ‘The principle of non-refoulement in the migration context: 5 key points’, Retrieved from: https://reliefweb.int/report/world/principle-non-refoulement-migration-context-5-key-points