It has been nine months since the introduction of the EU-Turkey deal, under which refugees arriving on Greek islands face the threat of deportation back to Turkey. Since then, thousands of refugees have been stuck in inhumane conditions, in camps lacking basic resources like heat and electricity, as they await to have their asylum requests processed. With the arrival of winter, the situation continues to deteriorate.
Meanwhile, UNHCR and the EU’s aid department (ECHO) have been accused of mismanaging millions in emergency funding earmarked for upgrading shelters, leaving thousands sleeping in freezing conditions in camps across Greece. On Chios, refugees have begun to protest against these intolerable conditions. ‘We all are fighting this battle with the leaders of Europe’s non-humanists. Yes, we are now one team fighting the lies and hatred, racism and the enslavement of human beings and the imprisonment of freedom,’ writes Mohammed, a refugee from Deir ez-Zor.
The following commentary, originally published in Politico last week, was written in response to the European Commission’s proposal to resume ‘Dublin transfers’ back to Greece.
By John-Mark Philo & Ludek Stavinoha
In the same week as the world marked Human Rights Day, the European Commission announced its plans to resume the so-called “Dublin transfers” of refugees back to Greece. If the recommendation is adopted at Thursday’s meeting of European leaders in Brussels, EU member countries will be able to start returning refugees who arrive on their territory back to the country of their first entry into the European Union, wherever that may be.
Greece was suspended from the EU’s Dublin Regulation in 2011 after the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice declared that the Greek asylum system and reception conditions systematically failed to meet basic human rights standards. The Commission now claims that Greece has made “significant progress in reforming its asylum system.”
For the volunteers and refugees on the ground, this decision seems not only cruel but also alarmingly detached from the everyday realities of the situation. The refugee camps of Greece are in fact experiencing the darkest moments of the crisis so far.
“I feel like I’m in Syria again,” said Abdullah — who has been waiting since March this year to have his asylum request processed — describing attacks by right-wing extremists on the Souda refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. The first night saw boulders dropped onto shelters where families were sleeping; the next, petrol bombs being hurled at tents, with a pregnant woman miscarrying her twins as a result.
“I am afraid there will be another fire at the camp,” said a 12-year-old girl from Iran. “My mother cries every night.” A week later a mother and a child were killed in a gas explosion on Lesvos while cooking a meal in their tent, an accident that could easily have been avoided had they been provided with basic accommodation.
The Commission’s recommendation also flies in the face of information widely available from NGOs currently in Greece. Aspasia Papadopoulou, a senior policy officer at the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, recently criticized Greek and Italian detention “hotspots” for applying “practices and standards that are inadequate and disrespect fundamental rights.”
In camps across Greece, refugees — including pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and chronically ill — are languishing in inadequate shelters, often little more than flimsy summer tents, which are now covered in snow or drenched with rain. Access to medical services, as well as legal and psychological support, is insufficient and often completely absent.
As Ahmed, a minor on Chios, explained, “We are in prison stuck on the island and have no way to get out of this hell.” And as winter sets in, there are increasing risks to health: “There are colds and severe illnesses,” Hanis, a Kurdish boy, told us, “and many people with children and women are sleeping outside in the cold.”
In the face of this, the Commission argues that “Dublin transfers will need to be resumed, to remove any incentive for secondary movements.” But the actual incentives for movement have more to do with the human rights that are compromised on a daily basis in the camps of Greece, with the snail-pace asylum process and with the threat of deportation back to Turkey.
“Outrageously hypocritical” is how Amnesty International condemned the Commission’s stance, arguing the dire situation in Greece is “for the most part caused by the EU-Turkey deal, and compounded by the lack of solidarity from other EU countries to relocate people.”
Let us be absolutely clear about the motivations that underpin the Commission’s decision. The Dublin Regulation, which dictates that a refugee must claim asylum in the first member country in which they arrive, is a means for the rest of the EU to circumvent the Refugee Convention to which they are signatories. It is a legislative sleight of hand that has enabled these countries — including Britain — to shirk their moral and legal responsibilities towards people seeking international protection.
And let us be equally clear about what this decision means for the victims of torture, of war, and of abuse at the hands of their own governments — it means removing them from places of safety and returning them to the increasingly dangerous limbo of the Greek asylum process.
Now we urgently call on other witnesses — volunteers, aid workers, doctors, nurses, and the locals of the Greek islands and cities — to raise their voices for those who have none. You who are on the front lines of one of the greatest humanitarian crises Europe has seen since World War II and who are reminded forcefully on a daily basis of just how dire these straits are: Remind your governments, your leaders, your MEPs of the situation as it actually is.
John-Mark Philo and Ludek Stavinoha are Lecturers at the University of East Anglia who have volunteered in the refugee camps in Chios and Athens.