Devoid of Empathy: Greece’s Refugee Policy
1st September 2020
On 2 September 2015, almost five years ago to this day, the world was horrified as images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s dead body emerged, washed up on a Turkish beach. His family, fleeing the Syrian civil war, was trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Since his picture made front-page news around the globe, media interest in the plight of these refugees has slowly dissipated.
Meanwhile, the evolving crisis is worsening in Greece. As a primary entry point to the EU for those seeking asylum, the country is clearly overwhelmed and incapable of hosting those seeking protection. Facing discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of the Greek government, tensions have heightened during the Covid-19 crisis. Refugees who survive the journey to Europe think that the road ahead of them will be easier than the journey they have left behind. The reality is that suffering is far from over.
Oinofyta refugee camp is located an hour from Athens. In November 2017, the camp was closed as it did not meet the minimum legal standards, yet it reopened just five months later. A source stated that, upon reopening, conditions were actually worse than before, due to reduced outside-support and services offered to the residents. Nonetheless, demand clearly overrode the need for a safe place to house refugees. Mothers, fathers and children are being kept in the camp; a disused chemical factory deemed structurally unsound, which ultimately does not meet the basic needs of humans; there is no clean water, the building is unsanitary, and the toilets have no doors for privacy. The camp is left unattended, with residents locked inside, on the weekends and overnight.
Pregnant women who go into labour when the camp is unattended are left to fend for themselves; in one particular instance, it was reported that a woman was assisted by other residents during her labour. The residents called an ambulance, which arrived two days later. Post-delivery, no assistance was provided to the new mother and child, by any official. The sad truth is that the woman would have probably received better medical care in a war zone than on EU soil in this instance. Residents transferred to Oinofyta from Moria, often described as the worst refugee camp in the world., They stated that conditions had been terrible in Moria, but that at least organisations such as Médecins San Frontières (MSF) provided medical assistance. This is due to the Greek government revoking access to healthcare for asylum seekers. The only way to get out of these camps for medical treatment is to register for an asylum application, and this process presents yet another set of challenges.
Oinofyta refugee camp is truly hell on earth, and it has been left up to asylum seekers to arrange their asylum appointments, which have to be organised via Skype. As you can imagine, this is an impossible task for those who don’t own a smartphone or don’t know how to use the internet. Even those who can navigate these first steps run into roadblocks. Six months after one asylum seeker arrived in Greece, he still has not been successful in organising an appointment, as the line is constantly engaged. People who have suffered in their home country and experienced suffering along their journey do not deserve to be housed in deplorable conditions with no healthcare or legal assistance, in what they expected to be a safe place to exist.
Despite financial support sent to the UNHCR and the Greek government by the EU, conditions in these camps are yet to improve. There have been allegations and investigations into a lack of transparency and possible embezzlement and corruption in relation to funds allocated to Greece to take care of these refugees. The Greek government has adopted an increasingly hard-line approach to those that are refugees and the already inadequate system that attempts to support them.
“Traditionally, the Greek government has given refugees six months to find suitable financial support and accommodation after their asylum application is deemed successful. In March, they reduced this time frame to just one month.”
As Greece welcomes tourists and allows them to roam freely, even if they are from countries with high rates of Covid-19, certain refugee camps have been subject to a continued lockdown since March 23. More than five months on, it has been extended seven times. This embodies the message from the Greek government: the difference between being welcomed and being treated as livestock is your country of origin and your financial means. As camp conditions worsened during the lockdown, many residents said that they felt abandoned and unable to source medication for the sick. The extended lockdown has been deemed discriminatory and unjustifiable in terms of public health by humanitarian agencies such as MSF, violating a long list of national, regional and international laws – notably Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Greek government is using the pandemic to detain and exercise control over refugees, worsening their already dire circumstances.
Traditionally, the Greek government has given refugees six months to find suitable financial support and accommodation after their asylum application is deemed successful. In March, they reduced this time frame to just one month which, understandably, has led to residents refusing to leave their accommodation, sparked protests and triggered a dramatic uptake in homelessness. This homelessness is especially prevalent in Victoria Square, Athens. According to organisations such as foodKIND, many residents in refugee camps have had their cash cards revoked due to this tightened timeline.
These cash cards are a monthly financial allowance allocated to refugees. For the majority, this is their only means of feeding themselves and their families. Eligible refugees are subject to monthly verification checks and need to register through the smartphone app Viber – which means that, much like the asylum application process, possessing and being able to use a smartphone and internet access are required. There is a pattern occurring here: the Greek government is actively implementing a process that will make even the most basic and vital support extremely difficult to obtain for those most vulnerable.
This system has led to fears of the financialisation of refugees in Greece, where money can even be deducted from a cash card as a form of punishment. According to estimates, this five-month reduction affects 11,000 refugees in Greece. It is simply not feasible to expect a refugee to find employment within a month in Greece, considering it has the highest unemployment rate in the EU. Organisations such as MSF have stated that no one is exempt from eviction, with Greek officials evicting refugees with serious health and mental health problems. In fact, in June, an MSF patient with existing health issues died from cardiac arrest after being threatened with eviction. This individual was literally scared to death by the actions of the Greek government, and to their benefit, one less refugee lives. Even so, the Migration Ministry’s Secretary-General still came out in defence of the change in law, stating that ‘if they are pampered, how are they ever going to find a job and become part of society?’. It is apparent that, wherever possible, the Greek government seeks to render these refugees despondent, hoping that they will disappear or cease to exist.
Greece has made it near impossible for humanitarian organisations to operate in the country, imposing a multitude of expensive and bureaucratic obligations on them. Organisations offering essential services such as midwifery, healthcare and legal assistance are often ignored or denied entry to the refugee camps. In response, 72 organisations released a statement to Greek officials, urging them to reconsider the rules implemented in July due to the fact that ‘humanitarian work is essential work’, yet this ‘administrative assault’ on civil society groups has yet to be reversed. Legal Centre Lesvos has claimed that there is now constant police presence at their centre, resulting in the intimidation and threat of fines for people trying to access their services. Greek officials have also been harassing MSF, imposing fines exceeding €35,000 and threatening legal action which has directly led to the closure of the Covid-19 Isolation Centre on the Greek island of Lesvos. This centre was set up in an attempt to deter the devastating effect an outbreak in Moria could have on residents, as local health facilities are unable to cope with such an outbreak. The pandemic has only served to accelerate the government’s onslaught on refugees, at a time where countries such as Portugal granted refugees full citizenship rights during the pandemic. These tactics, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, can be perceived as a ‘cleansing’, as the Greek government is making it clear that they do not care whether these refugees live or die.
The In a New York Times article New York Times released on August 14, it was reported on August 14 that these hard-line tactics have extended to the sea. More than 1,000 people trying to reach Greece by sea have been turned away by the Greek coast guard, and some were even removed from the detention centres on the Greek islands. These people were often abandoned at sea on overcrowded life rafts in flagrant violation of humanitarian law. Despite the evidence, in the form of survivor interviews, photographic and video evidence, the Greek government has denied that these expulsions even took place. As the world is preoccupied with the coronavirus threat, the tactics of the Greek government have become more extreme and organised; they abandon these migrants around the Greek-Turkish sea border, where their survival is dependent on the compassion of the Turkish coast guard. A doctoral researcher at the Irish Center for Human Rights was among the first to document this unprecedented tactic adopted by the Greek government. Compelling evidence regarding these illegal pushbacks has since been recorded by organisations with a presence on the Greek islands, such as Legal Centre Lesvos and Aegean Boat Report, since March. There have been more recent reports of Greek officials injuring refugees on boats, imitating video evidence which emerged earlier this year.
“More than 1,000 people trying to reach Greece by sea have been turned away by the Greek coast guard… these people were often abandoned at sea on overcrowded life rafts in flagrant violation of humanitarian law.“
These hard-line anti-refugee tactics are blatantly illegal. The European Union was built on solidarity and as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and war. In the context of conflict, the mistreatment of civilians is deemed a war crime, so why is the world turning a blind eye to what continues to happen in Greece? As we ourselves are navigating this pandemic, imagine the suffering endured by these refugees, as Greek officials capitalise on the fact that our attention is being diverted elsewhere. Greece’s policies and tactics are entirely devoid of empathy and fail to give even a moment’s consideration for the human rights of these people. They have sought safety and dignity in EU territory and are met with prolonged suffering. Mechanisms in place to help refugees, such as cash cards and the asylum process, are riddled with unnecessary hurdles.
Nothing comes easy for them; so don’t we have an obligation to support these vulnerable people in any way we can? Instead, the already inadequate support system is being used against them as a punitive measure, to avoid them being ‘pampered’. The Greek government is essentially caging these people in, to the detriment of their physical and mental health, taking anything but a humanitarian approach to this crisis. We must remember that these people are fleeing war-torn countries and have, in some cases, been subject to torture and sexual violence. Yet the Greek government has purposefully rendered especially vulnerable refugees homeless, even in the midst of a pandemic.
In a final twist of hypocrisy, Greece is the current chair of the Council of Europe, the EU’s leading human rights organisation. Imagine the consequences of an EU country setting such an example for the rest of the world.
If you would like to help organisations making a difference in the everyday lives of the refugees struggling in Greece please consider donating to the following organisations:
Aegean Boat Report, who work to provide neutral, detailed and accurate information concerning boats arriving in the Aegean sea. This organisation has brought a lot of information to light concerning the disturbing practices against refugees arriving to the Greek islands from Turkey. By donating here you will be contributing to a better and more widespread understanding of this ongoing refugee crisis.
Featured photo by Fotomovimiento