What evolution of asylum policies in European countries since 2015?
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"The EU-Turkey Statement made it impossible to provide decent and humane reception conditions to asylum seekers"Spyros Vlad Oikonomou, Advocacy Officer at the Greek Council for Refugees
In view of the disastrous humanitarian situation in the Aegean islands, the Greek Refugee Council is now more than ever in the front line in helping the most vulnerable people, including unaccompanied minors. The NGO also regularly speaks out on European migration policy and cooperation with Turkey.
The Turkish government opened its borders with Greece for several weeks in February and March, denouncing the EU-Turkey Agreement. What have been the consequences of this agreement on the reception of asylum seekers in Greece?
Since the EU-Turkey Statement’s implementation on 20 March 2016, asylum seekers that arrive on the Eastern Aegean islands of (primarily) Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos are upon arrival initially and indiscriminately imposed a geographical restriction on their freedom of movement on the respective islands.
Undoubtedly, this has been the principle cause for the situation of overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe conditions we witness to this day in the Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) of these islands, which, by means of the Statement, where effectively called to become Europe’s ‘buffer zones’, in the ongoing efforts to externalize the responsibility towards forcefully displaced populations at the EU’s borders and beyond.
Thus in terms of consequences, the short answer is that the Statement made it impossible to provide decent and humane reception conditions to asylum seekers, facilitating the creation of an endless cycle of overcrowding and despair which, especially today, amid a global pandemic, further exposes particularly vulnerable persons to immediate risks towards their health and safety.
The opening of borders of Turkey was a clear denouncement from the side of Turkey of its obligation to control its borders and prevent the flows to Europe under the EU–Turkey statement. Yet this has no consequence from the side of Greece, since the implementation of the geographical restriction was sort of an instrument to prevent the flows after passing the European borders.
What solution(s) do you see to the overpopulation of hotspots in the country? What do you expect the European Union to do to help Greece with the thousands of asylum seekers who entered during this period? Does the transfer of asylum seekers to mainland Greece seem to you to be viable in the long term?
Unfortunately, especially at this point, there are no easy solutions.
On the one hand, the global pandemic necessitates urgent actions to ensure that no one is left behind in our universal cause to minimize the loss of life. This means that, short-term, particularly the more than 35,000 asylum seekers currently trapped in the island RICs need to be urgently transferred to safe and suitable accommodation, where they can actually be able to practice hygiene standards and ‘physical distancing’. On this point, there are very positive efforts underway, yet we are afraid they will not be enough.
On the other, it is clear that exclusively relying on mainland Greece to counter the Statement’s effects, by means of transferring asylum seekers from the islands whenever the latter reach a breaking point, is unrealistic; especially in the long run. To a lesser or larger extent, transfers to the mainland have always been an integral aspect of how Greece has been managing mixed migration flows in the Statement’s aftermath. Yet after four years of its implementation, the ongoing absence of an EU-wide mechanism, aimed at facilitating responsibility-sharing between the EU’s member states is more than visible.
Even if nowhere near the same degree, capacity-wise, much like facilities on the islands, so too mainland camps and accommodation schemes have for months and years now been functioning at their limits, and several of the camps have even exceeded them. The Ministry (of Migration and Asylum) has recently announced the gradual expansion of these schemes, which in a period of 2 years could end up providing 20,000 additional accommodation places for asylum seekers on the mainland. Yet even though this is a highly welcome development, on the one hand, it doesn’t resolve the immediate problem on the islands, while, on the other, nothing guarantees that, when these places become operational, they will also be enough. Today, for instance, they would still not be enough to secure accommodation for everyone and alleviate overcrowding on the islands. This is also without even taking into consideration the question of whether Greece’s public systems (healthcare, transportation, etc.) can actually address the needs and comply with its legal obligations towards this population, which, of course, are not limited to simply providing them a space to live.
Are there enough doctors, mediators, lawyers, teachers, to ensure much needed services to both the local population and the thousands of asylum seekers that Greece already hosts or will be called to host in the future? Can a country that is still experiencing the effects of the 2008 financial crisis – let alone the one that is expected to come in the pandemic’s aftermath – actually manage an international responsibility on its own? These are just a fraction of the questions that we rarely, if ever, see discussed, yet which create additional complications in ensuring respect for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.
The EU has been extremely generous when it comes to funding, yet, on its own, it can only resolve part of the issue. Long-term, without an effective, proportionate and fair responsibility-sharing mechanism, that could as a minimum be triggered whenever things become unmanageable in Greece, we are afraid we shouldn’t expect significant changes; at least for the better.
The Greek authorities, in the forefront of the reception of refugees in Europe, have reformed the country’s asylum policy several times since 2015. What have been the consequences for asylum seekers in Greece?
In short: lesser safeguards, more detention and restrictions. This has been particularly the effect of Greece’s current law on asylum (L. 4636/2019), which even the Union of employees of the Greek Asylum Service has publicly condemned as aimed at simply casting people out of the asylum procedure.
At the same time, of course, the constant policy and legal changes, which at times even professionals are struggling to follow, disproportionately affects asylum seekers, who neither have a legal background, nor are, as a result, able to understand their rights and obligations. The latter, especially, is particularly concerning today, since failure to comply with their obligations can easily lead to their asylum applications being rejected, without the grounds of their persecution even being examined.
As a grassroots organisation since 1989, in mainland Greece but also at all the country’s entry points, such as the Aegean islands, how have your activities evolved since 2015?
The 2015 political crisis of reception and its aftermath (see EU-Turkey Statement) have undoubtedly necessitated that we scale up our activities, in order to try and address what has been an increasing set of challenges, new and old.
Our core activities still revolve around primarily the provision of legal and psychosocial services to asylum seekers and recognized refugees, yet as things evolved, we were also able to significantly strengthen our integration-oriented services, as well, such as education and employability counseling. On this front, we have been very fortunate to have the support of very close partners, new and old, such as UNHCR, IOM, the Dutch Council for Refugees, Oxfam, and many more, without whose help this would have been impossible.
How do you specifically support unaccompanied minors? According to you, is the Greek government doing enough to meet their needs?
As per our core activities, we are providing legal and psychosocial support to unaccompanied children, including in family reunification cases, representing them before national courts and the European Court for Human Rights and supporting them through educational and other integration-oriented activities. For the past year or so, we are also managing two short-term accommodation units, which, however, have been de facto accommodating children for longer than designed, due to the ongoing lack of alternatives.
In what regards the Greek Government’s response, the ‘will’ seems to be there and everyone agrees that especially unaccompanied children should be protected as a matter of both priority and principle. Yet there unfortunately remains a significant gap between the actions that have thus far been taken in this direction and the actual level of needs on the ground.
Indicatively, in late November it was announced that no child would be left alone and that some 4,000 accommodation spaces would have been urgently created, to ensure the children’s suitable, safe and dignified accommodation. Nearly five months on, with the number of unaccompanied children in Greece having exceeded 5,000, these places have only been increased by 274. In the meantime, the ongoing lack of alternatives means that more than 300 unaccompanied children are currently in ‘protective custody’, meaning detention, more than 1,000 are homeless or living in precarious conditions with unknown adults, and more than 1,500 remain at the island RICs or ‘hotspots’, for which we are sure more words would be redundant at this point.