What can we learn from the Greek experience of the refugee crisis?

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[Speech at the Humanist Society Scotland’s 2016 Annual Conference – 24 September 2016]

Panayote Dimitras

“What can we learn from the Greek experience of the refugee crisis?” is the question I was asked to address today.

But who are the “we” in the title? Perhaps the Europeans (both in and outside the EU or outside it) in general? If so, I have the right to question whether in general Europeans do want to learn from the refugee crisis as the title suggests. If indeed, as I believe, Europeans in general do not want to learn from the refugee crisis, then they cannot learn anything and I would rest my case…

It would not be unfair and exaggerated to state that indeed probably most Europeans, or at least most European leaders, are demonstratively unwilling to learn anything. This is why they are pursuing, or supporting, or at least passively tolerating policies that are a mockery of European values and often bluntly hypocritical.

However, we who are gathered here, most if not all humanists, in fact passionate humanists, have a profound desire to learn from the refugee crisis and take action to help better manage it forcing the indifferent Europeans to change their practices and policies.

So, let us first correct the title of my speech, and the title of so many media stories. This is not a Greek refugee crisis! It is a European refugee crisis! Therefore, when reviewing the experience from that crisis we cannot limit it to a mere Greek experience but reflect on the indivisible European experience.

Indeed, Greece, which has a dismal overall human rights record, perhaps the worst in the EU, could for once legitimately claim that the “Greek refugee crisis” is in fact to a very large extent a European refugee crisis imposed upon Greece. For all practical purposes Greece was ordered by Brussels in March 2016 to warehouse refugees, preferably in island “hotspots,” with living conditions “unfit for animals” to quote Human Rights Watch.

Unabashedly the EU stated that their aim was, in the chilling words of its Spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud, to avoid “secondary movement to the rest of Europe, that means keeping asylum seekers on the islands for the most part.”

That statement was made on 20 September 2016, the day after a fire at Moria, Greece’s biggest refugee “hotspot,” situated on the island of Lesbos. The fire swept through the facility, destroying tents and shelters, and prompting the evacuation of some 4,400 residents, including dozens of unaccompanied children. Several people reportedly suffered light injuries from the fire.

The cause of the fire is still unknown and may remain forever unknown. It appears to have started during a refugee protest against conditions at the facility. The fire also occurred against a backdrop of far-right extremism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. On the day of the fire, some 500 local residents protested the migrants’ presence on Lesbos. At a similar protest last week in Chios, journalists covering the event were attacked. Well-known local members of the Nazi party Golden Dawn were seen to be among the leaders of these protests.

Several NGOs have documented severely overcrowded and filthy conditions in Moria and on other islands, where police fail to protect camp residents –including women and children– from violence (including sexual violence) and harassment.

The NGO community working on the refugee crisis had warned that the longer people are forced to live in such conditions, the more likely it is for tensions to build and violence to erupt. Indeed, several violent incidents have occurred in recent weeks in several such island stockpiles of desperate human beings who, in addition to the terrible living conditions, also have no idea what their future will be.

How did we reach this situation? Since the beginning of 2015 over one million refugees/migrants arrived by sea to Greece with the aim to continue to other European countries. Some 60,000 of them failed and were stranded in Greece following the closure of the Balkans route in March 2016. Today some 13,000 of these 60,000 are stranded, as per EU orders I repeat, in islands near Turkey.

Greek central government authorities functioned mainly as “monitors” of the phenomenon. They failed to provide almost all services and rights to those persons. These refugees benefitted mainly from the massive assistance offered by civil society -including Greek and international NGOs- and occasional local administration. This was a surprising but not unprecedented development in the country with EU’s most xenophobic public opinion (along with Hungary).

Greek authorities have gladly joined the EU-Turkey agreement aiming at stopping the refugee flows in ways that demonstratively violate the refugees’ fundamental rights in order to massively return refuges to Turkey. Refugees “responded” with the filing of asylum applications by the thousands, which prevented their immediate expulsion back to Turkey. Asylum services then started rejecting these applications claiming that Turkey is a “safe country,” in a blatant disregard of European-wide case law to the contrary.

Asylum appeals committee subsequently started overturning these decisions, correctly arguing that Turkey cannot be considered safe. The government’s response, again under EU pressure, was to change the law so as to introduce new asylum appeals committees dominated by judges from Greek courts. Those courts though have a cumulative negative record on upholding the human rights of refugees, as reflected in scores of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights finding Greece in violation of such rights.

By end-summer, those appeals, in the thousands, and soon to exceed ten thousand, remained pending. However, the largest number of refugees has become the object of pre-registration that gives them a temporary residence permit for up to twelve months, time considered necessary for the asylum services to process their applications.

With the prospect that they will spend most of the new school year in Greece, and with the encouragement of Greek authorities, refugee families registered their children in regular schools. They will attend separate classes tailored for them, similar to the special classes for Roma when they first attend Greek schools.

In most localities around Greece, this integration of refugee children in the mainstream education was welcomed. But in a dozen cities, local societies often under the leadership of the mayors and/or the city councils, and lacking any preparation to adapt themselves to the new developments and quell any fears, are opposed to this integration threatening inter alia to close the schools. The central authorities’ reaction through October 2016 will show if there is a determination to eradicate such racist reactions. In any case, the leading anti-racism litigation-oriented NGO, Greek Helsinki Monitor (that I also represent) is reporting these public reactions to the Special Prosecutor for Racist Crimes.

In the meantime, after March 2016, the flow of refugees to Greece from Turkey was marginalized, as a result of the closing of the Greek-Macedonian border to them, as new routes to EU countries mainly through Libya to Italy started being used by the refugees. Then came the coup in Turkey, followed by the crackdown by the Erdogan regime. Soon after, the number of refugees crossing to Greece from Turkey started to slowly but steadily grow, reaching a daily average of 100. It is feared that it may become more substantial again. That will overburden the asylum services. It will also as much as double the number of refugees stranded in Greece, while waiting for ways to join relatives of fellow refugees in other European countries. Hardly any of those refugees want to settle as refugee in Greece, as the state has no facilities and no assistance for them.

The EU’s response to that crisis was an act of utter hypocrisy. Two major commitments that would have helped alleviate Greece’s burden appear to day to be a smokescreen. The member countries pledged to send some 400 persons to increase the capacity of Greece’s asylum service. Today, six months later, there are only 35!

Worse, exactly a year ago, in late September 2015, EU member states agreed on a temporary scheme to distribute responsibility for receiving asylum-seekers more evenly between European countries. They announced the establishment of a two-year emergency relocation mechanism to relieve the pressure on frontline states hosting large numbers of people in need of international protection. In the case of Greece, the final commitment by other EU member states was to take in 66,400 asylum-seekers, divided between them according to pre-set quotas.

However, the promised effort to relocate asylum-seekers from temporary shelters in Greece to more permanent homes in other European countries has so far largely failed to materialize. The numbers speak for themselves. As of 14 September 2016, only 3,734 asylum-seekers have left Greece for other European countries, that is 5% of the number pledged by the EU a year ago. Worse, the total number of concrete places pledged by individual member-countries as of 30 August 2016 was a mere 7,106. What is the credibility of heads of state who are seen on television signing a pledge to relocate 66,000 refugees and, when the cameras are no longer there, provide concrete pledges for a mere 7,000 refugees? And it is not just the Central European member-countries that have failed to honor their signatures.

Consequently, as Amnesty International (AI) recently stated “although the Greek Asylum Service could do with more resources [including the missing 365 persons from other EU countries], it is the receiving European states that are largely responsible for delays in responding to relocation requests.” AI’s research indicates that “as of 31 July 2016, the Greek Asylum Service had received around 10,000 applications. The EU Commission has repeatedly called on states to respond to relocation requests within two weeks. However, this is still not happening and applicants can wait up to four months between the relocation request and the actual transfer. This inevitably results in frustration and undermines confidence in the program, contributing significantly to the relatively low numbers that have applied to date. Only asylum-seekers fleeing countries from where asylum applications achieve an EU-wide average recognition rate of at least 75% are eligible for relocation. This is reviewed every three months and eligible nationalities can change. At present the threshold covers mainly Syrian asylum-seekers, who are the majority of those stranded in Greece. Iraqis have been excluded since July 2016 and Afghan nationals, who make up the second largest group in Greece, have never been part of the relocation scheme. This has fostered a feeling of unfairness among groups excluded from the program.”

“The general lack of political will on the part of many states to relocate asylum-seekers is perhaps most starkly illustrated by their response to one of the most vulnerable groups: unaccompanied minors. Between June and July 2016 the Greek authorities identified 1,225 unaccompanied children on mainland Greece. Not all are eligible for relocation due to their nationality or because they have pending family reunification claims. However, the number of unaccompanied minors relocated under the emergency scheme is extremely low; only 42 children have been relocated in Europe, most of them to Finland.”

Europe’s responsibility is that they forced Greece to warehouse 13,000 refugees in islands and house an additional 47,000 refugees in the mainland. Greece’s responsibility is that, despite the EU funds available, it has failed, or probably has deliberately decided not, to provide adequate human living conditions to the vast majority of those refugees.

The consequences on the physical and mental wellbeing of children and heads of households, waiting forever for relocation or asylum, are immense. Amnesty International found individuals experiencing prolonged family separation who were suffering not only from the trauma of the war in their war-torn countries, but also from acute stress, anxiety and depression acquired in the EU country of Greece.

So, what can we learn from the European experience of the refugee crisis? Certainly that, once faced with the problem, Europe failed to agree on a strategy and then implement it. With the exception of Germany, which effectively opened the borders and now hosts over one million refugees, the other EU countries, “honoring their Christian tradition,” prayed to their God that he “let this cup pass from us.”

Their God did not listen and the European countries are forced to integrate, even if only temporarily, the millions of refugees that have arrived since 2015. They must adopt a sincere strategy on how to do this and educate their people why such action will be beneficial given the demographic decline of their populations, so as to counter the populist and extreme right exploitation of the refugee crisis across the continent. After all, the Greek –and just Greek- experience here may be helpful. The Nazi party Golden Dawn did not gain any strength since the beginning of the crisis, as opinion polls show that it just holds on its January and September 2015 percentages.

Yet, I cannot conclude on an optimistic note. I cannot anticipate that the EU leaders will make soon that necessary U-turn. What I hope is that all those who hold dear to their hearts the humanist values, and more generally the democratic and human rights principles on which both the European civilizations and the EU itself are based, will go on struggling. Struggling to promote those values and to defend human rights aiming at, to the extent possible, derailing the current disastrous EU practices if not policies. Then the hope is that the derailed European train will be sidetracked towards a better direction.

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