Why is Greece still ‘containing’ refugees in camps?
After nine months in jail in Chios, a neighbouring island , Abdul*, a Cameroonian asylum seeker, was released, and told that his refugee status had been recognized by Greece. ‘They said my application had been successful and that I could now apply for residence and [a] passport,’ he says.
Speaking to us in Mytilene, Lesbos, Abdul tells us hat he was arrested in July 2017 from the Moria camp with 34 others, after demonstrations had broken out against the long delays in decision-making - people who arrive on the inflatable boats have to go through an admissibility procedure which can take months.
He was picked up inside the camp by the police, beaten so badly that they broke his arm and was held for hours in the island’s police station without food. He then served a nine-month jail sentence. His story mirrors many from refugee ‘hotspots’.
Speaking to a group of Cameroonians in the Vial camp on Chios, one refugee speaks about the racism evidenced in decision-making procedures. ‘They don’t give [the blue card] easily, especially, to blacks… Even if you are sick they first of all make sure you have been here for about at least four months before they give you [the card],’ he says.
The overcrowded tent, we’re told, is where all the new African arrivals are placed. It has broken heating and sporadic access to electricity. The group say they have no lawyers or legal aid for their asylum interviews and expect to wait for months for a decision on whether they’ll receive the blue residence card to leave the island.
At the camp, in another tent are Palestinians living in the ragged overflowing tents, preparing a basic lunch of tomatoes over an open fire, made with scavenged wood. To keep their feet dry, they stand on wooden pallets.
The Greek island hotspots are political theatre, a way to deter other refugees from making the journey. In a recent podcast for Politico, Greece’s Commissioner for Immigration, Dimitris Avramopoulos admitted that, while the EU is bound by the Refugee Convention, the rationale for the hotspots is that they control entry in the EU.
‘The hotspots on the island - they do this job, and they do it in a perfect way, because right now, 95 per cent, maybe 100 per cent of the ones who are crossing our border, they are immediately fingerprinted, registered, and identified.’
But the reality on the ground looks much less appealing. With flapping UNHCR tents, mud and squalor in the winter, the extreme heat and wind in the summer and distressed inhabitants held for months on end all relate an experience of misery.
The policy of indefinitely containing people is a key part of the EU-Turkey agreement, signed in March 2016. All those arriving on dinghies from Turkey are put through an asylum claim process to check if they are deemed admissible in Europe while living for months on end in appalling conditions.
Markos Skoufalos, a councillor of the Chios local government and president of the trade union, ADEDY, put it simply: ‘The [EU-Turkey] agreement trapped people, Turkey never stopped send[ing] us refugees, never!…So it was an agreement just to trap the people here.’
But the numbers of those arriving has seen a decline in recent years. In December 2015, before the EU-Turkey agreement was signed, there were some 109,000 arrivals by sea to the islands, while in December 2018 the number was only 2,900.
Despite this, the policy of containing people on the islands - rather than allowing them to settle on the mainland – continues, multiplying the difficulties for those seeking protection in Europe.
In Chios, Vasilis Michalopoulos, a volunteer coordinator of the Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario (SMH) charity puts it bluntly. ‘Another problem we have is the safety for women. We have single women, very young women alone here…they put them all together. You need to protect the women and the children.’
Amnesty International estimates that 12,500 people are trapped on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos, and Leros – the five well known hotspots. Human rights organizations regularly call for an end to the policy of ‘containment,’ and occasionally the government releases people from the very overcrowded camps.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, those with permission to stay receive support and accommodation from NGOs. Political activists create squats for refugees and humanitarian volunteers have built a network of support including ‘social pharmacies’ offering donated medicines.
A family now living in Athens and supported by the NGO SolidarityNow, spoke to us. The father, Faisal, used to run a family shoe business with 40 employees before they fled.
‘My first reason is to see the future of my children. We came here for them. I want only to find a job. I don’t want any help from anyone. I can take care of myself and my children,’ he says.
‘I don’t like to eat, sleep, and drink. I want to work. I want to integrate myself into Greek society,’ he says, emphatically.
Nadina Christopoulou, who runs Melissa, a women’s refugee project in Athens, said: ‘[The women refugees] are committed to the idea [of integration] beyond 100 per cent, it is their only life prospect, it is what they will have to do. Now on behalf of the state however, we have yet to see an integration plan,’ she says.
‘Integration,’ in the context of EU refugee policy means a residence document, housing, securing employment and the right to learn the local language.
In Athens, there are 10 squats housing mostly asylum seekers, migrants, and those with refugee status – most are self-organized and democratically managed by local activists, international ‘solidarians’ [volunteers] and of course refugee-residents. The Syriza government generally does not interfere with squats, but they are not a long-term solution.
The best-known and organized is the City Plaza Hotel, occupied by political activists and refugees that housed, at its height, some 400 people. Volunteer Nasim Lomani is sitting around the reception of the hotel with kids and families coming in and out. He explains that the project has lots of different dimensions. ‘It’s a housing project for refugees, it’s a political space for struggles, it’s an example of self-organizing, it’s a space of connecting with a lot of other movements. It is wrong to focus on [only] one thing.’
Shafi Qias, a lively Afghan woman in her 20s, trained as a designer in Iran, lives in Athens and is setting up as a fashion designer. ‘In the morning I write positive sentences for myself: you can do [it], you are excellent, you are strong, you never stop.’
‘Arabic!’ shouts one of the volunteers, and a young, English-speaking Iraqi comes over to act as an ad hoc interpreter in a crowded free ‘social pharmacy’ called KIFA, providing free medical care to Greek and foreign clients.
‘We have five specialists and dentists. Psychologists are all in demand,’ he says. This network of makeshift social pharmacies persist across the country – first formed at the peak of the Greek economic crisis.
The ‘deterrant’ nature of the EU-Turkey deal has bred a social struggle amongst migrants and asylum seekers, both on the mainland and in the camps. Solidarity is the vital key support for the refugee squats; the NGOs, support networks, activists on the islands and the refugees demonstrating against such policies, showing that an alternative to the island ‘hotspot’ system is possible.
*Not his real name (all refugees interviewed for this article wished to remain anonymous.)