Boat migration 'push-back' will never be the asylum solution

Barney Cullum speaks to the young survivors of Somali terrorist cells and sectarian violence who are feeling the brunt of Greece’s new ‘push-back’ policies.

Migrants and refugees arrive by dinghy behind a huge pile of life vests after crossing from Turkey Migrants and refugees arrive by dinghy behind a huge pile of life vests after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos Greece, Sept. 10, 2015.
Migrants and refugees arrive by dinghy behind a huge pile of life vests after crossing from Turkey in 2015. Freedom House/Flickr

We’re nearing the fifth anniversary since the haunting pictures of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy found ashore a Turkish beach, were published. The three-year-old died following an ill-fated quest for refuge on the Greek island of Kos.

Those looking for explanations for the recent rise in boat migration across the English Channel can find some answers near the dark blue Aegean Sea that divides Europe from Asia. Ruthless new anti-migrant measures are transforming the dynamic at the Greek-Turkish border, and empathy for sea-faring asylum-seekers has declined at both a state and continental level.

Somali survivors

An open ‘reception centre’ for boat migrants atop Kos’ small central mountains was transformed into a locked detention centre by the Greek government in January. Around 80 Somali detainees are living there, says one of them, a young man called Aboubaker.Each has survived civil war, a winter boat-crossing from Turkey, and now incarceration in Europe.

The slight 24-year-old has a bone fracture at the top of his right arm. He shows New Internationalist the wasted muscle surrounding it. The debilitating injury has been left untreated since he was pushed from a building as a 12-year-old in Mogadishu, Somalia’s unstable capital.

Since reaching Kos early this year, he has been kept at a refugee camp against his will. Officials have denied him access to medical treatment, despite United Nations and European Union conventions on the health rights of asylum seekers.

‘I was pushed by a man from a major clan, because I am from a minor one,’ Aboubaker says. I hear his explanation through the translation of Mohamud, a compatriot and new friend made in Kos.

Mohamud crossed the Aegean at night with 24 others, also in January. He has his own dark memories of the victimization he left behind and the new discrimination he’s experienced in Greece.

Helped, perhaps, by his relative command of English, Mohamud has progressed to the ‘open’ refugee camp next door to the barbed-wire detention centre. But these same language skills put the former English teacher’s life at risk from terrorist cells when he was living in Somalia..

Al-Shabab, a banned terrorist group allied with Al-Qaeda, threatened to execute Mohamud for speaking English. ‘They called me from a private line while I was studying English at university. They told me this language is no good for the country and to stop or be executed. They believe it’s the language of [the] intelligence [services],’ he explains.

‘As a boy I always dreamed of speaking beautiful, perfect English like the people I used to see on TV,’ the 25-year-old smiles.

‘In Somalia I used to teach English to both children and adults but I can’t do that now. They are going to kill anyone who does not want to obey them.’

Al-Shabab has carried out numerous massacres in Kenyan shopping malls and universities, and Ugandan restaurants and sports clubs. Somalia, a civil war-torn nation that has gone half a century without elections, has suffered most heavily from the insurgency.

Mohamud’s father was killed in the 14 October attack in Mogadishu in 2017, during which suicide truck bombs claimed more than 500 lives. . The incident remains one of the 10 deadliest terror explosions on record.

Somali asylum seeker Aboubaker lives with injuries sustained
after being pushed from a balcony as a child in Mogadishu. Photo: Barney Cullum

Structural racism

Mohamud has experienced the same barriers to physical and mental healthcare as his friends in the Kos camps. He suffers from night terrors, gastric problems and vision loss due to a cataract. A doctor who came to visit the Kos detention centre said the problems were ‘not serious’ and told him he would not be treated.

To get hospital healthcare in Greece you need a social security number, but the new government seems intent on making this harder for asylum seekers to access. Maria Fasouli, a spokesperson for the Athens branch of the Doctors of the World NGO, estimates that one in three patients she sees is prevented from getting a referral for hospital treatment due to delays in obtaining the ‘AMKA’ number that comes with formally being granted refugee or subsidiary protection status through a time-limited residency ID card.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis vowed to change the country when he was sworn in as prime minister a year ago. Ruthless reforms impacting the prospects of over 30,000 boat migrants living in camps on the Greek islands have now been implemented. Greece’s new International Protection Act was pushed through parliament in January and was further hardened in May.

Those granted subsidiary protection – the level below refugee status where asylum seekers are given definite leave to remain – have seen their rights to residency reduced from three years to one.

Mohamud received a letter in July confirming he had been granted subsidiary protection in principle, but was informed that he would have to wait until December for an interview for his claim to an ID card and social security number to be processed..

His access to secondary healthcare will remain blocked until next year. His welfare payments will also remain capped at $106 per month until he receives a social security number in 2021 that will entitle him to social support. This will last only until he renews his asylum application in June.

The new International Protection Act will have a debilitating impact on Mohamud in two other ways. First, anyone receiving a positive decision, either receiving refugee status or subsidiary protection, is now required to forfeit any shelter they have been provided in refugee camps, despite there being no social housing in Greece. Second, anyone granted asylum is prohibited under the new statute from entering the labour market for six months.

‘Restricting residencies to one-year terms leaves asylum seekers in a permanent insecure state,’ says Spyros Oikonomou, an advocacy officer at the Greek Council for Refugees. Providing refugees six months to access independent housing would be more realistic, he believes.

This year’s new legislation amounts to structural racism, Spyros suggests. ‘I am mixed Greek-Romanian, so I have some direct experience of discrimination,, but nothing like what is happening now.’

Push-back will never be the solution, we should be very clear. This can never be supported as it is illegal, creates doubts in the most basic principles of democracy, and is the ideology of the far-Right

Turkey’s U-Turn

The European Union ultimately responded to the 2015 refugee crisis by reaching an agreement that involved sponsoring Turkey to process the asylum claims of all boat migrants who had made their way to the Greek islands. The deal, initially worth $3.5 billion, collapsed at the end of February while the world’s attention turned to the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘We are not in a situation to handle a new wave of refugees,’ said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. By March, Erdogan had instructed border forces to liberate controls at land and sea. Ramifications were initially delayed by the coronavirus outbreak but the changed political landscape in Greece and Turkey this year things means things are coming to a head.

A distracted European Union has offered little more than a proposal for migrants to be offered $2,000 to incentivize them to return to their countries of origin. As Mohamud points out: ‘Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, famous for its explosions. When I was there I was living like a rat in a hole.’

Mohamud is learning first hand of the diminishing prospects in both Greece and Turkey. He says he is intent on reaching the UK one day, where he dreams of resuming his studies and teaching English.

A record 4,000 boat migrants have already crossed the English Channel this year. Earlier this month the body of a drowned 16-year old Sudanese boy was found washed up on a beach in northern France.

Ahmed Moawia heads the Greek Forum of Migrants and grew up in Sudan. A former politician turned journalist and civil activist who has lived in Athens for 30 years and remembers the warm welcome that greeted him when he left Africa to study in Greece in the 1980s. He offers his perspective on the realities of today’s boat migration.

‘You cannot compare my experience with those we are seeing today,’ he begins, referencing different economic realities, far smaller levels of migration to Europe, and the unique and unfair requirements refugee law places on his adopted country compared with other EU countries.

‘Push-back will never be the solution, we should be very clear. This can never be supported as it is illegal, creates doubts in the most basic principles of democracy, and is the ideology of the far-Right.

‘What’s needed globally is to create and follow policies that will help and encourage people to feel safe in their home countries in the first place.’