BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY?
Three years of the toxic EU-Turkey 'deal' – the human cost
Three years after its implementation, the EU-Turkey Joint Statement (‘Deal’) leaves an unbearable imprint. People who sought protection in Europe either perished in the Aegean or experienced enormous mental suffering and have been forced to survive in dire conditions in one of the Greek islands’ refugee camps. The testimonies of refugees forced to live in one of these camps – and presented here today – prove the immense human cost of this cruel and toxic ‘deal’ in the forms of loss of freedom; real risk of being returned to a country that is not safe for them; inhuman living conditions; and severe impact on their mental and/or physical health.
From an observer’s point of view – from the perspective of someone who lives in another EU country or from that of a politician – this piece might be seen as another story of human suffering. From the refugees’ point of view, these are their lives that have sustained this damage. It is real and this is what this piece is trying to reflect.
It is perhaps the first time in Europe’s history since WWII that the leaders of the Member States have been so cynical with regard to the human tragedy and have implemented a political scheme of psychological deterrence. Despite the dozens of reports by human rights institutions and organizations, Europe, by making the political choice to have a ‘deal’, has created places where fundamental rights are ignored, while encouraging multiple attempts to undermine the procedures and guarantees offered by the legal framework for the protection of refugees.
The establishment and operation of the hotspots as a management model for mixed flows at the borders of Europe produces a bad precedent and strengthens the far-right agenda. The selection of controlled screening centers for new arrivals with restricted access derives from the dark pages of world and European history. This direction undoubtedly shows a fearful Europe that denies its own identity and forgets the reasons which led to its formation following the great wars.
Three years after the ‘Deal’ came to Effect, the human cost is immeasurable, imposing a balance of fear. It Is The ones SEEKING PrOTECTION IN EUROPE, THIS SYSTEM TRIES TO KEEP OUT BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
Anna* is in her mid-thirties and fled her country in Central Africa in order to escape severe and sustained domestic abuse from her partner. During her flight, she became a victim of trafficking and while in Turkey, she experienced multiple forms of gender-based violence and exploitation. “… He was exploiting me physically and sexually!” she describes, as she stresses: “Turkey is not a country of rights because you can be exploited all your life and you don’t have the right to complain [as] already you don’t have papers…”.
She tried to flee Turkey three times. After every failed attempt, she was detained by the Turkish authorities. She never received medical care, even though, once she even had a broken leg. After a third attempt and a perilous sea journey, she made it to Lesvos. It was winter 2017.Upon her arrival, she recalls that, after she was registered by the authorities, she was left to fend for herself in Moria camp. The only place she could find shelter was in a small tent.
During that winter and while severe weather conditions existed in the North East Aegean islands, three refugees perished in Moria camp, due to what appear to be inappropriate and unsafe accommodation conditions.
Anna miscarried – a fact she links with the dire living conditions in the camp – and managed to have emergency hospital care a month after her miscarriage. This was another deeply traumatic experience for her.
She said: “… I stayed in Moria for a month and a half without visiting a gyneacologist… . They made me a paper to go to the big hospital as I was sick… . I had a crisis, I was bleeding and they decided to [perform a surgical procedure to remove] the foetus… . It was cold, it was raining, there was snow, with all I have suffered… I had bleeding… . [Then], they told me, you can go back to Moria and I went back on the same day…“.
For many months, the authorities failed to identify her as vulnerable. Following legal interventions by RSA, Anna was identified as vulnerable ten months after her arrival while her asylum-claim both at first instance and at appeal level had already been rejected. Anna described the impact of the competent authorities’ failure to award her protection upon her fragile mental state: “… When I was rejected I felt like I lost everything because I was disoriented, I didn’t have a life anymore, for me being alive was really difficult…”.
Anna’s mental health has been severely affected by the violence she sustained. It has been deteriorated even further by the dire conditions and the lack of protection she faced while trapped on the island as a result of the EU-Turkey ‘deal’. None of these facts and the violence she sustained were taken into consideration during her interview with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Further, her claim was examined under the fast-track border procedure and not the procedure envisaged for vulnerable refugees. Anna said: “… Before my interview, I went to hospital, I had all the papers that proved I was sick but when I went to the interview, I showed all these papers and even though I had all these, they didn’t recognize that I suffered violence and they rejected me…”.
Anna is currently awaiting for another interview following a subsequent asylum claim that was found admissible early this year. Despite the huge challenges that she has faced, this courageous woman has managed to learn Greek and English and participated in womens’ workshops. All she wants is to be able to stay in a place where she will have a home and she will be able to work.
Nadeem* and his mother Alya* are Syrian refugees and have been trapped on Lesvos for nearly three years as a result of the toxic EU-Turkey ‘deal’. Nadeem fled Syria with his mother, sister and her family in 2016. Nadeem’s wife and child were killed during a raid in their home by the government forces, when Nadeem was arrested and later tortured. His father was killed by a bomb. During their attempt to reach Turkey, the family was subjected to push-backs, beatings and arbitrary detention.
Nadeem, his sister and her family managed to arrive on Lesvos island in August 2016 after a very dangerous sea crossing and applied for asylum. Alya recounted the harrowing moments in the sea where she felt they would drown.
Conditions in Moria camp where mother and son lived for several months were very difficult and they experienced great insecurity. Nadeem said: “… When we were in Moria, we (were) sleeping outside when (there was) a fight… once in the park, once in the street. I was in Syria I didn’t sleep outside …”.
While Nadeem’s sister and her family have been recognized as refugees, Nadeem’s and Alya’s asylum claims were rejected at first and second instance on the ground that Turkey was a safe country for both of them. Mother and son have been living in limbo and fear about their future ever since.
Alya spoke of the despair that overtook her when their asylum was rejected: “… they took me to the hospital, I fainted… . After the second rejection, [I was thinking] about my son… . Maybe they will take us to prison … . I started feeling like crazy, always thinking about him … . I said if they take him to prison, I will go with him… . I will not leave him…”.
Nadeem’s worlds also reflect this despair. He prefers going back to Syria rather than Turkey despite the dangers that await him: “If I die, I die in my country not in Turkey”.
They both miss terribly their family and the separation increases their anxiety. Nadeem described the impossible situation they have found themselves: “… I want to [be given asylum] … and for my mother if she wants… to see my sister… to go and see my sister because she’s very tired and when she speaks with her… they both cry…”.
Just recently a court overturned the negative decision on Nadeem’s application on the ground that it failed to take into account his claims of being vulnerable as a victim of torture. His case has been returned back to the Appeals’ Committee for review. Meanwhile, Alya’s subsequent claim was found admissible and she awaits the main asylum interview. Nadeem is still not allowed to leave the island and Alya can’t go anywhere though her geographical restriction has been lifted as she cannot travel without her son.
Mahmoud*, was an employee in a multinational company, in his late 40s and he was forced to flee the Syrian conflict and settle in Turkey. However, in Turkey his life was again at risk. He was threatened by ISIS and he was not safe because of his sexual orientation so he had to flee again and seek protection in Greece.
Mahmoud reached Lesvos shortly after the EU-Turkey ‘deal’ came into effect and sought protection. He was held in detention in Moria hotspot together with many other refugees who arrived in the days after the implementation of the ‘deal’. He described the very difficult conditions that deprived the refugees from their dignity: “When I reached Greece, the border was closed at that time (in March 2016). Unfortunately, we were kept in Moria. They locked the camp. For 45 days, (we were) not allowed to leave the camp. It was a very very bad situation with the food, with the tents, with the people… . We were (not) treated (as) human beings in Moria. That was a disaster”.
EASO – that conducted his only asylum interview – did not believe his claim that he was at risk in Turkey. Instead they questioned his sexual orientation as well as the persecution he faced and concluded that his application should be found inadmissible as Turkey should be considered safe for him. Mahmoud described the interview and the disbelief he felt when he heard the reasons why his sexual orientation was questioned: “… I will talk about my interviewer. … When I told her my story, she said: ‘No. You are not gay.’ I said ‘Why, why don’t you believe me?’. She said: ‘Because you don’t recognize the gay flag. You did not recognize the gay bars.’ I told her: ‘I come from Syria. I did not come from Lesvos, I did not come from Cyprus, I did not come from Canada. … In Syria, it is not acceptable to be gay… . Even I have a lot of problems in my country because I am a gay. I am always hiding myself…”.
Following two asylum rejections finding his claim inadmissible, Mahmoud was then detained in Mytilene police station for a month and was at serious risk of being forcibly returned to Turkey. When, after various legal interventions, he was later released, he remained at serious risk of deportation. He then had to flee for a third time. Today he has been granted international protection status in another European country.
Patrick*, 27 years old, is from a country of Central Africa and now a recognized refugee. He was stranded on Lesvos island as a result of the toxic EU-Turkey ‘deal’ for nearly two years and only in recent months has managed to move to the mainland. He describes the time he had to spend in Turkey as one the worst period in his life. Patrick said: “In Turkey it was a nightmare and it was a really difficult situation for me… because when I arrived I was arrested from the airport because the document I came… was fake… . I was send to prison where I have spent one of the worst periods of my life, because I was tortured in prison …, beaten by the police, and they even tried to deport me back to my country…”.
Patrick experienced a dangerous journey by sea before reaching Greece, thinking he would never reach Europe alive. He lived for seven months in Moria camp and describes it as the ‘jungle’ because of the lack of safety and the dire conditions. With many other refugees he participated in protests against the inhuman reception conditions and for the freedom to move away from the island.
He described the trauma of being trapped in the camp and on the island without knowing whether he could move on with his life: “This is the most [traumatic] thing …. of the camp… . That you are living somewhere and kept… somewhere and you have not the right to move out and they don’t tell you when you are able to move. … At least someone who is in prison, they tell him after five years you finish … and get out of the prison. It’s easy to [process it mentally].”
Today, he worries about the lack of integration measures for recognized refugees like him, but his thoughts are also to those still trapped on the islands and those at risk of being returned to Turkey as a result of the ‘deal’.
Hadir* is an Iraqi refugee in her early 40s and mother of three children. Hadir’s husband was killed in an ISIS attack in Mosul. The traumatized mother sought protection on Lesvos in the late summer of 2016 with her three underage boys as life in Turkey was a hostile experience for the vulnerable family. Two of the children were seriously disabled.
Hadir said: “I was one year in Turkey… We stayed in parks like homeless people… we didn’t have money to rent a house or apartment to stay inside one house”.
Hadir and the children initially found shelter in Kara Tepe and then in PIKPA camp due to their high vulnerability. Despite the immediate need for the boys to see a specialist in Athens, so they could receive a proper diagnosis and treatment, it took a long time for the authorities to lift the geographical restriction imposed on them.
The single mother, who is diabetic, had to wait for several months for her family to undergo a vulnerability assessment by EASO. When it was finally scheduled her two disabled boys had to be transferred to the hostile terrain of Moria and wait in the bitter cold for two hours in order to have their interview. Hadir said: “… I had [my younger son] and he was helping me with the wheelchair and I was [pushing] the other wheelchair. It was very difficult… it was the hardest time for me… .They told me: ‘You must come with the children for the interview’”.
In early 2018, the family was granted asylum in Greece. Sadly, a month later Hadir’s eldest son passed away. While speaking, Hadir remembers the efforts she made to reach Greece and how her hopes were dashed when her boy died.
Nowadays, Hadir and her younger child have to take care of her surviving disabled son. The family lives in a flat run by an NGO and receives cash assistance. Hadir feels that her prospects in the Greece are bleak as it is financially difficult to cope and cover her children’s complex needs including those of her disabled child.
Jafar and Soraya with their five year-old son and new born baby reached the shores of Lesvos in late summer 2018 in search of safety. The sea crossing from Turkey to Greece was perilous for the young Afghan family and Jafar recounted: “… We tried twice with the boat and we [nearly] drowned – especially the small child…”.
The family had to endure unbearable living conditions. They spent most of their time in a small summer tent in the unofficial camp outside Moria. For some time, they also shared a small container with six other families where living was untenable. These inhuman conditions had an impact upon the small baby’s health. The baby suffers from asthma and had to be treated repeatedly for stomach infections and cold. Even after the baby received emergency care in the hospital, Soraya had to bring him back to their tent in the middle of the night.
The family managed to register their asylum-claim one month after their arrival with the help of their lawyer and the intervention of UNHCR. Although they were identified as vulnerable, they had to live in a summer tent until early October 2018.
Jafar said: “In Moria, we were in the forest. Inside the camp, there was no space. They threw six families in one container… . In a container of 12m² … we could not live six families. So, we went in the forest… . There were snakes, scorpions… . We suffered a lot. My son has asthma. He is under medication now….”.
Soraya described the challenges endured by the refugees stranded in the unofficial camp outside Moria: “If you are Afghan, if you are Arab, whatever people you are, if you are not vulnerable, you will not get out of the jungle, of Moria or of the island. You have to get recognized as vulnerable… for months we stayed in the forest, there were no doctors, we were living in bad conditions in the jungle, very bad, very bad… not only us but all people who were in the forest…”.
In November 2018, the family’s geographical restriction was lifted. However, they were transferred to a camp in Attika region in late January this year. The family of four now shares one container with another family. Both Jafar and Soraya are affected from the conditions and describe a serious lack of privacy and safety. They await their asylum interview in May 2019.
Soraya worries about the impact of the EU-Turkey deal upon so many lives: “Don‘t create obstacles for the people. Please, please… . They see death. They come from the sea to find peace. For their kids. They themselves have lost their lives. But their kids should reach somewhere…”.