In the past year, the North Aegean islands have experienced in a dramatic manner the last possibly moments and consequences of the toxic EU-Turkey deal. Around 41.500 people today find themselves stacked in informal shelters inside, outside and around the five Reception and Identification Centres on the Aegean islands. After many months of protests, the residents clashed with intensity for days with riot police against the construction of new centres – an event completely new in the contemporary history of the islands.
What followed were the manipulations of Turkey that encouraged the crossing of the borders by thousands of refugees and intensified the climate of unbearable pressure to the islanders. Far-right groups supported by neo-Nazis from the rest of Europe took over control, beat and terrorized citizens, those supporting refugees and NGO staff. Fear is now part of everyday life.
“The EU is co-responsible for the fact that the atmosphere on the islands has turned. Instead of supporting Lesvos and the other islands, the EU tolerates that Greek governemnt tightened asylum policy. The refugees want to go to Europe. But Europe has left us alone, and is watching as the rights of these refugees are violated, as they are made enemies. And in doing so, Europe accepts that our society here in Greece but also in other european countries is being radicalized through xenophobia and racism”
Efi Latsoudi, Refugee Support Aegean, UNHCR Nansen Prize winner
The imperative need for a fundamentally different political approach to the one that exists gains more ground among the angry and exhausted local societies. But towards what direction?
It is clear that before the elections, the new government instrumentalized the refugee issue as something that can be resolved relative easily since as a future government it would implement generalized policies of deterrence, a toughened approach and discouragement (in relation to the borders, reception conditions, legal framework and procedures). However, the issue has not been resolved and today we experience a double no way out. On the one hand, Turkey is negotiating the next agreement using as a bargaining chip those refugees and migrants residing temporarily in its territory. And on the other hand, Greece has accepted the role of the guardian of EU’s borders and follows more and more increasingly military and repressive measures at the borders turning the islands in military zones of high risk.
The toxic EU-Turkey deal was initially presented as an emergency response and it was propagandized that with its implementation deaths at sea would be reduced.
In reality, the EU-Turkey deal used fear as a tool that boosted racism and xenophobia, created a zone where human rights do not apply and gave money and influence to Turkey. Erdogan using this influence given to him pressures today the EU in order to keep refugees away from Europe. This is on its own cynical, and much more if one thinks the role of Turkey in the Syrian conflict and military operations that led many people seeking protection. Or if we think that the deal demanded for Turkey to be considered a safe third country when particularly after the failed coup it has breached fundamental human rights in its interior.
Αs we have stated consistently in the past four years, the inheritance of the currently non-functional toxic EU-Turkey deal leaves us with:
- A significant lack of trust of citizens to the government’s announcements and an in-depth turn to conservatism with xenophobic characteristics in local societies that have been exhausted after four years of continuous pressure from the established consequences of the toxic deal. Evidence from research in February 2020 shows that the islands of Eastern Aegean have turned from islands of solidarity and humanity to areas where the refugee issue appears to be the most important problem for the local population in a percentage of 79% . This is more than double in comparison to the other topics. The belief that the general situation on the islands moves towards the wrong direction received 81 % in responses. 90 % responded that the islands have been affected negatively by the management of the refugee issue. 91% responded that the EU had a negative contribution. 87 % responded the same about the Greek government; 70 % for the UN and 77 % for NGOs.
- The refugees are crashed between the games of Turkey in order to bargain with the EU and xenophobic policies of Europe.
- The Reception and Identification Centres have turned to massive favelas. Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers are forced to live for long periods where insecurity, misery and generalized borderline survival mentally and biologically are pervasive. This is a situation where the Covid 19 pandemic may bring exceptionally unpredictable consequences and lead to uncontrolled situations for the health of the thousands of people crammed in these unacceptable conditions. Ιt is a primary responsibility to take all the necessary urgent steps to avoid the spread of Covid 19 in the refugee population too. In the five hotspots the access to medical care was already inadequate and problematic before the new virus appears. All the very basic measures taken for the rest of the population cannot be implemented in the hotspots as there is not enough space and infrastructures for social distancing, it is not even possible to properly wash hands. Instead of using the virus spread as an argument to close the hotspots, refugees from the islands should be evacuated immediately to safe places. Unfortunately so far the greek governmnent announced measures that work on the opposite dangerous direction: fencing and restrictions on the movement of the refugees living in the hotspots in order to manage the spread of Covid 19. Refugees in Europe are left behind once again.
- The continuous changes in legislation all these years together with the most recent ones deconstructed refugee law and the procedural safeguards for a fair individualized procedure.
Recently the Greek government in order to deal with another man-made political crisis with Turkey deprived new arrivals from the right to apply for international protection and today people find themselves in a black hole where human rights do not apply and without anyone knowing the solution that will be implemented.
Europe’s political blockade has steadily hardened since the signing of the deal in 2016. It culminates in the fourth year in the current legal and humanitarian catastrophe in Greece. In recent weeks, refugees have been elevated to the status of an “enemy army” by Greece and the EU and are being treated with entirely military means, setting a negative precedent for European contemporary history. In addition, a pandemic is threatening to develop into a deadly catastrophe for those in need of protection.
The reaction of the dramatic failure of the toxic 2016 deal can not be the adoption of yet another deal with the Erdogan-regime! New political action must be adopted, that are radically different from the simplified and dead-end choice of deterrence and militarisation of the external borders. There is a need to move towards solutions that respect refugee and human rights.
The situation in the camps on the islands is life-threatening – in order to prevent the complete collapse of human rights and health, a large scale evacuation program to other EU member states is inevitable!
The most urgent and realistic solution at present is to open the procedures for registering asylum applications within Greece and to create a mechanism for large-scale relocation to EU Member States.
“1500 children are to be taken in by a European coalition of the willing. This is a small gesture. But humanity and human rights require major steps. There will be no further progress on the islands. The system collapsed. All children must be accepted in other EU states – now! None of the almost 41,500 people in these terrible camps on the islands must be left behind. There is no security, no human dignity here. The spreading pandemic makes the situation even more dramatic – we have to act now!”
Natassa Strachini, Refugee Support Aegean, lawyer
This timeline focuses on a series of key developments in relation to the Greek authorities’ approach vis-à-vis the decongestion of the refugee camps on the Aegean islands and the creation of closed facilities and the responses of the islands’ residents including a series of protests. The timeline focuses on developments following the change of the government in July 2019 and includes protests by people in the mainland against the transfers of refugees from the islands.
Almost 41.500 children, women and men are trapped on the Eastern Aegean islands in totally dire and dangerous conditions and with a significant rise of xenophobia and anger towards those showing solidarity to refugees among local societies. On Monday, 16 March 2020, a 7-years old boy from Afghanistan lost his life in an extensive fire that broke up in Moria hotspot on Lesvos. While the rest of the world is trying to protect itself against the pandemic of COVID-19, thousands of refugees trapped on the islands do not even have free access to the public health system and are exposed to crowded and unsanitary conditions. Refugee Support Aegean spoke with refugees on the islands about their opinion for the recent developments in Greece’s land and sea borders.
“The European Union and the world need to support Greece”
The medical services are limited, if these medical services are closed, if this organizations will not be able to help the refugees, even with their limited capacity, then it’s a disaster. I know there a lot of refugees inside Moria who are sick but have not been able to access medical help. The European Union and the world need to support Greece more and more so that they can support the refugees. Greece has problems of its own, challenges of his own, so if you give them all these number of refugees, it is just going to make things worse and worse.
“We don’t know how it will end”
Many volunteers left the island [after the attacks] against them so we don’t know who is helping now, who will help later, how it will end. They use the refugees as part of their game between Turkey and Europe as before. They always use, we as refugees are always part of this game, but now the game is so clear, so obvious. I love Greece and I hope it will be soon in a better economically situation and safe. I don’t want to see this country in a conflict.
“The situation is inhuman and complicated”
The refugees want to go out of the island, but police don’t let them move to the mainland. The situation is inhuman and complicated. It’s a shame for Europe. I am three years here and I have nothing. Most of this time, I live in a tent. Please stop the fights. We want peace between Greece and Turkey. We don’t need more fights. A solution has to be found immediately. Refugees should have freedom of movement [in order to find safety].
“Erdogan is using refugees like a weapon”
Refugees in Evros are between the Greek government and Erdogan and they see people stopping them to move on. Then they become violent themselves. Erdogan is using them like a weapon. I cried when I saw the news. I know they are hungry and cold. The situation is not good for the Greek people; there is nothing for us here. The refugees don’t want to stay in Greece. The last days more people became angry against us. One came to me and said: “You have to go back to your country”. I am here because I can’t be in my country.
“We move in groups in order to protect ourselves”
I feel trapped. I am sure I am trapped here. I want to go out of the island in any way. The last days residents of the island attack verbally and physically refugees from the hotspot. Because of that, no one from us goes alone outside. We move in groups in order to protect ourselves. We hear in the news that refugees have been shot dead in the borders in Evros. We don’t know If this is true or not. I am so confused about the situation. Being on this island I feel like being in a room, without windows, without doors. I can’t even breathe well or sleep well.