Thursday, 31 March 2016

Europe soul-searches for asylum policy

This article was published by IRIN under the title Greek asylum system reaches breaking point.
Some 6,000 refugees and migrants are living in tents and shelters lining the port of Peiraieus 
ATHENS – Greece is preparing to deport some 500 migrants and refugees deemed not to require international protection, including asylum. The deportations, which are to take place on Monday, are the first under the European Union’s agreement with Turkey on stemming migration.

As the treaty begins to go into effect, it is revealing a chasm between differing asylum procedures among member states. These are creating pressure to abandon legal and ethical standards in the name of efficiency, according to a senior Greek official.

“Insufferable pressure is being put on us to reduce our standards and minimise the guarantees of the asylum process,” Maria Stavropoulou, who heads the Greek Asylum Service told IRIN. “[We’re asked] to change our laws, to change our standards to the lowest possible under the EU directive [on asylum procedures].”

Under the terms of the 20 March agreement, Greece must screen all new arrivals from Turkey as quickly as possible and return those deemed not in need of international protection on the basis that Turkey is a “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” where they were already protected.

Most of the pressure, according to Stavropoulou, is coming from “countries that are very invested in the deal with Turkey working.” Germany, which received over a million asylum seekers last year, took a leading role in negotiations with Turkey during a tense two-day summit earlier this month

In addition to having to screen and return new arrivals, Greece is dealing with high numbers of asylum applications from the over 50,000 refugees and migrants who were trapped inside Greece before the agreement with Turkey came into effect. An overland route through the western Balkans to Germany has been closed for a month and many of those who cannot afford to pay smugglers to find a new route to Western Europe are now applying for asylum in Greece. Authorities here expect to receive just under 3,000 applications in March, double the figure for January and three times last year’s monthly average. Even as the numbers have mounted, so has the pressure for speedy processing.

The Greek Asylum Service has just hired three dozen new personnel, bringing its total staff to 295, but says it will need at least double that number to handle the expected caseload in the wake of the EU-Turkey agreement. The European Commission has estimated that some 4,000 personnel are likely to be needed in Greece.

Many of those are coastguard officers, but some 800 are asylum experts and interpreters from other member states and from the European Asylum Support Office, the EU’s coordinating body for asylum matters. The first 60 are to arrive in Greece on Sunday.

“I believe the Greek system is well supported through this increase in staff – it can handle this workload,” said EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri, who added that much would depend on a speedy initial screening of new arrivals.

“If you have many people arriving every day it makes sense that this process is short in order to be able to deal with the workflow,” he told IRIN. However, he insisted that, “it’s not a question of making a very, very quick [process] without taking the interests of the applicant into account.” 

Short shrift

Some asylum experts believe that the pressure for rapid screening will mean that vital information for determining asylum claims is overlooked.

“It always takes time,” said Spyros Kouloheris, head of legal research at the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the country’s most respected legal aid NGO.

“Someone who is traumatised will speak in fits and starts. They appear not to be telling the truth. We’ve lost a lot of cases because we didn’t have the time, the information, the culture, the experience, to understand that the more broken up the narrative, the more likely it is that there is a background of torture and abuse. This is how true refugees are lost. Do we really think that a Somali woman who has been raped will sit down and merrily rattle off her experiences?”

The fact that the initial screening is happening in locked detention centres is also raising concerns. “A detained person simply doesn’t function… You don’t play with people’s freedom. It’s all the worse when they’ve been storm-tossed,” says Kouloheris.

Final decisions on asylum applications will rest with Greek authorities but Greek officials are so swamped, they are struggling even to inform new arrivals of their right to seek asylum or how to go about it. “We depend on the UN or EASO, on NGOs and on the volunteers – anyone who can have a knowledge of the basics – to hand out our flyers and pass on our web page to people,” said Stavropoulou.

GCR has been sending lawyers to the port of Peiraieus, where thousands of migrants and refugees recently arrived from the islands are camped out, to tell people about their options. “It’s not that they don’t know,” said Negia, a volunteer at the port. “It’s that having made all this effort, they can’t believe the borders are closed and they have such few options.”

Hala and Fouad, a young couple from Iraq, have made up their minds not to apply for asylum in Greece. “We like Greece, and the Greeks have been very good, very kind,” said Hala. “But for my children’s sake, I do not want to stay here.” The family, who have already spent the past 40 days at Peiraieus, have applied to be transferred to Sweden through the EU’s relocation scheme for asylum seekers but will have to wait another three weeks for an appointment.

So far, a September 2015 agreement by the EU to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy over two years has resulted in just over 800 being moved from Greece as of 16 March.

For whom is Turkey safe?

The most controversial aspect of the EU-Turkey agreement, however, is Turkey’s designation as a safe third country as a basis for rejecting asylum seekers in Greece.

Turkey has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has not signed a 1967 Protocol extending refugee rights to non-Europeans, meaning that many of those in danger of deportation back to Turkey will have limited legal protection there. The agreement obliges Turkey to make legal changes, but Ankara has already indicated it has no intention of doing so.  

Rights groups have pointed out that Turkey has effectively closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the war and recently deported around 30 asylum seekers to Afghanistan without granting them access to an asylum procedure.

“There is a political dishonesty and evasion in Turkey’s designation as a safe third country, and this is also open to legal challenge,” said Andreas Takis, law professor at the University of Thessaloniki, who sits on the Greek Human Rights Committee.

He predicts that the agreement will turn out to be unenforceable. “There isn’t a specific passage in the agreement one can point to and say, ‘this is where the Geneva Convention or the asylum procedure is being violated,’” he said. “Instead everyone is rightly concerned that… it will violate it in the manner in which it is implemented.”

Kouloheris agrees, and plans to challenge the deal in court. “I think there is a policy of hostility. Europe is putting up a wall. It doesn’t want these people. This treaty makes it clear.”

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has also distanced itself from the agreement: “UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention,” said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming two days after the deal was announced in Brussels.

Stavropoulou believes that Europe will ultimately rally to defend its values. Earlier this week, she and other EU officers agreed not to deport refugees who have family members on EU soil. “If they go back to Turkey, we don’t know how long it will take them to get to an EU member state.” 

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Greek solidarity movement embraces refugees

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

A family sits on the lawn at a petrol station 20km from the Greek border with former Yugoslav Macedonia (John Psaropoulos) 
Thessaloniki, Greece - Kilkis hospital, just 50km from Greece’s northern border, is busy these days. Being the closest to Greece’s largest refugee camp at Eidomeni, it is the first responder to medical emergencies.

The maternity ward has taken on births at the 13,000-strong camp, but hardest pressed is its 18-bed pediatric ward, now permanently full, according to Theodoros Balabanidis, an ear-nose-throat doctor who heads the hospital’s medical committee.

“If there’s a sick child in the pediatric ward, the mother will be in there with it and usually the father comes with another two or three children, because these people are worried about losing each other,” says Balabanidis.

“We feed all of them for the few days they are here,” he says. “This is where the help of the local community is great. They bring food and clothing. These people often arrive with mud on their clothes and we offer them fresh things to wear.”

Like the rest of the national health system, Kilkis hospital has seen its budget cut every year for the last five years. Its doctors have fallen by half to 42, as vacancies go unfilled. And while it still suffers from shortages in medicines, bandages and other consumables, local volunteer groups alleviate these through collections.

As Greece evacuates its eastern Aegean islands under the terms of Friday’s EU-Turkey agreement, the number of refugees and migrants on the mainland is climbing, straining official resources. Of the current refugee total in the country – just over 50,000 – ninety percent are spread between Athens and the northern border with the former Yugoslav Macedonia.

The army has been opening up disused military bases at a rate of two a week for the past month to house them, but lacks the manpower to care for them. Instead, an army of volunteers has poured into the breach to distribute food and clothing, and raise aid locally.

Citizens’ initiatives redouble their efforts

An Afghan woman queues up for supper at the refugee camp in Larissa (John Psaropoulos)    
Citizens’ solidarity initiatives created during the crisis to help destitute Greeks are now playing a key role in helping refugees. They have interfaced with the government and NGOs to provide much-needed manpower, and use their catchment areas to raise emergency aid. Because they are self-organising and claim no salaries or expenses, they have no overheads and work extremely efficiently.

One of the most engaged is O Topos Mou (‘My Domicile’), based in Katerini, about 150km from the northern border. It recently raised a container’s worth of medical supplies, some of which went to Kilkis; but it has struck out on a new path by raising it in Germany.

“We need a Marshall Plan. We need help from abroad. We cannot lift this burden alone,” says Ilias Tsolakidis, one of the group’s founders and its main organiser.

“I see it in the people that offered help three years ago. If you went to a businessman then and said, ‘Niko, I need help,’ he opened his wallet and gave you 100 euros. Today he gives you 20. And in another year he will say, ‘I want to help, but I can’t.’”

Tsolakidis still sends out local requests for aid to his 36,000-strong email database, but he has begun to build a separate one with German, French and Austrian addresses. “Soon the 500 will be a thousand. The problem will become known abroad,” he says.

Some groups have come together on account of the refugee crisis. Knitting Solidarity formed last October in the northern city of Thessaloniki, after a group of women realised that refugees in Eidomeni were trying to keep warm. 

“I was learning how to knit from YouTube videos and took three caps to kids in Eidomeni,” says Eirini Akritidou, one of the founders. Since then the group has spawned offshoots across Greece and abroad, but she senses a change among refugees. “A smile is hard to come by these days. People are tired, trapped and frustrated.”

Knitting Solidarity is evolving accordingly. “We’re looking for families who can take people in. They make do with very little. All they want is a roof over their heads and a bath.”

Like many people in northern Greece, Akritidou is the grandchild of Greek refugees from the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Asia Minor (her grandfather was an unaccompanied minor, losing both parents on the way), and sensitive to the plight of today’s displaced people. She has put up a young Syrian couple in a spare apartment, but says her motives go well beyond her personal feelings.

“A lot of people have a refugee background here. But that’s not the only reason why people are hospitable. It’s also a reaction to the way things are shaping up in Europe - the xenophobia, the closure of borders and the raising of walls – it’s a way to say, ‘No, this is not Europe, Europe is something else.’ Maybe it’s utopian, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it is good.”

Some refugees refuse shelter, still hoping that Greece’s northern border, closed as of this month, will reopen to allow people to walk to Germany. Walid Jemu, a Syrian from Damascus, was recently camped at a petrol station about 20km from the border with his pregnant wife, a son, 5, and a daughter, 4.

Greeks from a nearby village recently visited the petrol station, looking for families with small children. “They gave me and my children food and asked me if I want to go to their house to stay for [a week],” Jemu says. “People here are kind and willing to help everybody,” he says, but he refused the offer, hoping that Friday’s summit in Brussels would lead to an opening up of European Union immigration policy.

A coalition of the willing
Refugee children play in a small tent city set up beside a defunct textile mill in Larissa. A local volunteer group distributes food and clothing to the refugees (John Psaropoulos) 
A small army of international volunteers has also made itself indispensable, especially in Eidomeni itself, where the need for manpower is greatest.

People have retained their generosity and humour and goodwill,” says Phoebe Ramsay, a Canadian volunteer. Like most of the 150-odd gathered in the town of Polykastro, near the border, she barely sleeps. Using social media, the volunteers have organised themselves in three shifts around the clock, cooking and distributing food, giving out clothes and cleaning tents, assigning them to families who need them most; yet it is the character of the refugees themselves that impresses her.

“There was a man sitting in the mud. He’d built a shelter out of sticks and UN blankets which of course were soaked. He’s cut a hole in one for a window. He says, ‘Come, come and sit next to me,’ he cleans off a little piece of wood for me to come sit and offers me a piece of muddy orange, and tells me that four of his brothers were beheaded by the Da’esh. After we talk he says, ‘Thank you so much for sitting with me.’”

Europe’s agreement with Turkey is raising practical and ethical questions. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced on Tuesday, “UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention. We will continue to assist the Greek authorities to develop an adequate reception capacity.”

Volunteers take little time to discuss the politics of Europe’s failure to formulate a consensual immigration policy, or even a humanitarian policy, in the face of the current crisis. Whether they’re acting individually or as part of the Greek solidarity movement, they seem to regard the necessity of their actions as self-evident.

“I’m a programmer. I solve problems in zeros and ones. You’re at a juncture and you need to make a decision,” says Tsolakidis. “These people are here… I think we will soon have 200,000. What shall we do? ‘Strangle them and bury them,’ says the extremist. What if we don’t strangle them? We need to help them; because if we don’t help them, we will have a hungry, unhappy bunch of people without hope, roving uncontrollably, and ending up on our doorstep. My politics, my religion, my culture - everything advocates against this. I can’t even conceive of it.”