Friday, 30 September 2016

Lausanne revisited

Turkish premier Recep Erdogan told a gathering of provincial governors yesterday that the 1923 Lausanne Treaty was a defeat for Turkey. The Treaty was a compromise following the rout of Greek forces in Asia Minor, which had been trying to carve out a Greater Greece that included Smyrna and ultimately, it was hoped, Constantinople. Lausanne is essentially the founding document of the post-Ottoman Turkish state because it gave Turkey all the territories the Greeks had been fighting for in Asia, plus Eastern Thrace. In return, Eleftherios Venizelos secured Greek possession of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Ikaria. Turkish officials have been lamenting the Treaty openly ever since 1974. The invasion of Cyprus in that year proved that Turkey a) could invade a neighbour with impunity, and b) that Greece was militarily powerless to stop her. In the time-honoured tradition of might being right, officials of the Kemalist state believed that they should be legally unshackled to continue a policy of regional domination. It is worrying in the extreme that Erdogan has now picked up this Kemalist narrative. The islands of the east Aegean have already been separated from the rest of Europe in legal terms to act as a buffer zone receiving migrants. This is a differentiation Germany insists upon, putting these islands in Turkey's power, essentially, since lax enforcement of the EU-Turkey deal by Turkish authorities will readily flood them with refugees they cannot legally confer upon anyone else. Some people will no doubt see a conspiracy. I would call it a disastrous perquisite for Turkey, and another failure at the negotiating table of the Tsipras government. How far we have fallen from Venizelos.

Europe abandons the Aegean

This article was published by Al Jazeera International under the title "Greeks on refugee islands feel abandoned by Europe.

Refugees walk on the main street of the tent city at Souda, outside the Venetian fortress, in Chios town 
CHIOS, Greece – Months after arriving on Chios, Rusde Endris has begun to be afraid. The Syrian man was recently taking an evening walk with his 18 year-old wife on a patch of green across the street from town hall. He says two Greek men approached them and tried to remove her headscarf.

“They had drunk wine. They were talking in Greek. One was a big, tall man. I only wanted to protect my wife,” he says showing knife cuts on his back from the attack. “One of the men punched her in the eye. She was pregnant and she lost the baby after this,” he says showing a photograph of a Greek hospital report on his cell phone. The report, stated that one Fatme Endris had had an abortion. “I went to the police but the police here did nothing because it was Greeks who did this.”

Six months since the EU-Turkey agreement curbed newly arriving refugees on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, sentiment is beginning to turn against them.

Earlier this month a young Syrian man who calls himself Ali Ali was caught on the wrong side of an anti-migrant demonstration – another recent phenomenon on the island. “I was in the park with a friend. Some people hit me and the police arrived and separated us. One person threw a rock at my chest and someone else hit my foot with a stick,” he says, showing a bandaged right foot.

Outright violence is still rare, but some islanders are beginning to demand assimilation. “I am Muslim. I cover my head. They don’t like this cover. Why?” says Bushra Asheh, an English teacher whose husband was killed when a suicide bomber demolished their house in Syria. “When I went to the market, a woman said, ‘Why do you put this?’” pointing to her hijab. “’It’s not beautiful.’ I said I am Muslim. She made a face like this,” says Asheh, screwing up her features.

One of the factors turning islanders against refugees is a spate of petty crimes. “Five months ago, two fifteen year-old girls had their bags ripped off them just across the street. One of them was my goddaughter. It was eight pm. Why do this?” asks Yiorgos Pilioglou, a tyre repair man across the street from one of two tent cities that have sprung up in Chios town. “At some point things will take a bad turn… people are afraid.”

“The police can’t tell me not to go out after ten. I am not going to adjust to the migrants. They should adjust to me,” fumes Yiorgos Manaras, who runs a sweet shop nearby.

A few kilometres outside town, villages surrounding Chios’ government-sponsored refugee camp complain of home break-ins, missing chickens and dug-up vegetables. The camp sits in and around a disused aluminium moulding plant known by its acronym, VIAL.

In the village of Vavyloi, Apostolos Kambouris says his brother surprised a burglar in his house. “He took a hundred dollar bill and his wife’s good earrings, then tried to escape by jumping out of the first storey window. We didn’t see the man but he was later caught because he broke his leg jumping. He turned out to be an Algerian.”

“You can’t explain to old people whose pension has been cut and who struggle to make co-payments for medicines why others who’ve just arrived on the island as refugees are being fed for free,” says a baker’s shop assistant who declined to be named. “I understand that this comes from overseas humanitarian organisations but some people don’t. Some people here go hungry.”

Turning points

Greeks scrambled to feed and clothe refugees as they walked through the Balkans last year. Two events turned that flow into a standing population, altering refugee politics in Greece.

In February, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia agreed to register refugees at the border Greece shares with former Yugoslav Macedonia. Overnight, Greece became a buffer zone between the Turkey and the rest of Europe, and its refugee numbers climbed.

The turning point in the frustrations of east Aegean islanders, however, was the EU-Turkey agreement a month later. Turkey would make an effort to restrain crossings and readmit those caught on its territorial waters; but those who make it as far as Greek waters are no longer allowed on the Greek mainland, but confined for the first 25 days on the islands of Chios, Lesvos, Samos, Kos and Leros.

The idea was to quickly separate them for either deportation or asylum processing, then release the latter; but the asylum procedure has been understaffed and inefficient. Camps built for 7,500 people are already burdened with twice that many, so they are left unlocked, turning these entire islands into massive holding areas. Many have been there for six months. “They don’t want to be here, we don’t want them here. We’ve become a landfill,” says Chios taxi driver Antonis Patsoulas succinctly.

The difficulty of waiting has caused three inter-ethnic eruptions in camps. Last April, about 500 Syrians fled VIAL claiming they were being harassed by Afghans. They occupied Chios’ main port, forcing ferries to dock at another port 40 kilometres away. The disruption to commerce and passenger traffic produced an angry mob which tried to intimidate the Syrians into leaving, prompting police to conduct a more orderly evacuation.

Last July, Pakistani inmates rioted at the processing centre on Leros, ransacking its offices. They had just been shipped in from Athens and assumed they were being deported back to Turkey. Islanders formed a posse to help police guard the camp, and forced volunteer organisations to evacuate. “They said to us, ‘if you don’t go, you’ll be in trouble,’” says Catharina Kahane, who had worked on the island for months with her charity, Echo100Plus.

Last week, inter-ethnic tensions caused the largest riot to date at the Moria camp on Lesvos, destroying two thirds of it and leaving two thousand people without shelter.

Where is the EU?

The insecurity of islanders is now metastasizing into political opposition. Chios’ mayor Manolis Vournous initially supported a government plan to spend €3.7mn building a second, large camp at a disused landfill site, which would enable him to shut down the two tent cities in town. He is now careful to accommodate those who want refugees off Chios altogether.

“Let’s say we find space for another thousand people. What will happen when you get a thousand and one?” Vournous says. “We haven’t seen the EU say, ‘I can see you’re under pressure, I can see you’re carrying a great burden on behalf of the EU, but I’m here to support you to recover as a society.’”

Vournous is indignant at the lack of EU support. “I am carrying out its policy to prevent Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Spain from flooding with people. And the EU isn’t even providing enough money for that; but I would also expect it to help me develop the economy, to show that we won’t always be a frontier post; but it has no wish to do this.”

The people of Chios are so frustrated with their role as European Union frontier, some are thinking of seceding. During a five-hour session of the city council last week, one attendant suggested declaring Chios a city-state. Another suggested a referendum on whether refugees should be allowed to spend more than 72 hours on the island. A vocal opposition now holds regular demonstrations demanding the closure of all refugee camps and the shipping of refugees to the Greek mainland.

Even the regional government is now against building more infrastructure. “Northern Aegean islands’ capacity for refugees is defined by the hotspots they now have,” says Christiana Kalogirou, North Aegean Prefect. “The Aegean cannot by itself bear the burden of the problem.”

Kalogirou blames the European Asylum Support Office, EASO, which was meant to send hundreds of caseworkers to Greece in the wake of the deal with Turkey. So far it has sent a few dozen, of whom just 20 are on the islands.

“The fact that Europe hasn’t pursued this staffing as it should… has created the difficult conditions on the islands,” says Kalogirou. She estimates that 70 cases a day are added to a backlog now standing at 9,000.

EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri says his agency relies on the staff EU members volunteer. “On September 2nd we issued a co-ordinated call for 100 staff to be deployed on the islands … We’re still far away from it. We’re still making repeated appeals.” a European Commission report on Wednesday said EASO was 59 Europe is addressing a backlog of 1.1 million asylum applications from last year, and member states say caseworkers cannot be spared. 

The lack of staff has led to an open quarrel over asylum process. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Stefan Seibert on Wednesday chastised Greece for being too slow to send rejected asylum applicants back to Turkey. But a Greek asylum official tells Al Jazeera that EASO is exclusively responsible for the first winnowing of refugees.

"Greece has no role in accepting or rejecting nominations," says the official. "It is obvious that if experts do not have the requisite experience, the quality of their work will be poor and the procedure will be vulnerable to litigation and unfair to the asylum seekers."

The official also says that asylum authorities are wary of deporting applicants because "No EU member state has recognized Turkey as a safe third country so far."

The result of all these shortcomings is social tension on the islands.

Chios journalist Yiannis Stevis believes the far right minority will make its presence increasingly felt, as legitimate authority fails to live up to its task. He believes the harassment of refugees who occupied the port in April was a watershed moment for Chios.

“It was a catalyst for the change in public opinion. It sanctioned the far right elements to have a say in what will happen in the city. I don’t deny them their opinions, but they are a minority; they cannot determine developments, which is what they did that night.”

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

EU refugee policy marks progress, not success

This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 

A Syrian girl plays with her brother at a camp in Chios' municipal theatre, dismantled in late September

Six months since the EU-Turkey Statement to control refugee flows across the Aegean, the European Commission is congratulating itself on a “steady delivery of results”. According to its third report on the implementation of the deal released on Wednesday, daily arrivals of refugees and migrants on Greek islands have averaged 81 since June, compared to 2,900 daily arrivals during the same period a year ago. This, according to the Commission, shows that “the business model of smugglers can be broken.”

Even this progress, however, leaves significant problems. Under the Statement, Turkey agreed to take back all those who don’t qualify for asylum in Europe. So far, though, just 578 people have been returned. This means that the islands of the east Aegean are gradually turning into vast internment camps, because the Statement confines newly arriving refugees to Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos. They are no longer allowed to travel to mainland Greece, from where they might more easily smuggle themselves deeper into Europe.

“When the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, there was no infrastructure that could support the sequestration of people on the islands,” says Chios mayor Manolis Vournous . “VIAL overflowed with new arrivals within 4-5 days,” he says, referring to a disused aluminium plant the municipality spent 710,000 euros buying and refurbishing as a refugee camp.

The spillover from VIAL created two tent cities in Chios, and the refugees, frustrated with waiting, have sometimes turned to petty crime. Ethnic tensions and the fear of deportation have also led to riots, like the one that sparked a fire around the Moria camp on Lesvos earlier this month. The government has offered to build a new housing facility on Chios, but people are now increasingly skeptical. “Many people now want these people simply to leave. They ask, why are you making more space for these people? Just get rid of them,” says Vournous.

“We are not a danger, believe me, we are in danger here,” says Bushra Asheh, a Syrian woman who has been on Chios for three months and is worried about the anti-immigrant demonstrations that have recently started taking place there. “I wish to go to another country, another safe country. I need safety,” she says.

In theory, asylum caseworkers would process people off the islands faster than they would arrive; but Greek asylum authorities never received the level of staff support needed to achieve this from other member states, a problem the report readily admits.

Relocation is refugees’ other way the get off the islands - a scheme whereby willing European Union member states agreed to relieve Greece and Italy of 160,000 asylum cases. A year into the scheme, only 5,651 people have so far been relocated the report says. “The relocation programme has taken time to reach cruising speed,” the report admits, but points out that there is improvement: 1,202 relocations took place in September, the highest monthly figure so far.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

EU frontier role strains Aegean islands

This article was published by IRIN News under the heading "The giant refugee holding cells in the Aegean

A Syrian woman washes clothes at a camp outside the Venetian fortress in Chios   
Everyone knows everyone else in the village of Vavyloi on the Greek island of Chios. Such intimacy had long meant an absence of crime and a feeling of security. That all changed about a month ago when farmers noticed onions and potatoes being gouged out of their fields overnight. When the house break-ins started, the villagers began forming four-man night patrols.
“We take a piece of wood or plastic piping. We’re not trying to hurt them; we’re trying to deter them,” said Yannis Siderakis, the village mechanic. He was referring to the hundreds of refugees and migrants camped a mile away at a bankrupt aluminium moulding plant known by its acronym, VIAL.
Purchased by the municipality last year to serve as a refugee shelter, VIAL’s cavernous concrete nave and an adjoining fenced-in area of mobile housing units were meant to become a locked-down facility for processing asylum claims – a so-called ‘hotspot’ – when the EU’s agreement with Turkey came into force in late March. Six months later, there are 3,800 migrants and refugees on Chios, three times the number VIAL was designed for. All are free to move around the island. “On our first night out [on patrol], I bumped into a thief,” said Siderakis. “I saw a black man running with plastic bags. I shouted at him; he dropped the bags and ran. I didn’t chase him. He had broken into a house and taken spirits, women’s cosmetics, an iron, slippers, socks – not valuable things, but he turned the place inside out. The owner was in shock.”
There are similar stories in Chios town, where the spillover from VIAL has spawned two tent cities. “We were robbed once. They took a bottle of whisky and a bottle of cognac. Next door, they took beers,” said Adamantios Frangakis, the owner of a cafĂ© around the corner from the town hall.
A destructive deal
The EU-Turkey agreement has changed views on migration here. While refugees were transiting through the islands on their way to the Balkans throughout the summer of 2015, islanders offered them food, clothing and assistance. But now that they are a stationary and growing population, the strains on local resources are showing.
Under the deal, in exchange for six billion euros from the EU over two years and a pledge from Brussels to relax visa rules for Turkish nationals, Turkey was to prevent as many refugees from setting out from its shores as possible, and readily readmit those caught on its territorial waters. Turkey also agreed to accept refugees and asylum seekers returned from Greece, on the basis (disputed by rights activists) that Turkey is a safe, third country. The deal appears to have had the desired effect. Arrivals to Greece so far this year have reached 166,000, compared to 385,000 by the end of September 2015.
But the deal has also turned Greece’s eastern Aegean islands into holding centres. Those rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard are shipped to the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos, and confined there until their first asylum interview has been conducted. Depending on the outcome, they are either given permission to complete the asylum process on the mainland or deported back to Turkey. But so far, just 509 people have been returned to Turkey under the deal and there are now some 14,000 refugees on the islands, overwhelming facilities built for half that number. More arrive nearly every day.
“The EU-Turkey deal has limited flows [of refugees], but it is destroying the economy, destroying the sense of security, and as a result destroying social cohesion,” Chios Mayor Manolis Vournous told IRIN.
A Syrian boy plays on a cell phone at the municipal theatre camp in Chios

Turning to crime
Overcrowding and increasing frustration among the refugees was one factor that sparked last week’s riot and fire at the Moria hotspot on Lesvos. Tensions are also building on Chios, where Vournos described islanders and refugees as fellow inmates. “[Refugees’] confinement is not really administered,” he told IRIN. “It’s simply the island’s natural boundaries. Water is the barrier. But that also includes [the] 50,000 people of Chios.”
Marios and several other Syrian refugees have been sleeping on the floor of the island’s small municipal theatre. A makeshift curtain of blankets hangs on a rope, separating the men from an area for women and children.
“Conditions here are awful,” he told IRIN, readily admitting that people are so desperate that they are learning how to steal. “I’m a person who knows how to do a dozen different things… I would go to work in the fields for as little as 15-20 euros a day just to be able to buy cigarettes.”
“We know the people of Chios aren’t to blame, but neither are we,” said Marios. “Do they want us to leave? Give us our papers and we’ll go today. Do they want to deport us? Deport us and let’s have done.”
Asylum applicants are allowed to work, but small island economies don’t provide enough opportunity for thousands of outside labourers; and Greek unemployment now stands at 23 percent – the highest in Europe.
The economy of Chios has suffered setbacks unrelated to the migrants. Tourism has been falling, as measured by airport arrivals, from more than 16,000 eight years ago to just over 7,000 in 2015. Also this year, a fire devastated its mastic tree plantations. Mastic sap and its byproducts have been Chios’s signature export since Ottoman times.
Fears about security and economic pressures have contributed to heated discussions about where to house the refugees. After a stormy municipal council meeting last week, Vournous was forced to evacuate the municipal theatre. Eventually, he also plans to evacuate the second tent city in town and create a large camp at a former landfill, which has been re-landscaped but still lacks water and electricity.
Solving the problem
Moving the refugees out of sight might give some island residents a little peace of mind, but it won’t solve all the problems their presence creates. Vournous is furious that the Greek Asylum Service isn’t processing people off the island faster. “The EU and Greek authorities aren’t doing their job,” he said. “Who is measuring their effectiveness?”
The European Asylum Support Office declared its intention to send 700 caseworkers to Greece after the March deal. So far 200 have arrived: only 126 are on the islands, and just 20 are conducting interviews.
Part of the problem is that EASO can’t oblige EU countries to contribute caseworkers. “We have asked for more staff from the member states,” said EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri. “[But] they are under pressure in their own country if you look at the backlog in the EU member states, which is over 1.1 million cases.” Eighteen mobile interview units stacked up inside the VIAL hotspot amply illustrate EASO’s frustrated ambition. Only a few of them are in use. 
“Every day the islands receive an average of 120 fresh arrivals and no more than 50 asylum applications are adjudicated, while another 9,000 languish in the queue,” said Christiana Kalogirou, prefect of the North Aegean region. “That is why the critical issue is the staffing of the asylum services.”
Pressure on the islands could have been relieved. A year ago, EU members agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum applicants from Greece and Italy. But only 4,776 relocations have so far taken place from Greece, a performance the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, called an “unnecessarily slow” implementation of a “woefully inadequate” pledge.

Vournous believes the EU should make amends by offering the islands of the eastern Aegean some form of development assistance. “That’s the least it can do because I am carrying out its policy to prevent Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Spain from flooding with people,” he said. “I would expect it to help me develop the economy, to show that we won’t always be a frontier post; but it has no wish to do this."