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.


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