This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
ATHENS, Greece - Greece dispatched 50 unaccompanied minors to Germany on Saturday, the first major wave of some 1,600 intended for relocation to other European Union members. The minors were between the ages of 5 and 16, and were taken from overcrowded camps on Lesvos, Chios and Samos. Another dozen had departed for Luxembourg on Wednesday.
“In the era of coronavirus, this act of solidarity by the German government is very much appreciated,” said prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who saw the children off at Athens airport. “Dealing with the migration crisis should be a European responsibility. We should be burden-sharing,” he said.
Greece has been asking for such European solidarity for months, but until last month it wasn’t being heard. Almost as soon as he came to power in July last year, Mitsotakis started pressing the EU for help with some 5,400 more Greece says it cannot cope with. Greece is providing shelter, education and psychological support for some 1,400 minors who seek asylum in Europe, and is trying to raise that number to 2,000 by summer.
No takers came forward until the coronavirus crisis, which coincided with a geopolitical crisis in the Aegean. On February 27, Turkey declared it was opening its borders to asylum-seekers headed for Europe, effectively suspending an agreement struck with the EU in March 2016. Although Turkey also has a border with EU member Bulgaria, in practice Turkish authorities assisted refugees only to the Greek border, creating enormous pressure on Greek authorities.
On March 9, Germany announced it had formed a coalition of EU members able to take on at least 1,600 unaccompanied minors from Greece. For unaccompanied minors, coronavirus may have acted as a catalyst, but it has also contributed to a hardening of attitudes.
Greece is concerned that minors are especially vulnerable to the disease on its five eastern Aegean islands with overcrowded reception centres, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos. Those camps, built for 6,000, now hold about 35,000. Conditions are unsanitary and difficult, and it is easy for minors to go unnoticed by authorities.
“For seven months I lived on the mountains around here. I survived by doing petty jobs for people,” 17 year-old Syrian Saleh al Moussa told Al Jazeera at Moria camp on Lesvos. “In [February] I was taken into the facility for minors, but before that I slept on the ground without blankets or a bed, I often walked barefoot and I was miserable… I knocked on doors and begged people for scraps.”
Al Jazeera met several minors from Afghanistan at Moria who hadn’t managed to apply for asylum after months on the island, because the service was overwhelmed.
Coronavirus has had another benign effect – of spurring on camp decongestion. Greece says it has drawn off 10,000 asylum-seekers since the beginning of the year and sent them to the mainland, achieving an overall drop in camp population of 5 percent. Another 2,380 asylum-seekers are to be shipped to the mainland in the next fortnight, and 5,000 asylum-seekers are being offered $2,000 each to give up their claims and return home.
Coronavirus has also led to a hardening of policy here.
The virus’ coincidence with Turkey’s border opening led Greece to declare it was suspending new asylum applications for the month of March.
“The concerted and massive nature of this movement means it has nothing to do with international law and the right of asylum, which only concerns individual cases,” said government spokesman Stelios Petsas on March 1.
New arrivals were registered far from reception centres and have been kept sequestered since, partly in order to prevent possible coronavirus cases infecting those overcrowded camps. But the UN and the EU objected.
“[Greece] cannot suspend the internationally recognized right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement that are also emphasized in EU law,” the United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced the following day. “Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications.”
Facts on the ground also punctured the government position. The first case of coronavirus on Lesvos was a supermarket checkout worker in the town of Plomari, 42km south of Moria camp.
When coronavirus was first discovered among refugees on April 1, it concerned an incumbent population that had arrived long before Turkey opened its borders, and infected a total of 28 asylum-seekers. The mainland camps of Ritsona and Malakasa, where they live, have been quarantined.
While sequestration also remains for 2,164 asylum-seekers who did manage to cross from Turkey during March, Greece is now reversing its policy of suspending their asylum rights. “The right to file for asylum is back,” deputy migration minister Yiorgos Koumoutsakos told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“The restoration of the right to apply for asylum includes those who crossed over in March. And our purpose is to examine these applications as quickly as possible so that non-eligible applicants can go back as quickly as possible,” Koumoutsakos said.
Other hardening aspects of refugee policy spurred on by fears of coronavirus have remained, however. The government has been keen to abolish the current, open reception centres on the Aegean islands, replacing them with detention centres. These would be much larger, capable of holding 25,000-35,000 people, almost six time today’s official capacity.
The islands have resisted these new camps, but coronavirus has helped the government push the agenda. A new camp is under construction on Samos and is about to begin on Leros and Kos.
“We placed the protection of public health on the islands – for islanders and refugees - as a matter of priority,” migration minister Notis Mitarakis said on March 18. “[The new camps] serve this goal.”
Coronavirus has also affected policy across the water in Turkey. “Turkey has unfortunately refused the return of a large number of people citing coronavirus as an excuse,” Mitarakis told parliament on March 23. “We are pursuing these returns bilaterally with their home countries.”
“Connecting the two crises was something all of us who work with refugees were very worried about. We know that coronavirus did not start off in camps,” says Nadina Christopoulou, co-founder of the Melissa network, an aid group that has offered solace to refugees during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, which was gradually rolled out beginning on March 10.
Melissa put its tutorials online perhaps faster than anyone else including Greek, English, art and photography, psychological support and parenting support.
The result was that refugees who have moved on to Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands suddenly asked to re-enrol in courses they had done at Melissa years before, because they missed the sense of community.
“Being treated as individuals, with love and respect, is what they miss,” Christopoulou says.
Coronavirus is also raising problems for refugees beyond public policy, as unscrupulous landlords have sought to up their rents.
“On many nights we’ve received calls from women on Victoria Square saying their landlords have doubled their rent,” says Christopoulou. “People can’t go and look at new apartments to rent. Landlords know this and they’re blackmailing refugees.”
Greece’s migration policy under the New Democracy government began to harden in 2019. A November law made appealing first instance denials for asylum impossible without a lawyer. Last January Greece began to fast-track new applications. The migration ministry says it has speeded up processing times threefold to two months. The goal is to roughly match deportations of rejected applicants to new arrivals and prevent another pileup of applicants on the islands.
“The rules have changed,” Mitarakis said on January 31. “We are not open to people without a refugee profile” - a phrase that remains undefined but is generally taken to mean nationalities not ravaged by war.
Koumoutsakos warned that the softening of attitudes in April may be temporary, especially if Turkey resumes its open borders policy after the coronavirus crisis passes. “The situation at the borders is normalised again and the crisis seems to have spun out, but we’re not being complacent. We retain our vigilance.”
Greece has implemented emergency measures at refugee camps during the coronavirus crisis. Island camps, which are open, are being ringfenced. Staff have been reduced to skeleton crews. The asylum service has stopped conducting interviews. Quarantine tents have been set up outside the camps, and are to be supplemented by EU-funded field hospitals.