Refugees lan­guish in Greek limbo as alarm grows

Brus­sels is los­ing pa­tience with Athens as ten­sions at camps heighten and de­lays in pro­cess­ing and trans­fers con­tinue to per­sist

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY KAROLINA TAGARIS

Seven months after the Euro­pean Union and Turkey struck an agree­ment to turn back the tide of Syr­i­ans flee­ing west, not a sin­gle refugee has been sent back from Greece, and Brus­sels is los­ing its pa­tience as over­crowded camps grow vi­o­lent.

The agree­ment reached in March was de­signed to re­duce the num­ber of mi­grants cross­ing into Europe from Turkey, after more than a mil­lion peo­ple ar­rived in Europe last year, most reach­ing Greek is­lands by boat and con­tin­u­ing by land to Ger­many.

Un­der the deal, the Euro­pean Union de­clared Turkey “a safe third coun­try,” mean­ing those who make the cross­ing can be re­turned there, even if found to have fled Syria or other coun­tries as refugees de­serv­ing pro­tec­tion. Turkey agreed to take them back in re­turn for a range of EU con­ces­sions.

At around the same time, Balkan coun­tries along the land route north closed their bor­ders, so that mi­grants who once poured across Greece to reach other parts of Europe are now trapped there and pre­vented from press­ing on.

For the most part, the goal of stem­ming the tide has been achieved so far. Only 17,000 peo­ple, around half of them Syr­i­ans, have made the haz­ardous sea cross­ing from Turkey since the deal was signed, a tiny frac­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands that ar­rived the pre­vi­ous year to pass through Greece.

But for the deal to con­tinue to work for the longer term, Euro­pean of­fi­cials and ex­perts say refugees will have to be sent back to Turkey. As long as those cross­ing are still able to stay in Greece, there is a risk that more will de­cide to come.

“There’s the de­ter­rence ef­fect. If it’s proven that peo­ple are be­ing turned back, it can force peo­ple to think twice about even try­ing,” said James Ker-Lind­say, an ex­pert on South­ern Europe at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics.

Only about 700 peo­ple who ar­rived since the deal was signed – just 4 per­cent of the to­tal – have gone back to Turkey, and none was or­dered back after be­ing rec­og­nized as a refugee.

Of those who re­turned, most were eco­nomic mi­grants from coun­tries like Pak­istan and Bangladesh who left with­out seek­ing asy­lum in Greece. Around 70 peo­ple who did claim asy­lum in Greece gave up on the process and asked to leave be­fore it was over. The rest are still in Greece, prey for smug­glers who of­fer to take them to North­ern Europe.

Some 61,000 mi­grants are still scat­tered across Greece, in­clud­ing 15,900 in over­crowded is­land camps that have grown vi­o­lent as the de­lays mount, with around 2,500 more ar­riv­ing each month. The camps are now hold­ing three times as many peo­ple as they held when the deal was signed, and twice as many as they were built for.

The EU blames the de­lays on Greek in­ef­fi­ciency.

“The goal of en­sur­ing re­turns... has mostly been ham­pered by the slow pace of pro­cess­ing asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions at first in­stance by the Greek Asy­lum Ser­vice and of pro­cess­ing ap­peals by the newly es­tab­lished Greek Ap­peals Au­thor­ity,” the EU Com­mis­sion said in a progress re­port.

“Fur­ther ef­forts are ur­gently needed by the Greek ad­min­is­tra­tion to build a sub­stan­tially in­creased and sus­tained ca­pac­ity to re­turn ar­riv­ing mi­grants, which is con­sid­ered to be the key de­ter­rent fac­tor for ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants and smug­glers.”

Athens says it is sim­ply over­whelmed and can­not speed up the painstak­ing process of eval­u­at­ing claims. It has asked the EU to send more staff, but Euro­pean of­fi­cials say that would not help with­out more ef­fort from Greece to im­prove its sys­tem.

In­ter­views with asy­lum seek­ers and of­fi­cials in­volved in the process sug­gest Greek staff are in­deed stretched, but red tape, in­ef­fi­ciency, the lack of a uni­fied plan across refugee camps and a lengthy ap­peals process are also to blame.

Un­lucky

Amir, Walaa and their two young chil­dren fled from the Syr­ian city of Homs to Turkey and reached a beach on the Greek is­land of Chios in March. They say they came ashore the day be­fore the deal with Turkey, but their ar­rival was not recorded by po­lice un­til the next day, ex­pos­ing them to the new rules.

“We were un­lucky,” Walaa said. Her two broth­ers had taken just two weeks to reach Ger­many from Greece be­fore the land bor­der was shut. Her hus­band Amir added, “We were in the boat and [Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela] Merkel and Turkey were fin­ish­ing the deal.”

Their asy­lum case should be eas­ier to process than many: They have their pass­ports and do not need to prove their iden­tity. But they are still months from an an­swer. In their first weeks in Greece they were given a num­ber: 10,624. Each day, they rose from their tent in the dusty re­mains of a cas­tle moat, and walked to a no­tice board, look­ing anx­iously for it. If posted, it meant they should walk or catch a bus to the is­land’s main camp, a few miles away, and queue there at the pro­cess­ing cen­ter, a few pre­fab­ri­cated con­tain­ers ar­ranged in­side an aban­doned alu­minum fac­tory.

They spent four months in the tent be­fore their num­ber fi­nally was posted the first time, sum­mon­ing them to a meet­ing to es­tab­lish their iden­tity, where au­thor­i­ties fi­nally sat them down to ask for their names and fin­ger­prints.

Six months after they ar­rived, they were told the date of their first ac­tual in­ter­view: De­cem­ber 6. They were fi­nally given the right to leave the camp and re­lo­cate to Athens while they wait for their case to be heard. Now they live at a grimy, aban­doned Athens school where smug­glers roam, of­fer­ing pas­sage to North­ern Europe for 1,000 dol­lars.

“We wait. Ev­ery day we just wait. Why? I don’t know,” Walaa said, gaz­ing at the floor. She and her hus­band asked that their sur­names not be pub­lished to pro­tect rel­a­tives back in Syria.

Hu­man­i­tar­ian groups on the ground say poor co­or­di­na­tion slows things down on the is­lands, a con­clu­sion backed up by the EU Com­mis­sion re­port, which urged Greece to de­velop uni­fied man­age­ment for the camps.

The camps are typ­i­cally run by lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties or the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, while screen­ing and in­ter­views are car­ried out pri­mar­ily by of­fi­cials from EU bor­der agency Fron­tex and the Euro­pean Asy­lum Sup­port Of­fice (EASO).

Asy­lum seek­ers say they re­ceive con­tra­dic­tory in­for­ma­tion and are con­founded by a lack of in­ter­preters. One camp used a loud hailer to call peo­ple to ap- point­ments; if they didn’t hear it, they missed their turn.

Fron­tex and EASO of­fi­cials go to un­usual lengths to con­firm an iden­tity or check an asy­lum seeker’s story. Some­one who has no doc­u­men­ta­tion and pro­fesses to be from Syria, for ex­am­ple, will be asked to name streets, iden­tify land­marks or pick out Syr­ian coins from a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent cur­ren­cies.

Cruel bu­reau­cracy

The long waits and squalor of some camps have turned frus­tra­tion into vi­o­lence. On Chios and the is­land of Lesvos in re­cent days, asy­lum seek­ers at­tacked EASO’s of­fices to protest against de­lays. In­ter­views there have yet to re­sume.

EASO has de­ployed 202 staff in Greece and has called for 100 more, but EU mem­ber-states have yet to re­spond, EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schem­bri said. Greece has re­peat­edly asked for more.

The Greek le­gal sys­tem al­lows for an elab­o­rate ap­peals process, which the EU says is too slow. Greece re­sponded in June by send­ing more judges to re­place civil ser­vants and staff of ei­ther the UN refugee agency or Greek hu­man rights com­mis­sion who had pre­vi­ously sat on ap­peals pan­els.

The new boards ap­pear to be mov­ing only slightly faster: They made 35 de­ci­sions in their first month, com­pared with 72 made by the old boards in the first three months of the deal, the EU Com­mis­sion re­port said. The re­port did not spec­ify what de­ci­sions had been reached.

The most con­tentious part of the process is deter­min­ing whether those with valid asy­lum cases can safely be re­turned to Turkey, the heart of the March deal. The new ap­peals boards have dealt with at least three such cases as of Septem­ber 18, and at least one is chal­leng­ing the de­ci­sion at Greece’s high­est court, ac­cord­ing to the EU re­port.

Reuters could not find a board mem­ber will­ing to com­ment pub­licly on the process.

“A wrong de­ci­sion might send some­one back to se­ri­ous harm,” said Gior­gos Kos­mopou­los, an Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­searcher and for­mer Greece di­rec­tor. “It’s about qual­ity not quan­tity.”

Only about 700 peo­ple who ar­rived since the deal was signed – just 4 per­cent of the to­tal – have gone back to Turkey.

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