Greece: European Paddock For Refugees
Over 1,200,000 refugees cross the Aegean Sea every year (EU Council on Foreign Relations), fleeing their homes and searching for a better life, yet too few find one. People leave their homes because their countries are not safe anymore, and flee thousands of miles, across continents, to reach Europe. Throughout each of those journeys, countless lives are lost, and families are separated. Starting four years ago, Greece has been viewed as an entry point to Europe from people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Today, Greece has turned into something like a paddock for refugees seeking asylum. The 500,000 plus refugees now stuck in the Greek islands can not legally travel deeper into Europe, and most will likely remain in the country (Asylum Information Database). This is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a political one. The European Union (“EU”) was founded on a dedication to international law and human rights that has pushed policies for 60 years. Recently, however, the EU adopted border restrictions that have prevented people seeking sanctuary from entering Europe, putting the world’s most vulnerable population increasingly at risk. The EU’s policies also mean that Greece, along with Italy, are being asked to shoulder much of the responsibility for the lives of those who have reached Europe in search of safety. For instance, according to The Guardian, since the March 2016 agreement restricting border crossings, some 160,000 refugees—the majority from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan—remain stuck on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros (Current State of Greek Crisis). Greece and Italy cannot be expected to deal with this extremely difficult job on their own. Although there is not a single solution, this problem needs to start being addressed with more long-term plans. This humanitarian crisis is killing thousands every year and strips many more from their basic human rights, and Europe as a whole needs to stand up to this challenge; this is a response that cannot be dictated by geography.
Europe’s refugee crisis has been described as the worst of its kind since World War II, at the end of which there were more than 40 million refugees in the region and led to the creation of international laws and organizations that would become the foundation of the world’s refugee response today. Fast-forward to 2014: 219,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, according to the U.N. So far this year, more than 300,000 people have made that journey, many of them to escape civil wars (PRI’s The World). From a financial standpoint, since the beginning of 2014, 2 million refugees and migrants have entered Greece and in line with UPI News Current, $254 million in refugee-related funding has come from the European Commission. Of this total, the Greek government received $12 million, a further $15 million went to organizations dealing with refugee protection, asylum and migration (‘Breakdown of spending on refugee crisis in Greece.’): the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. refugee agency and the European Asylum Support Office. Helpful as it is, this amount of money is not anywhere near what is needed, and if it were to be divided evenly for all refugees, each individual would have to live with around $18 a year. Refugees are not aiming to displace other people seeking entry to Europe, defenders argue, but merely trying to escape the violence and chaos of their home countries.
A 10-year-old child tried to commit suicide in a Greek refugee camp. Perhaps the most shocking thing about this story is that it is not unique. Routine police beating and squalor in Moria, the largest camp on the island of Lesbos and home to about 8,000 people, have pushed the situation to a breaking point. Moria fails to meet just about every standard set by the UNHCR. New arrivals are crammed into inadequate sports tents, or on to farmland where lighting has not been installed, and up to 190 refugees share one filthy toilet. The EU started closing its borders to migrants in October 2015, when Hungary blocked asylum-seekers who had previously been waved through the Balkans and Central Europe so they could reach Western Europe. It was the height of Europe’s refugee crisis. That month alone, the U.N. recorded more than 200,000 migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece — all of them bound for Western Europe (Democracy Chronicles). By the end of 2015, more than a million migrants had entered the EU. Most were from war zones, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Despite their marginal economic status, Greeks felt a stronger willingness to help entering Syrians at the outset of the refugee crisis because of their history with Syria argues Greek newspaper Kathimerini. In the 1920s, after the Asia Minor catastrophe, thousands of Greeks in Anatolia sought refuge in Syria (‘Greece, Europe, and the refugee crisis.’). Early on, Syria supported them with food and other staples garnered from various charities. Presently, the tables “have turned,” and Greece—although willing in principle—finds it increasingly difficult to manage the onslaught of Syrian refugees as resources are strained. In NPR’s radio show Parallels, Many Stories, One World, it is underlined that Europe’s stalled assistance with this humanitarian emergency occurring in a struggling member nation is obvious and the only help refugees in Greece receive is from organizations working in the islands (Parallels, Many Stories, One World). There are over 200 organizations working everyday to help, and they have made significant changes such as providing clean water in the four biggest refugee camps in Lesbos, the addition of free medical clinics to help the injured and vaccinate babies. This help is a tremendous step towards a better future but most of these organizations work on short-term projects and with new waves of refugees constantly entering the country, there is a need for more long-term plans that affect more people than an individual case basis. Given the harsh economic reality of Greece since 2010, it is rarely the final destination of choice for refugees. In ‘The Refugee Crisis in Greece: Lesson for the United States’, the author describes that, “when authorities enacted the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, refugee organizations estimated 50,000 displaced people were trapped in Greece”(Fragkias) . The EU implemented an Emergency Relocation Mechanism to help countries like Greece grapple with the refugee crisis. Under this plan, nearly 100,000 asylum seekers would be relocated to various EU member states (66,400 from Greece and 39,600 from Italy). Part of the agreement was that all “irregular” refugees and migrants that land in Greece would be returned to Turkey. This policy raises several human rights and legal questions, especially concerning efforts at family reunification.
The Greek islands need to be decongested immediately. Currently, over 12,000 people are being forced to stay in overcrowded, ill-equipped hotspots. The International Rescue Committee, along with 23 other organizations, has called on the Greek government and EU leaders to dramatically improve conditions on the Greek islands and take immediate steps to ensure that people are transferred to the mainland. The risk is real that people will, once again lose their lives this winter due to the conditions in which they are forced to live on the islands.
Asylum processing must be properly resourced – so that individuals, who have a right to stay because it is not safe for them to go home, are allowed to do so, and those who do not qualify for asylum are returned. The funds exist for this and should have been spent long ago. Arrivals in Greece have to wait often as long as a year or more to have their cases decided. The IRC has been calling for proper staffing for the asylum process both on the Greek islands and the mainland.
Most importantly, it is long past realistic to assume that Greece and Italy can carry the bulk of the responsibility for this response and Europe as a whole needs to stand up to this challenge.
The lack of adequate international support for displaced populations is directly linked to the rise of nationalism around the globe. The Greek refugee crisis offers several interesting points of comparison to current socioeconomic and political tensions in the U.S. Our views are developed in the context of our summer 2017 research in Greece, including interviews with staff and volunteers working with refugees, and displaced populations.
The lack of adequate international support for displaced populations is directly linked to the rise of nationalism and neo-Nazi sentiments around the globe. The Greek refugee crisis offers several interesting points of comparison to current socioeconomic and political tensions in the U.S. Our views are developed in the context of our summer 2017 research in Greece, including interviews with staff and volunteers working with refugees, and displaced populations. In the midst of all the hate, and the rise of nationalist movements in European countries such as Austria and Hungary, it is more important than ever for Europe to unite and address the countless deaths happening all together to help end this refugee crisis. The EU has been ignoring this serious crisis that needs immediate attention and aid, and putting it aside for “later”, while Greece and Italy are struggling with little to no funds to tackle this crisis head on. This negligence is horrible, as it is putting aside the deaths of thousands of humans like us, that are fleeing death in their countries, only to be met by more danger in Europe. It is up to us, the people around the world to raise awareness about this and force the politicians to make a change, because the real change happens there. With the drastic changes in Europe and the new European elections coming up, it appears even more possible that this crisis will be met with seriousness and effectiveness.
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