The EU-Turkey deal has been the centre of many discussions in the last four weeks.
“Europe’s leading human rights body (the Council of Europe) has issued a stinging indictment of the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey, which it said at worst exceeds the limits of what is permissible under international law”, says Jennifer Rankin, The Guardian, 2/04/16.
At its core, the agreement seeks to discourage dangerous routs into Europe, as well the business of smuggling and trafficking. Greece is thereby allowed to return “all new irregular migrants” that have crossed the Aegean from Turkey and arrived in Greece after the 20th of March 2016. In exchange, EU member states have agreed to increase the resettlement of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, as well as their financial support to Turkey in dealing with the “crisis”. The EU has also promised to accelerate visa liberalisations for Turkish nationals. All details of the agreement can be found on a statement released by the European Commission.
Since the implementation of the agreement, the situation for refugees and asylum seekers has drastically changed, the World Council of Churches (WCC) reports.
In mid-April, a delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) visited the islands of Samos and Chios, meeting with aid workers of the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Apostoli, the humanitarian arm of the Church of Greece, to learn about their new realities and the refugee situation on the Greek islands.
The situation in Greece is described as “sensitive” by WCC, as nobody is clear about what the long-term effects of the deal will be.
Fotis Vlachos (IOCC-Apostoli coordinator of the refugee response program) explains how the EU authorities have adopted a very strict approach, essentially saying ‘before we know who the refugee is, they must be held in camps, so-called hotspots, for identification and registration’. It becomes clear that many of these hotspots really function as detention centres for an indefinite period of time.
In its article the WCC notes that when refugees first started arriving in Greece “local churches and parishioners were the first responders. They offered food, clothing and other support to the refugees.”
“Since the EU-Turkey agreement came into effect, however, almost all volunteer workers and non-governmental organizations have left the islands in protest against the harsh treatment of refugees”, says Foteini Koutsotheodorou, project officer in Samos. “Before, the refugees could be seen in the streets here in Samos, and in the port. Now they are all locked inside the hotspot.”
Only with complications can churches now access the “hotspots” and provide refugees with help and support. “It changes from day to day. If you arrive at the hotspot on a day when there have been tensions inside, you will not be let in. If you arrive on a calm day, the police officers who run the camp will tell you that you can enter.”
The negative implications of detention has been highlighted by agencies for years. “The three largest hotspots [in Greece] (Lesvos, Chios and Samos) rapidly exceeded their intended capacity and became overcrowded. Conditions of detention deteriorated, with poor quality food, insufficient shelter, poor sanitation and inadequate access to appropriate medical care”, the Council of Europe writes.
WCC reports that refugees have protested against their living conditions, and some have even broken out of the hotspot – not to escape but to buy food for their children; they returned back at night.
“It seems that the EU has decided refugees must be kept behind bars, with no freedom of movement. Until there is a decision on where they should be resettled, they cannot be moved from the camp”, said Jan Henrik Swahn, a Swedish volunteer.
“One of the challenges for us now”, says Mr Vlachos, “is to convince refugees that their best option is to apply for asylum here in Greece. This will allow them a chance to start a new life as soon as possible. At the same time, the realities we see suggest that even after they apply for asylum, the refugees will be stuck in these camps for possibly 1-3 months before they can be resettled”.
“One of the problems in staying too long in the hotspot is that they have not been built for long-term hosting, but basically for a few days’ survival as the registration process takes place. When you stay in the hotspot for several weeks, or even months, the food is experienced as insufficient, and lack of information becomes a source of frustration”, he added.
WCC’s visit to the Greek Islands reveals a large amount of unanswered questions and a dire situation for refugees. The resources national and international agencies have are not put to use and volunteers are left to wonder what to do with their time.
Read the full article by WCC here.