PRO ASYL: The misery and suffering of refugees on the Aegean islands must end immediately
Two years on and the European Union (EU) is still celebrating the toxic refugee ‘deal’ with Turkey as a success. But what ‚works‘ mainly about the ‚deal‘ is not the number of returns to Turkey but the creation of suffering and misery for refugees stranded on the Greek islands that deter new arrivals.
Since 20 March 2016, dramatic images in the islands’ hotspots are shaping the public debate. Tents in the mud, dire reception conditions, deaths linked to the living conditions, attempted suicides and a significant impact upon the mental and physical health of refugees.
The geographic restriction imposed on refugees arriving on the Greek islands has produced a miserable reality for refugees living in the EU hotspots, stretched the limits of local societies and contributed significantly to xenophobic and racist responses.
Administrative and structural deficiencies as well as complex asylum »admissibility« procedures adopted to facilitate the implementation of the ‚refugee deal‘, have been contributing factors to the intolerable human misery that is prevalent in the island refugee camps.
Reception conditions have never been appropriate and lack of safety is the norm including serious allegations such as sexual and gender based violence against women and girls.
The asylum process has often been problematic following the introduction of a fast-track border procedure, EASO’s (European Asylum Support Office) involvement and the problematic interpretation of the ’safe third country‘ concept. Given hotspots have functioned over the limit of their capacity, reality has imposed itself on national and European policy and as a result people rendered as vulnerable have been transferred to the mainland. The number and rate of transfers however remain a cause of concern as a large number of individuals continue to be trapped on the islands in degrading conditions.
This leads to the conclusion that the implementation of the EU-Turkey ‚deal‘ has created a filter that delays people while trapping them into an inhuman reality in order to produce a deterrence effect for refugees at the external borders of the European Union.
Meanwhile European and national authorities have struggled to keep this toxic ‚deal‘ alive politically and legally. They have insisted on this by utilising any means at their disposal and by demonstrating severe disregard for the rule of law and the EU asylum acquis itself.
National and European authorities have manipulated legal provisions and politicised the Greek asylum system to an intolerable extent in order to guarantee the viability of the deal. Indicators to this dynamic have been visible since very early on.
In June 2016, the then Greek Minister for Migration Policy proposed an amendment that would alter the composition of the Asylum Appeals Committees, after it had become evident that they were not willing to comply with pressures to produce inadmissible decisions and thus serve the momentum of the EU-Turkey deal.
Following the change in the composition of the Committees and after the first inadmissible decisions were produced, refugee rights lawyers challenged the EU-Turkey-deal before the Greek and European courts. During that time, the European and national authorities tried to create a dynamic in favour of the deal by manipulating diplomatic assurances and presenting them as guarantees that Turkey was prepared to conform to the requirements of the deal.
In April 2016, the Permanent Representative of Turkey had sent a letter to the Director-General for DG Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission where the former assured that Syrians returned to Turkey from Greece will have access to temporary protection. Another letter was send by Director-General of DG Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission to the Greek authorities in May 2016 with the purpose of facilitating the implementation of the ‚deal‘. This kind of abstract letters were routinely presented as strong evidence that Turkey is a ’safe third country‘ while an increasing bulk of evidence from independent organisations has offered evidence to the contrary. UNHCR’s decision to stay silent about the violations of basic refugee rights in the name of EU-Turkey ‚deal‘ – especially given the present regime in Turkey – should not be immune from criticism.
In September 2017, Greece’s Highest Administrative Court confirmed the Appeals Committees‘ findings on the case of two vulnerable Syrian asylum-seekers that Turkey is a ’safe third country‘ for them. The low number of individuals returned to Turkey so far (1554 by mid-February) – when compared to the damages it brought – raises questions about the success of the ‘deal’.
The supporters of the ‘deal’ warn of the impact that another massive influx will have on the stability of the European Union and the lives of the refugees trapped already on the Greek islands. What they forget is that this ‚deal‘ has already condemned thousands of people to misery, exposed vulnerable persons to risks and made the Greek islands de-facto prisons for thousands. It has also significantly undermined one of the greatest achievements of refugee protection – the Refugee Convention itself.
Refugee protection at the core of EU’s migration policy instead of deal!
- The misery and suffering of refugees on the Aegean islands – consciously brought about in the name of Europe – must end immediately.
- Before more deaths occur, it must finally be made possible for all refugees to continue their journey to the Greek mainland. Time is essential!
- However, a genuine European solution, after decent accommodation on the mainland, must include the swift opening up of safe and legal routes for refugees from Greece to Europe. It is very important that the more than five thousand stranded there must finally be granted their right to family reunification as soon as possible.