Posts Tagged 'unhcr'

An island between tragedy and hope on the refugee trail

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By Nick Malkoutzis and Harry van Versendaal

More than 90,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on Samos this year as they flee war and destitution. It is three times as many people as those who live on this sleepy eastern Aegean island, which has been thrust into the frontline of global events. An informal network of local officials, volunteers and NGO workers has been created to support the arrivals, who often have a tragic story to tell but are always hoping that Samos represents the start of a better life.

The beach

A small empty bottle of children’s medicine, an open bottle of ayran (a Turkish yogurt drink), a colorful Ben 10 school bag, a pristine Iranian passport and dozens of fake orange life vests. These are among the items strewn across Kedros beach on the eastern Aegean island of Samos on a rainy November day. This is the detritus of the largest influx of refugees and migrants from the nearby Turkish coast that this island of less than 33,000 inhabitants has seen since the Asia Minor Greeks fled the onslaught of Turkish troops almost a century earlier.

More than 90,000 people, mostly Syrian refugees, have arrived on Samos by sea this year. This is much lower than the main Aegean gateway of Lesvos, which almost half a million people out more than 800,000 have reached in 2015, but is still several times higher than last year’s arrivals and makes Samos the third most popular of some 15 islands that have become stepping stones for refugees and migrants on their way to Central and Northern Europe, where they hope to find security and prosperity. Until they can make that onward journey, Samos will provide their first taste of the European Union for thousands of desperate people. It is here that they will be at the mercy of overburdened authorities, the vagaries of the asylum process and the kindness of strangers.

The storm the night before means that there have been no new arrivals at Kedros or elsewhere on Samos’s coastline. Instead, there is a reverential calm. The only sounds are the crunching of the large stones beneath our feet and the pitter-patter of the rain on the dozens of plastic life jackets strewn across the beach. And then, a striking sight: In a grassy clearing used to set out sun loungers for visiting tourists in the summer a large mound of fluorescent orange life jackets. An impromptu monument to the lives that the brief owners of these useless floating devices have left behind on their journey to Europe.

“There are some beaches on Samos that are completely orange – they are inaccessible by car but you can see them from the sea,” says Lieutenant Antonis Karakontis of the Hellenic Coast Guard at the port of Vathy later the same day on board the patrol boat he captains.

There are many heroes in Samos’s efforts to care for the people that head for its shores and Karakontis, clean-cut and with a gentle demeanor, is a certified one. In 2014, he and his crew received an award for rescuing a record number of people in the Aegean. They were credited with pulling 1,322 to safety during the year. Looking back at it after the unprecedented events of this year, 2014 seems a pretty routine year. “There was a steady flow of people over the last few years but it was manageable,” says Karakontis. “Suddenly, though, we had this explosion. We have responded to the situation but it caught us by surprise.”

The crossing

Karakontis says there were days during the peak of the influx in the summer and early autumn that he and his crew were rescuing around 200 people a day. The coast guard on Samos has just two patrol boats and a third, smaller special operations vessel as well as a staff of less than 70 people. Less than 20 of these serve on the boats, meaning that they have had to work around the clock in recent months.

“There have been times when we were in constant motion,” says the patrol boat skipper.

Karakontis’s work is not made tougher just by the sheer increase in numbers that he and his colleagues have to deal with but also the perilous conditions in which many of the refugees and migrants are forced to cross by the traffickers they pay to get them to what they hope will be safety.

At the closest point, Samos is less than two kilometers from Turkey – close enough for some migrants to try to swim across, according to the coast guard officer. But the Dilek Peninsula-Buyuk Menderes Delta National Park lies on the Turkish side of the strait separating the two, which means that it is not a popular route for the clandestine crossings organized by smugglers.

Instead, most migrants face a crossing of around 12 nautical miles in vessels that are ill-equipped for the journey. Kedros beach, like many others on Samos, is littered with the remnants of cheap rubber dinghies that are now manufactured specially for ferrying groups of desperate people across the Aegean. Powered by engines with a small capacity and steered by one of the migrants on board following cursory instructions by a trafficker, it takes these dinghies up to six hours to reach Samos, an agonizing experience for those on board.

“These vessels should carry no more than 10 people for safe travel,” says Karakontis. “In actual fact, though, around 60 people are put on board. We have seen up to 80 in some cases.”

To enhance their sense of security, migrants purchase cheap life jackets to wear during the crossing. Their only use, says Karakontis, is to make the people wearing them more visible as they enter Greek territorial waters or if they fall into the sea. “To put it simply, they are fake,” he says of the accessories, which are filled with sheets of water-absorbing foam. “Genuine life jackets can cost around 150 euros but these are sold for around 20 euros in Turkish shops. They are useless.”

The rescue

An unpredictable sea, overcrowded boats and terrified passengers can create a fatal mix. As his boat rocks gently in Vathy’s harbor, Karakontis takes out a mobile device and plays a recording of a rescue on August 19 east of Samos, one of several this year in which he and his crew encountered tragedy. They approached a dinghy carrying more than 50 people and started to help them onto the patrol vessel. In the confusion and panic, as people of all ages scrambled onto the coast guard boat, nobody paid much attention to a pale child nestled in the arms of an adult.

However, once on board, someone asks about the whereabouts of a child. “The baby, where is the baby?” says Karakontis as he spins around the deck of his boat, which is now full of bewildered migrants. A man brings forward the child in his arms. It is now clear why the little girl is pale and listless. “The baby died,” someone says.

Seeing her lifeless body, Karakontis shouts to his fellow coast guard at the wheel to set off for Samos immediately. “Get going quickly,” he shouts. “Leave now!” But it is already too late. The coast guard officers try to revive the child but they cannot help her. A few minutes later, when they reach land, they hand over her dead body.

The coast guard officer explains that often because the dinghies are so overcrowded and the situation on board is so confused, small children become separated from their parents and are shoved to the bottom of the dinghies, where they can drown, suffocate or be trampled to death. This is how the young girl in the video died, according to Karakontis. She lost her life in the middle of the Aegean without ever having been into the sea.

The lieutenant has been a picture of composure but viewing the rescue again, there is a sense this has slipped a little. His brow furrows for the first time and there are traces of perspiration even though night has fallen and there is a chill in the air.

He admits that his crew has seen some traumatic sights over the last few months and that psychologists come in from time to time to speak to the coast guard officers and help them deal with the fallout from their jobs.

“I try to leave it behind when I leave work,” says Karakontis. “If I carry it home with me, it will definitely wear me down.” He underlines, though, that he would be no use to the people he is tasked with saving if he could not shut out the emotionally gnawing effects of what he experiences in the Aegean.

“You have to be strong at that moment and not let emotions take over,” he says. “Those people, who are already in a confused state, are relying on me to keep it together. A life’s been lost but more will die if you are not focused.”

The drowning

To avoid detection, traffickers often send boats across from Turkey at night, creating the most difficult conditions for rescuers and the most horrifying for the migrants.

“They are frightened,” says Karakontis, describing what state he usually finds the migrants in. “Often it is night and they don’t know where they are going or how to steer the boats. As soon as they see us, the first thing that they do is lift their babies over their heads to show that they need help.”

It was on such a night crossing on October 29 that Kamiran Issa, a 38-year-old father of three from Al-Qamishli, a city of some 200,000 people located in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey, tried to get his family to Greece.

After spending 10 years working in Damascus because of a lack of jobs in Al-Qamishli, the Syrian Kurd returned to his home city and gathered his family.

“I couldn’t find work so I needed to leave because I had three children to look after,” he says, speaking through an interpreter, as he sits on the edge of a bed in the Samos hospital where his wife, Sanna, is being treated.

“Also, the presence of Daesh (ISIS) and the daily explosions made it dangerous,” he adds. “We wanted to save ourselves, to get away from these problems.” The five-member family traveled to Turkey and then followed the well-worn route to one of its coastal cities from where traffickers arrange to send people across the Aegean. Issa, a gaunt man, aged beyond his years, says he did not know much about Greece, the country that he hoped would be his springboard to safety, or about where he was crossing to.

“I had a look at the map but couldn’t understand much,” he says. “The traffickers just told us we would reach a Greek island and then go to Athens, like everyone else.”

The construction worker was offered spots on a wooden tourist boat that had been appropriated for the clandestine transfer of refugees and migrants. This appeared a safer option to him than being crammed on a rubber dinghy.

The family felt so comfortable about the prospect that the day before they were due to sail, Issa took photos of his children on board the boat with his mobile phone. He scrolls through the pictures as the sunlight streams in through the large hospital room window. There is a picture of his sons behind the wheel of the rusty brown-colored vessel, then of his youngest child – 5-year-old Shiban – sitting on a stool at a hotel bar. The photos have the relaxed look of holiday snaps. Then Issa’s finger slides across his phone screen and, holding it gingerly, he shows us the next picture. It is of Shiban’s grave on the Greek island of Kos.

His wife, dressed all in black and wracked by grief, begins to sob softly. His two surviving sons, 11-year-old Khoshyar and 9-year-old Hamber, lean in toward their father and look down at the blue linoleum floor.

Issa explains that more than 200 people were packed onto the tourist boat. “If there weren’t so many of us on board, this wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “The traffickers don’t care about human life. These people don’t think of anyone, not even little children.”

According to the 38-year-old, a Turkish Coast Guard vessel approached the migrant boat and circled it several times in an apparent attempt to force the trafficker captaining the vessel to turn back. However, this caused waves that threatened to capsize the tourist boat.

Issa says the Turkish Coast Guard only backed off when a Greek patrol boat appeared on the scene as the vessel carrying the migrants had apparently entered Greek waters. The migrant boat only managed to progress around 200 meters before it capsized, said the Syrian Kurd.

According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, the boat sank off Kalymnos, south of Samos, at around 11 p.m. on October 29. Apart from several Hellenic Coast Guard boats and a Super Puma helicopter, the EU border agency Frontex also contributed vessels and aircraft to the rescue operation. They recovered 19 bodies from the shipwreck.

In the sheer terror of events, Issa lost his family. He only found one of his sons the day after the rescue before later discovering that Shiban had died. His name was added to those of some 600 people that have died trying to reach Greece this year.

“We have suffered one injustice after the other,” says the tearful father of the tragedy that has blighted his attempt to haul his family away from an ever more dangerous situation in his homeland.

The mood is lifted when a nurse comes to check on Sanna. The young boys’ eyes light up as they see her. She says that they have struck up an affinity while their mother has been undergoing treatment. The nurse, who did not wish to be named, pulls out a marker from her pocket and draws a heart on the back of one of the boys’ hands, eliciting a broad smile from the youngster.

“Those eyes,” she says, looking at the two boys, whose good manners have impressed staff at the hotel where the UNHCR has put up Issa and his sons while his wife recovers. “Ah, those eyes.”

The asylum process

The laborer hopes that his journey will soon continue to Germany, where his sister already lives. He has had to abandon plans for the family to join his wife’s sister in Switzerland because it is not part of the European Union relocation scheme for refugees.

Once his wife is discharged from hospital, the family will be able to travel to Athens, where they will wait to be relocated. The family reunion scheme, allowing refugees to be granted asylum in countries where they already have family, is usually reserved only for the closest relatives. However, the criteria have been relaxed as a result of the war in Syria. Also, the loss of one of their children may give the Issa family a higher probability of being able to join their relatives in Germany.

The vast majority of people who have arrived in Greece by sea this year are Syrians (57 percent of around 825,000 arrivals). The Greek government has instructed authorities since 2013 that Syrians should not be sent back to their country. In fact, most have traveled on to Central and Northern Europe after being registered in Greece. In November, though, the EU agreed to transfer over the next two years 66,400 refugees from Greece under a new relocation scheme.

This means that in comparison to Afghans, who make up 24 percent of arrivals but are not all eligible for refugee status, and others who are deemed to be economic migrants rather than asylum seekers, the process for Syrians is slightly more straightforward.

“The asylum process can be much quicker for Syrians,” says Alkistis Mavraki, a senior protection assistant for the UNHCR, who points out that Afghans are not eligible for the EU’s relocation program.

Mavraki says Syrians can typically get the paperwork they need to leave the island within a couple of days, whereas others can wait up to two weeks.

Syrians are not only greater in number but usually more affluent than other migrants and some local businesses, mainly hotels and restaurants, have benefited from their presence. A number of tavernas along the promenade in Vathy now sport menus in Arabic, while one establishment known for making a tripe-based Greek soup known as patsas, has been transformed into the alcohol-free Syrian Resort, serving Arabic food.

However, there is a physical, as well as notional, separation between Syrians and the others who arrive on the island. Syrians are taken to the camp that has been created at the port of Malagari which is on the opposite side of the bay to Vathy, where a number of aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have set up facilities, while the non-Syrians are assigned to a camp that sits on the tree-lined hillside above Vathy, further away from amenities and island life.

Until recently, the camp for non-Syrians had operated as a detention center but when authorities found they were unable to guarantee daily meals for the migrants, the decision was taken to make it an open facility. As a result, it is common to see young Afghans and other groups of migrants wind their way down the hill to Vathy in search of a meal or a way to pass the time while they wait for the paperwork that will allow them to move on. They can be seen gathering in the small squares, whiling away time perched on wooden benches, or sitting on the wall of the recently revamped promenade gazing at the sea.

One place offering them assistance is the Allilegii (Solidarity) charity, which is run by volunteers. Their base is a small building, or “spitaki” (little house) as they call it, in front of the town hall in Vathy. There, they serve a hot meal to all-comers and collect food and other goods for distribution to the migrants on the island.

Afghans can also find a friendly face there in the form of Yones Rahimi, who is from Afghanistan but has been living on Samos for 11 years. Rahimi leaves his job as a construction worker each afternoon and goes by the communal house to help out before going home to rest.

He was 18 when fled his homeland to escape the Taliban and can recognize the trepidation felt by many of his young countrymen passing through Samos. “They are coming in search of a better life,” he says soon after helping serve homemade bean soup to a number of Afghans on a cold Friday night. “They want to escape death in Afghanistan.”

Rahimi says that Germany and Sweden are the most popular destinations for the Afghans he speaks to even though both countries have started to adopt stricter policies and, in Germany’s case, started to repatriate Afghans. Rahimi says Afghans tell him they fail to understand why Syrians appear to be dealt with more swiftly, allowing them to leave Samos sooner.

“They ask why the Syrians are getting such help when Afghans have been experiencing war for 40 years,” says Rahimi.

The camps

Bismillah, Aasif and Jalil, three young friends from the city of Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, have a very clear idea of where they want to go. Bismillah has relatives in Norway and he and his friends will attempt to reach them as soon as they can.

“We know the way,” says the cheerful 18-year-old, who explains the trio are spending their time wandering around Vathy and going online at Internet cafes until they get their registration papers.

They ask if banks are open on weekends because Bismillah’s relatives in Norway are wiring them money to help them pay for their journey. They estimate they will have to spend a couple of weeks on Samos before being able to continue making their way to Norway on their own.

The teenager and his friends say they are fleeing fighting in the Ghazni province, whose capital of some 150,000 inhabitants came under attack from Taliban insurgents in mid-October, soon after they had occupied the city of Kunduz, scoring their biggest military victory in more than a decade.

Bismillah hopes to be able to study at university when he reaches Norway. The idea brings a smile to his face. He jokes with his friends, and they show none of the fatigue or concern that is visible on the faces of so many other refugees and migrants. The three do not seem concerned about the possibility that, as Afghans, they might not be granted asylum or allowed to stay in the country of their choice.

For the time being, they can just look down from the – now open – facility on the hillside and watch the passenger ferries from Piraeus arrive and leave, usually with dozens of Syrians on board. Bismillah says the situation in the camp, a former army firing range, is “not bad” but that there are fights between migrants sometimes.

On this rainy Saturday morning, though, there are no signs of tension. People’s only goal is to get some breakfast, which is being handed out by volunteers from Allilegii. Policemen look on from their office as the volunteers, a mixture of locals and Germans and Dutch who live on the island, unpack their cars and set out the items for breakfast: Milk, cereal, prepackaged croissants, mandarins and bananas.

The tables are placed under an awning with an aluminum roof to stop them from getting wet. For the migrants, though, there is no cover. They start to queue in the rain, some wearing white anoraks handed out by aid organizations but others with no protection at all, some even wearing flip-flops. Dozens join the line, which starts to snake around the prefabricated buildings that make up the camp and a basketball court, in which some migrants have pitched tents.

Despite the conditions and the long wait, the mood is calm. Children are allowed to collect their breakfast first. A few adults try to push their way to the front but are sent back by fellow migrants or one of the volunteers, local man Nikitas Kyparissis, who keeps one eye on those lining up and another on his fellow helpers, whom he encourages to be methodical and quick in their work.

They are men and women who came to Samos to retire or for a more relaxed way of life. Instead, they find themselves at the forefront of the greatest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War, filling plastic cups with pasteurized milk and cereal and handing out fruit.

Kyparissis says he has seen a change in the attitude of many people on Samos with regard to helping refugees and migrants. “I’ve noticed that the more difficult, the more terrible the situation, the more people grit their teeth and rush to help.”

Most migrants walk away satisfied, throwing out a “thank you” or a “merci” and brandishing a smile as they embrace the items they have been given and look for shelter from the rain so they can have their breakfast. But maintaining a good pace and fairness, as some of the migrants ask for a second helping, proves a challenge. It is difficult for volunteers to deny the wishes of people who have abandoned all their possessions and now stand before them wet, cold and hungry. But showing extra kindness to one person means another may be denied breakfast or have to wait longer in inclement conditions.

The team of volunteers manages to just about hold things together to feed several hundred of the camp’s temporary residents. But as they carry the leftovers back to their cars, they are crowded by some of the migrants. One man asks for cartons of milk for his baby, others want to take croissants from the black bin liner in which they are being carried. For a moment, the situation threatens to get out of control but the food is quickly bundled into the car and the pleading migrants walk back toward the camp.

It is a situation that the volunteers have not been trained to handle and is an example of why filling that gap that has been left by authorities unable to fulfill this role takes a psychological toll on those who rush to help.

“Sometimes you have to be the bad guy,” says Kyparissis, who runs a small folklore museum on the island. “I don’t like it and that’s why I stopped volunteering for a while. Each person has to take his turn in playing this role.”

The camp is designed for around 250 people but on this November weekend it houses some 650, according to the local police. Numbers have dropped significantly since the peak period for arrivals between the summer and October, when as many as 1,200 people were housed at the facility. Tents of many different colors are dotted around the olive grove outside the camp, a sign of when the facility did not have enough space to house the people arriving on Samos. Even now that the camp is less crowded and the weather has worsened, some migrants prefer the privacy of the tents to the impersonal nature of the camp.

There are no such tents at the camp for Syrians at Malagari port, where the UNHCR has assembled dozens of flat-pack shelters to house refugees as they wait to get their paperwork and board ferries to Piraeus. First trialed in Somalia and Syria in 2013, the so-called Better Shelter provides 17.5 square meters of living space, which can comfortably fit up to six people.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA started producing 10,000 of these shelters for the UNHCR earlier in 2015. They are designed to be assembled within four hours without specialized tools.

On a sunny Sunday morning at Malagari, workmen are putting the finishing touches to some of the shelters. The storm the night before has made it even more imperative that the structures are ready as soon as possible.

For now, though, the mood at the camp is peaceful. Youngsters play in a large Red Cross tent, where Arabic children’s music plays in the background. Kids’ toys are littered around the camp, washed socks are hung out to dry on the perimeter fence and, underlining the relaxed atmosphere, a group of men sit on the ground in a circle, talking in the winter sunshine.

Workers from a plethora of NGOs and charities that have set up tents at the port mingle among the refugees and migrants, ready to provide assistance. A young couple and their child stroll in front of the camp’s medical center, where people can have a checkup and receive donated medicines. The police officers at the camp have no new refugees to register and spend their time sitting in plastic chairs outside their hut and chatting.

The police say there are less than 150 people at the camp at the moment, as dozens left on a ferry a couple of days earlier and there has been a low number of new arrivals in recent days.

The authorities

The fall in the number of arrivals has coincided with authorities increasing their levels of organization. Speaking in a bare office at the precinct in Vathy, police chief Vassilis Reppas says that after being caught unprepared by the magnitude of the influx earlier this year, authorities are now getting to grips with the challenge of managing the situation.

“The influx was massive and sudden, which made it difficult to manage,” he says.

On December 10, the European Commission said it had begun legal action against Greece, as well as Croatia and Italy, for failing to fingerprint asylum seekers and register their details in the EU-wide database within 24 hours. According to Brussels, almost half a million people arrived in Greece between July 20 and November 30 but Greek authorities only fingerprinted about 121,000 of them.

Greek authorities insist that the situation has improved significantly in recent weeks. The Foreign Ministry said on December 11 that in November Greece registered 51,300 refugees out of a total of 54,000 registrations carried out at so-called hot spots throughout Europe.

Reppas says that a shortage of staff made it difficult for authorities to get on top of the situation. He says there are around 180 officers on the island, including some 20 who have been transferred there as reinforcements, but that this is still about 80 short of the numbers the force is meant to have under normal conditions.

“Developments mean we need to have a strong presence,” says Reppas.

“Our focus is on registering people, ensuring we have their biometric data and fingerprints,” says policeman Costas Tsagarakis. “We’re trying our best to ensure that there aren’t delays because, as you can understand, when the migratory flow is so intense you can lose control of the situation if there are delays.”

The arrival of eight officers from the EU border agency Frontex has helped matters and the local police have been working with them since September to electronically fingerprint new arrivals using machines that enter the details into the EU’s Eurodac database.

“They are a great help,” says the police chief.

Tsagarakis underlines the need for authorities to improve their organization further, especially if a lull in arrivals provides an opportunity for some clear thinking before they pick up again.

“It’s an issue of coordinating a lot of actors, not just the police but also local authorities and ferry companies: A lot of people are involved in this,” says the policeman.

However, he also stresses that extra manpower and facilities are needed to deal with the crisis effectively.

“You have to complete the administrative work quickly, which means you need people to do this work, which involves taking fingerprints, registering people and keeping order in the areas where this process is carried out,” says the mild-mannered officer.

“You need somewhere for people to stay while they wait for this process to be completed, you have to ensure that you have enough places on ferries.”

The need for more assistance is also something that Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulos wants to stress. He says that his island is fighting an uneven battle against a multi-million-euro trafficking industry on the other side of the Aegean.

“The Municipality of Samos, along with international organizations and volunteers provide around 4,000 free meals a day but right opposite us, across the sea, the revenues from trafficking exceed 3.3 million dollars a day,” he says.

Refugees and migrants can pay up to around 1,000 euros for a place on a dinghy to cross the Aegean. If traffickers pack them with more than 50 people at a time, it is clear that huge profits can be made each day.

Angelopoulos, a lawyer by profession, says that the number of refugees reaching Samos this year has increased by more than 600 percent compared to 2014, putting a severe strain on resources. He gives the example of municipal sanitation teams having to collect seven times as much trash as they did last year.

At the same time, Turkey is not keeping to its commitments under its readmission agreement with the EU, the mayor argues. He quotes Foreign Ministry figures that state Greece made 470 requests to return 9,351 people to Turkey in 2014 but Ankara only ended up accepting six people.

The mayor suggests that although the EU has been slow to respond to the problem, the Greek government also needs to provide more assistance and better coordination.

“The problem is European in the sense that it touches on the Union and its treaties, but it also has a uniquely Greek dimension in terms of the impact,” says Angelopoulos as he sits on the edge of his chair in the 19th-century neoclassical building that houses the town hall in Vathy. “The Portuguese man in Coimbra does not feel the same impact from this issue as the Greek who lives on Samos, Lesvos or Agathonisi.

“I hear the constant argument that Europe must solve this problem. And what happens if Europe doesn’t solve the problem?”

Angelopoulos, who is also leading a campaign for Samos to be named European Capital of Culture for 2021, points out that Athens has failed to set up the managing authorities needed to manage the EU funds available for tackling the refugee crisis. He says that despite the fiscal constraints the government finds itself under due to Greece’s bailout program, money must be found for more staff, such as psychologists, on the island. He also proposes the creation of a body designed to coordinate actions on the islands affected by the migratory flows, which should meet once a month.

However, until European and Greek authorities take decisive action, local officials like Angelopoulos, Reppas, Tsagarakis and even coast guard officer Karakontis will rely on the help of volunteers to make their tasks a little easier. Dozens of volunteer organizations, some based on the work of local people and others who have brought manpower in from abroad, are active on Samos.

The Swedish Sea Rescue Society is one of the recent additions to the range of organizations helping out on the island. The NGO dispatched two 12-meter boats to Samos in October to help with search and rescue operations. They are manned by rotating teams of volunteers from Sweden who each spend two weeks on the Aegean island.

Karakontis says the high-speed boats, which operate under the direction of the local coast guard, have been a significant addition as they are designed to go out in worse conditions than the Greek vessels.

There are so many groups active on the island that the mayor would like to create a registration and permit process to ensure that authorities are aware of who is doing what. However, he says their overall impact has been distinctively positive.

“In small communities, volunteer groups can fill gaps and encourage altruism,” says Angelopoulos. “In my view, however, the help offered by local people is also an existential response in these difficult times: I contribute, therefore I am.”

“Some NGOs and volunteers play a really positive role, especially in feeding people,” says policeman Tsagarakis, who acts as a liaison officer with such groups. “Any actions that can help make people’s stay better is welcome.”

One of the most dynamic volunteer groups on the islands are the Friendly Humans. Two Danish women, Bettina Espersen and Janne Westergaard, who live on Samos, set up the group in July, when the situation on the island was “dire.” Their initial aim was to provide breakfast to refugee children and they started going around Vathy with rucksacks handing out sandwiches they had prepared in their own kitchens.

However, the group grew into something much bigger very quickly. They created a network of some 300 people via Facebook and suddenly members started holding bake sales in Denmark to help raise money. Others came to Samos from various parts of the world to offer their assistance. Some offered money so Friendly Humans could buy the equipment they needed, such as a refrigerator to store donated medicines before they were handed over to the doctor at the refugee camp.

The group also received some of the aid flown over by tour operator Sunvil on its last flight of the season to Samos in early October. The agency gathered 5 tons of donations, including clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and had to split the load over two flights. Friendly Humans helped distribute much of this.

Within weeks of being founded, the group became a vital link between the local community, the NGOs and the volunteers operating on Samos. They started receiving donations of clothes, as well as food, and the local office of the Northern Aegean Regional Authority allowed the group to use a large basement in its building to coordinate its activities.

This area is now a hive of activity and relentless positive energy. On a Friday evening on the island, Espersen and Westergaard coordinate volunteers from a number of different countries. Dolores, a retiree from Switzerland, sweeps up amid the dozens of bags of donated clothes that have piled up in the basement as others from Italy and the USA draw up a schedule of tasks on a whiteboard and sort out the clothes according to type and size so they are ready for distribution. The two Danes stand next to crates of sandwiches that have been prepared for handing out at the refugee camp on Saturday morning.

“We’ve had great help from local people, even if they don’t have much,” says Espersen. “They’ll bring some milk, some ingredients for sandwiches.”

Espersen says that local schools have begun to bring children to see how the group works and to help out. The island’s youngsters have become accustomed over the last few months to the idea of assisting the migrants and refugees that arrive on Samos. “All the kids had something positive to say about their experience of helping people,” says Espersen. “This really made an impression on me.”

The two women have seen a significant increase in the contributions they are receiving from the island and around Greece since they launched their project. “The positive thing is that we’re now receiving things from all over Greece, very often from schools,” says Argyro Kyriazi, a local who volunteers regularly with the group.

The spirited pair admit that they have neglected their own families in order to dedicate themselves to Friendly Humans but say that there is an addictive quality to being able to help people that often arrive on the island in a desperate state. The reward is the gratitude they receive from those they help.

“They tell us that we’ve become brothers and sisters,” says Westergaard. “We must have many brothers now.”

As night falls in Vathy, the women return to making preparations for the next morning’s breakfast handout. The other volunteers working the night shift beneath the bright fluorescent strip lights open bags and boxes of donations to begin sorting items. One battered cardboard box contains a handwritten note from someone called Vassilis.

“Thank you for your humanity and for making us believe in hope again,” he writes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hate attacks on the rise in Greece, activists warn

By Harry van Versendaal

Racially motivated attacks have risen in number as well as intensity in Greece as authorities’ efforts to tackle the problem remain halfhearted, a network of human rights organizations has warned.

Greece, a main transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to set foot in the European Union, has seen a growing wave of xenophobia prompted by a mix of economic malaise and political disillusionment. Golden Dawn, a neofascist party that wants to kick foreigners out of the country, currently controls 18 seats in the 300-member House while polling around 11 percent in recent surveys.

A total of 154 racist attacks were recorded in 2012 by the Racist Violence Recording Network, a collection of 30 nongovernmental organizations initiated two years ago by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) that presented its 2012 report yesterday in Athens. But the actual number is believed to be a lot higher as victims are either too scared to report incidents to the police or because they are turned away.

“What we are faced with is murderous, racist violence. Its objective is no longer just to intimidate, but to cause victims,” NCHR president Kostis Papaioannou told the press briefing.

“Some people thought they did not have a dog in this fight. However, the range of attacks is growing in terms of geography as well as targets,” he said, mentioning that gay people are now also on the list of potential targets.

The report was released a week after more than 30 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers in the Peloponnese district of Manolada suffered shotgun wounds during a dispute over six months of back pay with their supervisors. The three foremen have been charged with attempted murder and illegal weapons possession and will await trial in prison custody.

Most of the documented hate attacks occurred in the Athens districts of Omonia, Aghios Panteleimonas, Attiki Square and Amerikis Square – all areas with large immigrant populations. Forty-four of the victims were asylum seekers, four were recognized refugees, 15 possessed residence permits, and 79 were unregistered, according to the report. The majority were Muslims.

Most victims were attacked in public spaces such as squares or on public transport, usually by groups of men dressed in black, and at times with military trousers, wearing helmets or with their faces covered. Several carried Golden Dawn insignia or had been spotted at public events organized by the party. Perpetrators occasionally included Albanian immigrants.

In many cases victims reported the use of weapons, such as clubs, crowbars, folding batons, chains, brass knuckles, knives and broken bottles. Assailants sometimes used large dogs.

“The victims had suffered multiple injuries,” said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, ranging from fractures and contusions to symptoms of posttraumatic stress.

Fear of attack has turned several neighborhoods in Athens into no-go areas for the capital’s immigrant population.

“People are too afraid to walk out of their home to buy bread,” said the president of the Association of Afghans United in Greece, Reza Golami.

Police involvement

Activists worryingly noted a growing involvement of police officials and public servants in racist attacks. Most such incidents, the report said, concerned duty officers who resorted to illegal acts and violent practices while carrying out routine checks.

“Many in the police force have come to view racist violence as something normal, a natural state of affairs,” Papaioannou said, adding that part of the problem is that xenophobic language has moved deep into mainstream territory.

Before the 2012 elections, Antonis Samaras, now leader of Greece’s conservative-led coalition, pledged to “reclaim” cities from the hordes of illegal immigrants.

Some of the attacks, the report said, came from public servants. Earlier this month a bus driver in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, forced two passengers to get off his bus because they were immigrants.

Experts said that many victims are reluctant to report the attacks because they lack legal documents and are therefore afraid that the police will arrest and deport them.

“Instead of investigating whether a crime has been committed, police officers rather check whether the victims have legal residence permits,” said Vassilis Papastergiou from the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees.

Activists said authorities should instead provide for the suspension of arrest and deportation decisions against victims who file a complaint. The report recommended that victims be given a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, similar to the protection awarded to victims of trafficking – a status awarded to the Manolada victims.

“We hope that the interest in these people will not last only as long as the spotlight is on Manolada,” Papaioannou said.

Pressed by human rights activists, Greece pledges to stop deportations of Syrian refugees

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greece on Wednesday pledged to halt deportations of Syrian refugees, as human rights activists called for measures to ensure that asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle Eastern state have access to Greek territory and safety.

“No Syrian refugees will be detained or returned,” Manolis Katriadakis, who is responsible for migration issues at the Ministry of Public Order, told a conference organized in Athens by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“Deportation decisions on Syrians will be suspended and reviewed every six months,” he said, adding that authorities were trying to improve access to asylum services for them.

Two years since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is estimated that more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died while tens of thousands of political prisoners remain unaccounted for. The UNHCR reckons that over 1.3 million refugees, 71 percent of whom are women and children, have fled Syria and a further 2 million have been displaced within the country as the Arab Spring-inspired protest movement degenerated into an increasingly sectarian conflict.

“The Syria situation is one of the most complex and dangerous in the world and the largest and most quickly deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the planet,” UNHCR regional refugee coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis said.

“The situation is desperate and is becoming explosive,” he said.

Greece, a key transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to sneak into the European Union, has been relatively unaffected by the Syria crisis, figures suggest.

Last year, about 8,000 Syrians were detected entering or residing in Greece illegally. A total 1,623 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first quarter of 2013. There is no official number of the Syrians living in Greece at the moment.

“Greece must remain on standby, but it is by no means faced with a [humanitarian] crisis, said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, adding that the brunt of the refugee exodus has been borne by Syria’s neighbors.

Lebanon has received an estimated 417,827 refugees while 432,263 have fled into Jordan. An estimated 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Iraq has provided refuge for 130,379 people.

Strengthened security in the Evros region, including a 10.5-kilometer barbed-wire fence along the Turkish frontier, has led to a spike in arrivals on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands only a few kilometers from the Turkish coast. Would-be immigrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars for space on a packed rubber dinghy. Dozens drown in the sea every year. Those who manage to get a foot on the ground have to deal with messy asylum and immigration systems and the growing menace of far-right thugs.

Like all other immigrants, Syrians are subject to arrest, detention, rejection of asylum, pushbacks and deportations, activists say.

In 2012, the number of Syrians granted asylum in the first instance was just two. Because of Greece’s bad reputation, most don’t even bother to apply for protection status – only 152 applications were submitted last year. Meanwhile, at least 55 have been deported since last year according to Human Rights Watch, although Greek authorities deny the allegations, saying these concerned voluntary repatriations.

“Detention is problematic and conditions are inappropriate,” Tsarbopoulos said of the overcrowded and underserviced migrant camps across the country while stressing the problems caused by the lack of interpreters and qualified interviewers to even establish if the asylum seekers are Syrians or not.

“Clearly, they are not treated the way they should be by the authorities,” he said.

Greece’s much-criticized asylum system is finally set for a revamp. In 2011 the country, which has often complained of unfair burden-sharing to its peers in the 27-member bloc, was found in breach of the Convention on Human Rights over detention conditions at immigrant camps. The new asylum system, which will not involve the police, is to go into effect on June 1, Katriadakis said.

“That will hopefully solve most of the problems,” he added.

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

Greece told to reform dysfunctional asylum system

By Harry van Versendaal

People who are at risk of suffering severe human rights abuses if they are returned to their home countries are not receiving fair consideration of their asylum claims in Greece, groups who lobby for refugees’ rights have warned, calling for urgent reform of the country’s near-defunct asylum system.

Persistent failure to overhaul Greece’s dysfunctional system for granting asylum to refugees has created a mammoth backlog of some 46,000 applications – more than 16,000 people bid for asylum last year. But only a small fraction, 0.04 percent of applicants, were granted some kind of protection in Greece compared to an average of 30 percent in countries in western Europe.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees last week urged the European Union to take immediate action to help Greece grapple with the burgeoning numbers of would-be refugees sprawling in the streets of the country – what is more at a time of rising hostility toward foreign migrants.

“This is a humanitarian crisis situation which should not exist in the European Union,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

The UNHCR appeal followed a Human Rights Watch (HRW) shaming of Greece’s Socialist government for failing to make good on its promise to finally streamline the country’s flawed asylum system.

“Despite its formal commitments, the Greek government has utterly failed to meet its most basic responsibilities to protect refugees,” said Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee program director, calling on the UN agency to step in and take over processing asylum claims.

Pattern of neglect

Human rights organizations have repeatedly slammed what they see as a pattern of incompetence and neglect.

“In practice, issues related to asylum were never high on different governments’ agendas and appointing the police to determine the status of refugees was not the most appropriate policy,” Ketty Kehayioylou, public information officer at UNHCR Greece, told Athens Plus.

“But let us look ahead of us,” she added, welcoming a recent pledge by the administration to carry out a far-reaching reform of the asylum system.

The government, which has put most of its energies into pulling the country out of a gaping fiscal hole, was expected to pass a presidential decree to introduce emergency reforms by the end of September. But the changes, designed to guarantee a fairer and more efficient examination of pending asylum applications, appear to have suffered a setback following a Cabinet reshuffle announced earlier this month by Prime Minister George Papandreou.

“The postponement of long-awaited interim fixes means that Greece is not even back to square one in the process of repairing an asylum system in need of a complete overhaul,” Frelick said.

The Citizens’ Protection Ministry recently granted asylum to six Iranian men who had been on hunger strike for several weeks in Athens in protest at long delays in the processing of their asylum bids. But it did note that recognition was granted on a one-off basis “for humanitarian reasons.”

Unfair burden

While urging Athens to accelerate reforms, the UN refugee agency and other refugee rights groups admit that Greece has been made to shoulder an unfair burden as compared to its EU peers. Under the European “Dublin II” regulations, asylum seekers found moving within the continent can be sent back to the state where they first fielded their application. The condition is highly unfavorable for cash-strapped Greece, which happens to form a particularly porous border for Europe.

“Greece is struggling to deal with what is essentially an EU problem,” said the UNHCR’s Edwards. He made an appeal to the EU “to step up its assistance to help Greece comply with its international and European obligations.”

Kehayioylou warned that, given the problems of Greece’s asylum system, persons who are sent back to Greece under Dublin II have little chance of being granted protection. “The absence of accommodation and other support for asylum seekers, as well as poor integration prospects for those who will be given refugee status, also create enormous hardships,” she told this newspaper.

“Therefore, UNHCR continues to reiterate its recommendation to other European countries not to send asylum seekers back to Greece and supports the proposal made by the Belgian presidency of the EU for a ‘temporary suspension’ for states facing significant pressures on their asylum systems,” Kehayioylou said.

EU hand

The European Commission on Monday promised debt-choked Greece financial assistance and technical know-how to reconstruct its asylum system. But even that may not be enough, as bureaucratic snags have in the past prevented Greece from fully absorbing the EU’s asylum funds.


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