An unusual wave of cold weather in the first week of January 2017 exposed the stark deficiencies of Greece’s asylum seeker policy. Camps housing tens of thousands people seeking refuge from war were hit by snow and freezing rain, with residents exposed to sub-zero temperatures and arctic winds.
The winter crisis made headlines worldwide. It left no doubt of the fact that ten months after the EU-Turkey agreement led to a stark decrease in migrant flows to the country, Greece is still struggling to cope with the asylum challenge.
Substantial funding has been made available to deal with the migration emergency, both directly to relevant ministries and to international NGOs.
According to a recent European Commission report, Greece has received €295 million out of a total of €861 million earmarked for the Europe-wide refugee crisis. Of this €295 million, at least half has been given directly to international organisations. But it’s not working.
Greece’s impossible task
Greece is currently facing a Sisyphean task. It must first provide appropriate first reception conditions for asylum seekers, including accommodation, health care, and schooling for children. And it must also speed up relocation of these refugees to other EU countries – 4,455 people had been relocated by the end of October 2016.
Finally, it must process the claims of those who arrived after the EU-Turkey deal was struck in March 2016, with a view to returning them to Turkey. Currently, asylum committees find most of the claims admissible and hence able to be processed in Greece.
According to data released by the Greek government, the Greek islands have a nominal capacity of 8,375 places; they currently host nearly 10,000 asylum seekers, exceeding their capacity by 25%. The same figures show that camps in northern Greece are half empty while those around Athens are full.
While overcrowding on the islands has been signaled since the summer, it was the lack of winter facilities that attracted media attention as refugees were literally left in the cold to face appalling conditions. But beyond the immediate relief of living conditions on the islands, the main problem remains the actual processing of asylum applications.
How we got here
The EU asylum system has so far been predicated on two principles. The first is a watertight distinction between asylum seekers – people fleeing persecution or conflict, violence and insecurity – and irregular migrants, who are in search of a better life and work opportunities.
The second principle is enshrined in the Dublin Regulation, which requires that asylum claims should be processed in their first country of arrival.
The Mediterranean migration emergency of 2015-2016 has effectively dismantled both principles.
Travelling mainly from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands in the Aegean sea and also from Libya to Lampedusa or Sicily, more than a million people arrived on the coasts of southern Europe in 2015. A further 390,000 arrived in 2016.
The two corridors catered for different nationalities: Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fled their war-torn homes using the Turkey-Greece route. While the Libya-Italy route has mostly been used by Eritreans, Nigerians, Somalis and other Sub-Saharan Africans, presenting a more varied mix of people with strong protection and work-related motivations.
The line drawn between asylum and migration, the first principle of EU asylum seeker policy, has become increasingly blurred as different groups of people travel along the same routes and use the same smuggling networks to cross the EU’s external borders unlawfully.
The sheer number of people arriving has led to the de facto suspension of the first safe country principle.
Categories of suffering
Since the EU-Turkey deal was struck, the number of migrants arriving via the Greek route has sharply declined. But that still leaves a clogged application queue in Greece, which has a financial crisis of its own to manage.
Greek asylum law was reformed in April 2016 to make the EU-Turkey Joint Statement operable in Greek territory. The law reform basically created an exceptional asylum regime at border areas.
As Solidarity Now reports, Syrians’ applications for asylum are given priority but are only examined for their admissibility – notably on whether they could have applied for asylum in Turkey. If the answer to this last question is yes, they are judged inadmissible.
The applications of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian nationals (admittedly relatively few) are given priority and examined on merit. Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians, by contrast, have to wait for months for any processing of their application.
This categorisation testifies to a nationality principle applied tacitly by the Greek asylum authorities: the “easy” cases are processed first; Syrians can be returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey statement. Pakistani, Bangladeshi and North Africans – considered to be “economic migrants” – can also be sorted out and repatriated swiftly.
Meanwhile, in the case of Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians, where a real examination of the merits of the application is necessary, people are left waiting in difficult living conditions with little information on their future prospects.
The difficult living conditions and, most of all, the fear of a possible return to Turkey have led to tensions that erupted in violent protests and fires on the islands in November 2016. For Greek citizens (and perhaps for a wider EU audience), such violence is difficult to understand.
It is oiling the wheels of far-right movements, justifying their xenophobic violence against migrants and refugees.
The way forward
What’s the way out of the asylum crisis? We need a dispassionate analysis of the situation to disentangle the challenges faced by all sides: the government, civil society organisations (both of whom are accused of receiving large sums of money and not delivering), and asylum seekers themselves.
While substantial steps forward have been made in terms of moving asylum seekers out of the camps and into apartments (7,715) and hotels (10,721), and despite the efforts to integrate children in Greek schools, the long-term perspective is still lacking.
The time is ripe for channeling emergency funds into long-term integration programmes for the asylum-seeking population in Greece. Money spent on equipping camps for winter, purchasing containers or for cash distribution would be better invested in employment and entrepreneurship or self-help schemes. This would provide ready work and effective integration for refugee families.
Relocation is a mirage: Greece is most likely to be the final destination for most people.
Asylum seekers can become an engine for social innovation and economic growth in a crisis-stricken but resilient Greek society that has shown significant solidarity and very little xenophobia in these past two years.
The question of how to reform the Dublin system remains, but we can at least create a future for the 60,000 people who are currently stuck in Greece. That could provide a source of inspiration and help prove to the EU that solidarity is the way to go.