World Refugee Day: Some personal thoughts from Greece

ARTICLE

Today is World Refugee Day. A day chosen back in 2001 to honour the Geneva Convention for refugees and to remind the world of the plight of refugees worldwide. This year marks two anniversaries: the 20th World Refugee Day and the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention.

This is a good moment to reflect on the state of global and European protection of those fleeing war and persecution.

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Especially for me personally, as I recently arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece and started a new position as the Head of a programme on European Migration Policy for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. We created this new regional programme in order to better connect and strengthen refugees and migrants as well as civil society and host communities in the region including Turkey, Greece and the Western Balkans. At the same time, the idea is to give their perspectives, practical experiences and their own political ideas visibility and recognition by decision makers in the EU.

It is fair to say that currently those who are affected most by EU migration policy are not the ones who develop and decide upon relevant concepts and measures.

Looking at Greece today, I can easily see the immense impact of EU decisions – or sometimes the failure of taking decisions – on both, Greece as an EU member state but also and moreover on those arriving here in search for protection.

Same island, different reality

The first time I came to Greece in the context of the refugee situation was back in 2015. The year when the so-called “refugee crisis” began. It was December and I was accompanying the spokesperson for refugee and asylum policy of the Green group in the German parliament (Bundestag). We visited the island of Lesbos, which back then was the entry point for the many Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans, mostly expelled by destructive wars in their home countries.

Two things among many were remarkable about the island: The friendliness and supportiveness of both the people of Lesvos as well as of volunteers from around the world. The former often identified themselves with and had much empathy for the refugees, often because of their own family history of flight and the latter were pouring into the island out of solidarity and a desire to help. From search and rescue at sea, to food provision, to clowns in UNHCR tents who helped lifting up the spirit of the children -  the international solidarity was impressive as well as the lack of proper state response by most EU member states.

Back then, the average amount of time migrants would spend on the island before moving to the mainland and continuing their way through the so-called Balkan route was 48 hours. That was before the border closures in the Balkans and before the EU-Turkey agreement. When I was on Lesbos in 2019 for the second time, Moria camp was already the infamous place, which migrants ended up referring to as “hell” and by then people in search for protection would spend years there under inhuman conditions without much of a prospect. Most of the volunteers were gone by then, so was the initial hospitality of the islanders. The situation was not considered an exceptional emergency anymore, but a self-created mess, which was meant to have a deterring effect on potential newcomers.

Accordingly, the current Greek government does not show much interest in improving the situation of the people but rather focuses on the reduction of the number of arrivals. However, one has to keep in mind, that it was the EU agreement with Turkey, which turned the EU hotspots on the Aegean islands into dead ends for thousands of people and specifically vulnerable refugees.

“No more Morias” easier said than done

When the European Commission presented its proposal for a long overdue reform of the EU Common Asylum System last autumn (2020) they claimed there shall be “no more Morias”. Looking at their proposal for border procedures, I can only see new and potentially even worse Moria camps on the horizon. The Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum focuses rather on returns and border management than on those in real need of a focus: the refugees and migrants themselves.

It’s telling that those who allegedly started the fires, which burnt down Moria camp last year – three of them children by the time of the arrest – were recently sentenced to 10 years in jail by a Greek court without a fair trial. In the absence of common European solutions conservative governments such as the Greek one tend to take matters in hand themselves – with fatal consequences for people on the move, but often also for the most affected local communities.

The Greek government recently decided to designate Turkey to be a save third country for nationals of five specific countries. This will affect two thirds of asylum applications in Greece, meaning that the majority of those reaching Greece can and most probably will be sent back to Turkey without any further processing of their asylum claim. Besides the Greek authorities successfully dropped the number of arrivals to Greece by pushing people back in breach of EU and international law. Pushbacks at the sea or land border with or without involvement of the EU border agency Frontex have been recorded over and over again. These pushbacks were recently condemned by the UN Special Rapporteur on The Human Rights of Migrants, who ordered Greek prosecutors to investigate 147 such cases. At the same time, Northern EU member states complained about Greece. Not because of the illegal pushbacks risking thousands of people’s life, as one could assume, but because of ‘secondary movements’ from Greece to their territory.

Therefore, when we celebrate World Refugee Day and the 1951 Refugee Convention we are right to celebrate the achievements of the international community; but we may not forget, that the convention and its core values are under severe stress these days and unfortunately not just in Greece. We in Europe cannot ignore what is happening at our external borders. But it’s probably far too simple to just blame those front states as well. We all need to step up efforts if we want to fill the convention with life.