Greece - an ongoing, and growing, crisis
Arrivals to Eastern Aegean islands, 1 January – 4 April 2018, inclusive
Lesvos, 3,079. Total arrivals since 30 March: 351.
Chios, 397. Total arrivals since 30 March: 220.
Samos, 1,429. Total arrivals since 30 March: 376.
Leros, 110. Total arrivals since 30 March: 1.
Kos, 553. Total arrivals since 30 March: 511.
Tilos, 0. Total arrivals since 30 March: 0.
Kastellorizo, 27. Total arrivals since 30 March: 0.
Rhodes, 15. Total arrivals since 30 March: 7
Other islands, 242. Total arrivals since 30 March: 0
Total sea arrivals since 1 January 2018: 5,907
Total sea arrivals 23-29 March: 615
Total sea arrivals since 30 March: 1055 – up 440 on 23-29 March
We decided to send this particular update now, because from a Greek perspective, there has been a remarkable trend over the past three months – a considerable increase in the number of refugees arriving in the country from the East.
While we cannot sensibly specify ‘trends’ based on a difference between two consecutive years – and while attempting to compare any previous year is significantly complicated by the fact that in 2015 and 2016 (in the latter case, particularly in the months January-March) the numbers of people who arrived in Greece from Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean coast were extraordinarily high (856,723 people arrived in the 12 months to 31 December 2015; 173,450 in the 12 months to December 2016 – 143,893 of them by 21 March, when the EU/Turkey Deal came into effect) – the numbers to have arrived so far are significantly higher; in fact 57 per cent higher, than at the same time last year.
We will attempt to offer some explanations for this notable increase, and we shall call for a response which will require a level of coordination which has, sadly, so far been somewhat lacking in this response to date.
Without it, we fear, the immediate and mid-term future could be significantly worse even than current predictions suggest.
Arrivals by the thousand, Greece via sea:
17 January (also 1,064th arrival) 24 January (also 1,036th arrival)
13 February (also 2,088th arrival) 18 February (also 2,006th arrival)
2 March (also 3,094th arrival) 20 March (also 3,036th arrival)
16 March (also 4,067th arrival) 13 April (also 4,222nd arrival)
30 March (also 5,095th arrival) 4 May (also 5,025th arrival)
As the above sequence indicates, throughout 2018, the number of men, women and children arriving by sea in Greece from the East has been consistently faster than the rate at which they arrived in 2017.
The 1,000th arrival entered a week earlier than the 1,000th person of a year before, the 2,000th five days earlier, the 3,000th 18 days (two weeks, four days) earlier, the 4,000th 28 days (four weeks) earlier and the 5,000th 35 days (five weeks) earlier.
To date (up to and including 4 April 2018), 5.907 people have arrived in Greece this year, a 57 per cent increase on the same period last year (3,762 people).
And the average number of arrivals each day also illustrate the sharp upturn. In January 2018, 1,618 people arrived in Greece by sea, or 52.19 people each day on average; in the same month of 2017, 1,313 arrived, an average arrival rate of 42.35 people per day.
In February 2018, there were 1,221 new arrivals, or 43.61 people per day, in the same month last year, 1,026 people arrived, or 36.64 per day on average.
And in March this year, 2,437 people arrived, an average of 78.61 people per day, compared to 1,314, or 42.39 per day in March 2017.
On average, so far this year, 62.84 people have arrived per day, compared to 40.02 people per day in the same period of 2017.
Nor is this period at all likely to be the busiest of the year.
In 2017, 26,169 of the 29,884 people who arrived in Greece from the East, did so between 1 April and 31 December. If the same ratio applied to this year (if slightly more than seven times as many people arrived in April-December 2018 than in January-March of the same year), we could expect 39,890 people to arrive – slightly more than 10,000 more than arrived in the whole of last year.
This would mean that at the end of 2018, 45,554 new refugees would have entered Greece, ten per cent more than entered in 2014 (41,038).
Although compared to the 11m people who already live in Greece, 45,554 is a vanishingly small number (0.04 per cent of the population – though for any UK readers, a comparison could be with Calais, where the 7,000 refugees in 2015 was just 0.01 per cent of the population, and the UK government spent £19m on a wall to keep them out, as well as sending armed police and attack dogs to stop them reaching the Eurotunnel terminal. Equally, 45,554 is just 0.009 of one per cent. If Greece can be expected to do ‘more’, the EU – including the UK – certainly can), it would be an increase of 62 per cent on the current refugee population of 74,000.
That is, Greece, with a population already overcome by debt, unemployment (still at 20.8 per cent; Spain, 16.6 per cent; Italy, 10.9 per cent. Youth unemployment is at 45 per cent) and ever-increasing prices, will be required this year to increase its refugee population by 62 per cent.
And it is not coping well at present. Despite an eight month ‘transfer programme’ designed to move refugees from the island detention centres, those camps – effectively prisons, and at which as we have reported on a number of occasions people are being forced to sleep in summer tents on concrete floors, with water and electricity available just one hour per day – are still extraordinarily overcrowded.
The Greek government claims that at present (4 April 2018) there are 8,024 people on Lesvos, more than double the island’s 3,500-person capacity for refugees. It is worth noting here that many of the aid organisations who were (and are no longer, having been removed from the islands by the Greek government when the refugee response funding from the EU ceased to be issued by ECHO and instead came through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), to the Greek government, which was supposed to distribute it – there will be more on this later in the piece) working on the islands report that in fact most official figures are significantly lower than their own ‘headcounts’ of refugees.
In any case, at Chios, the government says there are 1,683 refugees, on an island with capacity for 1,100. On Samos, 3,043 people, in a space for 850, Leros, 833, in space for 1,000, and at Kos, 1,150 in space for 1,000 people. At present, the government estimates that there are 14,822 people in spaces for 7,450 people.
Increasingly, Greece and the EU are turning towards an ‘integration’ model of responding to this crisis, though exactly how 74,000-120,000 people are supposed to ‘integrate’ when one in five people are unemployed in Greece already, is not clear and has not been set out by the Greek Migration Ministry, but in fact there is reason to believe that even if the movement of people follows exactly the same pattern as last year, we can expect an increase in the need for emergency responses to the arrival of new people.
It is very hard – under circumstances in which those who might realistically ask men, women and children why they are arriving now in greater numbers than this time last year, and at a rate higher than the 2014 ‘base-point’, and report their responses, are being prevented from accessing any of the places in which those people are forced to stay – to be absolutely certain what has led to this remarkable increase.
However, there are a few potential reasons we should consider.
1. The EU/Turkey Deal ‘is failing’/’being sabotaged’
First – because it is the ‘go-to’ response of the Greek government – we should look at claims that in some sense the Turkish government is ‘responsible’ for any increase in arrivals of refugees from Turkey.
The history between the two states has lent itself – due to the faults and failings of both, but also due to genuine historical events and to human nature – to intense suspicion from each toward the other. And this has meant that at every moment when more refugees than Greece or the EU expected to arrive in any given period, actually do arrive, Greek politicians will say it is because Turkey is ‘flexing its muscles’, to threaten Greece and the EU with a major new movement of refugees.
Most recently, on 8 November, following two months in which the total number of people to have arrived was 8,344 (4,310 in September, 4034 in October) the claim was made by Greece’s Deputy Migration Minister Ioannis Balafas who said: ‘What we are seeing is a political game. Whenever Turkey wants to put the pressure on Europe it turns on the tap and lets more [people] through.’
Remarkably – given the rivalry between the government and the main opposition Nea Demokratia party (Nea Demokratia is ten points ahead in the polls, and is following a line of blaming the government for every ill to have befallen Greece since 2008, even though it has been in power only since 2015) – he was joined by Giorgos Koumoutsakos, Nea Demokratia’s shadow minister of foreign affairs, who said: ‘If it really wanted to, Turkey could more effectively control the flows. What we are seeing, it would seem, is a reflection of Turkey’s problematic relationship with the EU.’
It must be stressed – as we did at the time – that not only is there no justification whatsoever for either of these statements, all the evidence in fact points away from Turkey as the cause – or at least as the direct cause – of increasing numbers of refugees entering Greece.
There are, of course, reasons why these fears are held, even beyond the mutual suspicion in which Greece and Turkey hold one another.
Not least is that, as we have noted here on a number of occasions, the EU has literally failed to fulfil either of the promises it made to Turkey when it set up the EU/Turkey Deal. It has so far paid just €1bn of the €6bn it promised to give Turkey between March 2016 and March 2019, despite being two-thirds of the way through the specified payment period, and it has also failed to make any progress at all towards the liberalisation of the visa process for Turkish citizens wishing to enter the EU.
There are several reasons for each, not least in the first case that the Turkish government has systematically-removed many of the international organisations to which the EU might have been expected to deliver the cash (though the Turkish government had some right to expect that when the EU said it would give the money ‘to Turkey’, that was what it meant) and in the second that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on human rights and political opposition, as well as measures to change the constitution to hand the role of President far more wide-ranging powers and make himself effective President in perpetuity will leave Turkey in direct contravention of EU regulations.
But it is equally true that the EU could have paid the money it promised, and that even now EU member-states including Germany and the Netherlands are arguing over whether they, or the European Commission, should actually pay the cash, while concerns about public response to deregulating Turkish visas to Europe are also playing a part in the ongoing failure.
(While the visa points may seem stronger than those related to money, the EU chose to make these promises, despite repeated warnings from ourselves and countless other commentators across the continent. And for Erdogan, whose greatest political embarrassment is his failure to gain Turkey entry to the EU – his longest-standing promise to the Turkish people – the visas will, in the end, prove more important than the money)
Equally, as noted here on a series of occasions, Turkish relations with the EU have in the last 12 months undergone arguably their worst period since Turkey annexed Northern Cyprus in 1974, with Turkish politicians being refused entry to several EU states (including Germany, Austria and the Netherlands – each saying that they wished to prevent only one side of the Turkish referendum campaign, those who backed the plan to hand Erdogan enormous new powers, from being allowed to campaign within their borders) and Turkey denying German inspectors access to airfields where their service-people were stationed, as well as Erdogan and other high-ranking Turkish officials calling German, Dutch and Austrian politicians ‘Nazis’.
However, as noted above, claims that Turkey is somehow ‘to blame’ for increased numbers of refugees reaching Greece are wild in the extreme.
First, as we noted in November, in March 2016 alone, 26,971 refugees entered Greece. This is important because that was the month the EU/Turkey Deal came into effect, and so in fact the vast majority (roughly 97 per cent) of those men, women and children landed on the Aegean islands in just 21 days. That, rather than 2,500-4,500 people per month, is what happens if Turkey decides to stop following the rules of the Deal.
Second, because in fact there are more than 3.3m Syrian refugees in Turkey, and more than 1.4m Afghan and Iraqi people. The idea that Turkey giving up its part of the EU/Turkey Deal would see the number of people arriving in Greece increase by roughly 1,500-2,000 per month is slightly unrealistic.
Third, because there is no way any government – including Turkey’s – could access that kind of control over the refugee population. It is not a ‘tap’ which can be turned on and off, but a group of human beings, who make decisions based on what they believe to be in their best interests, and based on the threats facing them. Turkey has not forced anyone onto a boat, and neither has it been able to stop people from boarding them (though it has, as we shall see, stopped those on boats from reaching Greece).
The idea that Turkey ‘controls’ refugee movements, like most conspiracy theories, contains some strange comfort (because if someone is deliberately causing things to happen, one can stop those things by stopping the person who controls them, handing power and a simple ‘solution’ to the individual) but is simply not backed by a shred of evidence.
More than any of the above, however, is the fact that the Turkish coastguard and police absolutely are doing the job the EU – immorally and inhumanely – insists that they do.
Because under the EU/Turkey Deal, the EU insists that Turkey must prevent men, women and children leaving Turkish waters ‘by any means necessary’. This has seen the Turkish coastguard changed by the EU from a service primarily concerned with keeping people safe at sea, into what is effectively a sea-militia focussed on stopping people from travelling, and the Turkish police in coastal regions into border patrols charged with preventing people escaping Turkey, whatever their reasons.
And both are doing the jobs the EU has forced them to. In March this year, for example, 2,437 people entered Greece from the East. The Turkish coastguard and police stopped 2,470 from making the journey. That is, Turkey in the last full month stopped more people from leaving for Greece, than entered Greece.
As stated in previous pieces, the EU/Turkey Deal is deeply immoral and inhumane, making prisoners out of innocent and desperate men, women and children. It is also close to unworkable on any long-term basis. But it is not ‘failing’, and it has not been abandoned by Turkey.
2. Eastern Ghouta, Afrin, and the Iraqi Kurdish region
In November, we noted that far more likely than a deliberate Turkish act against the EU was a combination of several factors in the states from which men, women and children are fleeing due to war.
At that point, we cited ‘a cumulative effect of the ‘liberation’ of Aleppo, ongoing strikes on Idlib, the fall of Mosul and the EU’s crackdown on central Mediterranean crossings, combined with the fact that Turkey has tightened its own borders (as the EU demanded it must and bribed it to) making attempts at crossing harder and longer to organise, while the refugees now in Turkey are those who left latest, ie., in many cases those who had least money and have had to save to pay for a crossing, which of course takes time.’
To these – two of which are still ongoing issues, and one, the ‘liberation’ of Aleppo is still a major cause of mass movement of people out of Syria, and therefore through and out of Turkey, despite the claims of the state’s dictator Bashar al-Assad and those who support him (Aleppo had a pre-war population of 2.4m: even the analysts most friendly to Assad do not pretend there are more than 400,000 people there now) – we must add the ongoing attacks on Eastern Ghouta, Turkey’s invasion of Afrin (and stated aims to extend its ‘activities further’) and the situation in the Iraqi Kurdish region.
i) Eastern Ghouta
Eastern Ghouta is a region to the east of Damascus, whose two major centres of population are Ghouta and Duma, as well as several suburbs of Damascus. Prior to the war, the region was home to 1.5m people It has been under siege by the Assad regime’s forces since April 2013, having been taken by rebel groups in November 2012.
But much in the same way as Spain’s General Franco chose to ‘prolong’ the Spanish Civil War in order to ‘defeat’ all of those who fought against him, rather than to ‘win’ the war with a truce and a return to civilian life, Assad showed little effort to make any decisive strike against the region until early this year.
In the intervening period, Assad’s forces have been alleged by the UN Human Rights Council of having used starvation as a weapon of war against the population of the region, as well as attacks on hospitals, schools, denial of medical evacuation and the deliberate targeting of civilians – all war crimes. In 2016, Assad’s forces turned off all water supplies to the 400,000 people trapped in just over 100km of land. They dug underground wells.
Up to February 2018, 12,783 people were killed in the area, almost all in Syrian and Russian airstrikes, and in November 2017, MSF reported that 70 per cent of the population was living underground to attempt to escape government and Russian missiles.
But on 18 February, the Syrian armed force loyal to Assad, backed by intensive Syrian and Russian airstrikes, launched an offensive against the region.
MSF reported that from 18 February-3 March, it had registered 1,500 people dead and 4,829 wounded in the attack, but said the total casualty numbers were likely to be far higher. On 24 February, the UN called an emergency meeting which voted for a cease-fire of one month, in part to enable aid organisations to reach those worst affected by the assault on Eastern Ghouta. Assad and Russia ignored the vote, continuing their attacks, and preventing aid deliveries from being made to civilians.
On March 16, the Syrian air force used banned incendiary weapons against Kafr Batna, adding to chemical weapons it used four times in the Eastern Ghouta region between July and November 2017. Amnesty also accused Russia of using banned cluster munitions.
By the end of March, 105,000 people had been officially ‘displaced’ – in fact forced by the regime to leave for Idlib, where they will be attacked next by Russia, Syria and Iranian forces in the next stage of the Franco-esque ‘campaign’ – and on 1 April a ‘deal’ was announced which will see Duma, the final rebel hold-out, ‘evacuated’, also to Idlib, where the evacuees will be attacked, while the four-fifths empty Eastern Ghouta region will then be paraded as ‘back to normal’ and ‘rebuilding’. Even the figures – issued by Russian and Syrian government sources – are deeply unreliable, as they fail to mention at least 295,000 people and their fate.
However, the horror of Eastern Ghouta has probably not yet resulted in a large number of people attempting to cross from Turkey, although it has very likely caused a number of people from further north to make the attempt, not least because it is very clear that Idlib and surrounding towns will be next, and that Syria and Russia have no intention of abiding by ceasefires or international agreements.
Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict was greatly changed by its decision, on 24 November 2015, to shoot down a Russian aircraft that flew into its air space.
The Russian response mixed deniable threat (notably, sending a warship through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, with, when the ship passed through the centre of Istanbul, a man carrying a rocket launcher – in this way turning a major historic Russian weakness; its reliance on other states to allow it to access any European warm sea regions; into a strength) with trade sanctions and other threats, and it became very quickly clear that although Turkey was technically ‘right’ (the aircraft had been within Turkish airspace) no other NATO state was willing to risk war against Russia, as should have been long clear to anyone watching or experiencing the Syrian Civil War.
In fact that decision, having the effect of ‘cutting Turkey adrift’ from NATO in all but name (at least in the eyes of Erdogan) and forcing Erdogan to ‘deal’ (perhaps for his state’s survival) with Putin’s Russia, may well be the decisive factor in much of Turkey’s and Erdogan’s internal and external relations in the two years since.
In any case, whatever the conversations behind the scenes, Turkey was once focused on the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, but has increasingly become a part of a three-way ‘committee’ on Syrian affairs, with Russia and Iran (in the latter case, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt’s decision to cut off Turkish regional ally Qatar has also probably played a part, as Iran is the major rival of Saudi Arabia, and was cited by the quartet as a reason for their blockade) which has overseen nothing as much as the partition of Syria into easier pieces for Assad to attack at his leisure.
But what it has also done is enable Turkey to continue its attacks against Kurdish people.
The Turkish conflict against Kurdish people is not simple enough to sum up in one sentence. Both ‘sides’ have committed acts of violence it is hard to justify, often against civilians. And its current iteration – in Turkey – was in fact ‘started’ by Kurdish people, who reacted to the killing of 33 people by IS in Suruc, Southern Turkey, by killing two Turkish police officers. The PKK, listed by the EU, Turkey and US as a terror organization, denied having any part in the killings, but then inexplicably made a public statement saying it supported them.
Regardless, Turkey’s actions since then have been vicious, and unacceptable. Erdogan’s government has effectively now been fighting a civil war against its Kurdish population for two and a half years, has launched a mass crack-down and arrest-spree against Kurdish and Left-wing citizens, and has also on occasion made aerial attacks on Kurdish parts of Syria and Iraq.
It is far from clear that Russia, which regards the Syrian Kurds as a particular problem in its war to prop up Assad, has opposed any of these activities, but it is clear that this conflict has driven Kurds fleeing the Syrian Civil War to regard Turkey as far from a safe space (if they had ever truly believed that), but rather a state at war against them. Their lack of security in Turkey is of course a driving factor in those people wanting to move West.
But in January (20) the Turkish army began an offensive in Afrin, a region of Northern Syria run by the Kurdish YPG, claiming it is attacking ‘terrorists’ (Turkey lists the YPG as a terror group, and has notably also used the word to imply ‘IS’ without actually ever stating the name of the group, because it does not exist in Afrin, in part because the YPG defeated it there: the same tactic has been consistently used by Russia and Assad since Russia entered the war in 2015).
In terms of the wider Syrian conflict, the Turkish activity has played into Assad and Russia’s hands so overtly that it is hard not to conclude that Russia actively encouraged the invasion. First, because it has effectively split the (mainly US-backed) Kurdish population from the (largely Turkish-backed) Arab rebels in Syria, making any rebel hopes of holding out against Assad in the North increasingly unlikely to be realised.
Simultaneously, it offered Assad an opportunity to attempt to ‘unite’ with Kurdish people and present himself as a ‘protector’ of their interests, which he took by sending regime troops to fight alongside Kurdish soldiers, although with little discernible impact of effect, leading many to conclude that he was not entirely committed to anything other than giving the impression of support.
In any event, the conflict, in which just over 500 civilians, as well as around 9,000 soldiers were killed, saw Afrin fall to Turkey, along with almost all of the area north of Aleppo. The UN reported that as many as 200,000 civilians have been displaced, and that many were attempting to cross the border into Turkey, where they were being shot at by border guards (the practice of Turkish soldiers and border guards shooting at refugees has been reported by humanitarian groups since May 2016, two months after the start of the EU/Turkey Deal. The closeness of the dates is no coincidence, and the EU has not once criticised or even mentioned the practice in public).
Even if any of those fleeing Afrin make it across the Turkish border, they will then be inside the state that attacked them. It is extremely likely that those people will instead attempt to reach a state where they can be secure, namely Greece, and the wider EU.
iii) The Iraqi Kurdish Region
We have written at length here about the Iraqi Kurdish region, and what has followed since its independence referendum of 25 September 2017, in which 93.25 per cent of those polled voted in favour of an independent Kurdish state not only made up of the Iraqi Kurdish region, but also containing all Kurdish-majority areas of Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The referendum had been opposed by the international community, and was declared illegal by Iraq, whose government, with the help of Iranian forces, closed down all the region’s airports, closed off all the oil supply lines which did not pass through non-Kurdish regions, and then began to attack Kurdish forces in parts of Iraq which had not been part of the Kurdish region before IS seized large areas of the nation, but had been liberated and therefore were still occupied by Kurdish forces.
The vast majority of fighting ended on 27 October (at which point the then Kurdish regional government President Masoud Barzani, who had facilitated the referendum, resigned), but outbreaks of violence continued until 16 December.
On 13 March, with all of the areas taken from IS by Kurdish soldiers under Iraqi government control, the government announced it would reopen Kurdish airports, and that the government had paid salaries to employees in the region for the first time since 2014.
But at least 400 Kurdish civilians were killed in the fighting, and a further 183,000 displaced. Those who went North and West to Turkey entered a region, like their own, in which the government was fighting against the Kurdish population, and in a state which had backed the Iraqi government’s attacks on Kurds in Iraq.
Not only for these Kurds, but for their Turkish and Syrian counterparts, Turkey’s actions in the last two years has driven Kurds to attempt to flee to states where they can feel, and be, safe.
As noted here previously, the Taliban currently holds more land in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, war continues in roughly a third of the state (which displaced more than 400,000 people in 2017), and many people sent back under EU regulations (which claim that Afghanistan is no longer a dangerous place) – including one case from the UK detailed here – have been subjected to attack and threat from Taliban members.
Even as the EU attempts to send people ‘back’ to Afghanistan, others are fleeing the state, and some of those being returned are, understandably, simply turning around and attempting to reach the EU again.
3. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan
Despite the howls of major parts of the European far-Right that ‘Muslim states are not doing enough to help Syrians’ and ‘Why don’t Syrians go to the places closest to them?’, in fact between them Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are hosting far and away the highest number of Syrian men, women and children who have fled the war: almost 5.75m in total.
Turkey has the highest number of the three – and the highest number of refugees of any state on Earth – 3.57m Syrian refugees, plus another 1.5m of other nationalities (primarily Iraqi and Afghan people).
Lebanon has an estimated 1.25m Syrian refugees, making it the state with the highest proportion of refugees on Earth, one in four of its population is now from Syria or Palestine (though 991,917 Syrian people are officially registered as refugees, the actual figure is believed to be far higher).
And Jordan is hosting around 750,000 (659,063 registered) Syrian people, with its Za’atri refugee camp the third largest ‘city’ in the country by population.
By comparison, roughly 1.2m people arrived in the EU from the East in total (and 20-25 per cent of those people were from Afghanistan and Iraq) in 2015-16 (8,56,723 in 2015; 173,450 in 2016), and spread evenly across the bloc’s 28 member states that would have meant roughly 42,857 people per state.
But conditions in these three nations are far from ideal. First, compared to the EU, which is the world’s richest political bloc, all three have relatively little financial wealth.
Second, the richest, Turkey (the 20th richest state in the world, behind five EU member states and with the Netherlands very close behind it) has a far greater number of refugees – 3.57m Syrians, and more than 1.5m other people; more than 5m refugees, compared to an average of 42,857 per EU state on average.
Thirdly, the political and social situation in Turkey and Lebanon are far from ideal for refugees or for the local civilian population, and in Lebanon the cash is simply not available to improve the state’s infrastructure sufficiently to cope with an increase in population of 25 per cent.
In Lebanon, the armed group Hizbollah holds greater power – as well as more weapons and fighters – than the Lebanese army. As a major representative of the state’s Shi’ite population, it also holds enormous political influence, including the joint-highest number of seats in the ‘Shi’a group’ in the national parliament.
Yet Hizbollah is fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, the man whose missiles and attacks many of the Syrian refugees have fled.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the state’s President, Michel Aoun, as the leader of the Parliament’s Christian representatives, is concerned that the largely Sunni Islam Syrian refugee population will ‘unbalance’ the state’s delicate social balance (the parliamentary system is a reflection of the national situation, with a deliberately-maintained tripartite structure giving equal power and prestige to Christians, Shi’a Muslims and Sunni Muslims).
As a result, he and the nation’s Shi’as and Christians have been increasingly pressuring Syrian people to return to their state, under the pretence that the war is ‘over’. Measures have included building walls around refugee centres containing Syrians (under claims that their inhabitants are ‘terrorists’) and arbitrary arrests and curfews for Syrian people.
While Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (who was last year seemingly kidnapped and announced his resignation on Saudi television, only to withdraw the decision on his return to Lebanon – as always, details elsewhere on this site), as the most high-profile representative of Lebanon’s Sunni population, has worked to assure Syrian people that they are welcome, their experience has led them to other conclusions.
In part, this is also because Lebanon simply does not have the money to provide services – including water and education – reliably to 1.25m more people as well as to its original population. Not only does this cause unrest between Lebanese people and Syrians, it also affects the latter’s desire to remain in Lebanon.
In Jordan, the financial situation facing Syrian refugees is very similar: 93 per cent of Syrian refugees in the state are living in poverty, while 80 per cent of families are living on less than $3.10 per day. In Lebanon, 76 per cent are in poverty, with 75 per cent of families living on less than $4 per day.
With their children unable to attend school, and unable to afford to feed them, as well as being unable to return home for fear of being killed, these men and women are forced to attempt to find safety, shelter and food elsewhere.
We have already noted the situation facing Kurdish people – of Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish nationality – in Turkey, and that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly-close relations with Russia and Iran have changed the realities for most Syrian refugees in the state, making the vast majority of refugees in Turkey increasingly uneasy about their safety and future in Turkey (though, as we have noted before, surveys still show that the majority – in some cases 75 per cent – of Syrians in Turkey see their future there)..
But things are even more complex even than that. First, because – making the EU’s decision to name Turkey as a ‘safe state’ for refugees even less justifiable – Turkey is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Syrians in Turkey therefore do not have the security of official refugee status, and the international protections that come with it, unless they choose to live in refugee camps.
And many do not, because the experience for Syrians in the camps has been hard, with many children unable to enter proper schools, and most adults not being allowed to take jobs.
In many cases, refugees have preferred to take their chances with the black market.
This does not mean that Turkey has made no efforts to assist refugees. Its government has passed a number of laws, saying that Syrian children must be allowed to access schools, and that all Syrian refugees must be given health care equal to that of Turkish citizens. Erdogan has also – on more than one occasion – said that he hopes to grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees.
But in a large number of cases – including many we have worked on in Turkey and Greece – in fact, Syrian children have been forced by teachers and/or local politicians to ‘pay’ or leave their schools, in direct contravention of the laws; and their families cannot afford the prices demanded from them. Simultaneously, staff at some hospitals have refused to treat refugees, while adults have been so severely underpaid that they are forced (and in fact encouraged) to bring their children to work as well, and they are charged twice or three-times the standard rate for ‘houses’ that are in some cases missing entire walls.
Meanwhile, the last of Erdogan’s suggestions that Syrian refugees might be handed Turkish citizenship is cited as a direct factor leading to the attempted coup in the state on 15 July 2016.
This is not to say that Turkey – or Turkish people – have been unwelcoming to Syrian people. On the contrary, there are vast parts of the state where people have gone out of their way to be kind and to help new arrivals settle and begin to build new lives, while the state, as noted, has deliberately passed laws granting Syrians explicit rights in the country (the same cannot be said for the treatment of Afghani refugees).
In this, Turkey has in fact done far more – and on a far greater scale, in a far smaller space (and with significantly less money) than the EU.
But it does not change the fact that for many Syrians, and of course Syrian Kurds, the experience of life in Turkey has been far from positive.
And the attempted coup – and its aftermath – have also heightened fear and suspicion all over society. First, the effect of a military led attempt to overthrow the government is an extremely negative one on people who have fled all-out, multi-sided civil war in their own country, and has cast doubts on the security and safety of life in Turkey, and the state’s political cohesiveness.
Secondly, as noted above, Erdogan’s promise to grant Syrian people Turkish citizenship is often cited as a major contributing factor in the coup, which is likely to further unsettle those Syrian people who had hoped for exactly that: it is hard to see how one could feel less welcome than if people are prepared to overthrow their own government because it wants to grant you the right to live and work in their country.
But also because in the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkey has embarked upon a systematic crack-down on human rights, and has fired more than 110,000 people, arresting 60,000, including leading political opponents and newspaper journalists. It has also voted (although extremely narrowly) to hand Erdogan, as President, an apparent life-long position, and an enormous extension of power.
The state is, in short, exhibiting exactly the repressive and dictatorial behaviours that caused many Syrians to rise up against Assad, while simultaneously becoming ever-closer allies with Iran and Russia, which have used their armed forces to kill those who oppose the Syrian dictator.
In short, if Kurdish people feel Turkey is a state fighting a literal war (arguably two) against them and people like them – and they do – then other Syrian refugees are also feeling extraordinarily-uncomfortable about the state in which they are now supposed to live. And they, too, along with men, women and children in Jordan and Lebanon, are beginning to feel that they will have to run.
And today in Greece?
Of course, in the end, the question is, what should we do?
The first vital point to make – and for us all, as humanitarians, to make – is that despite the attitudes of the EU and to an extent the Greek government (which for a variety of reasons has never been comfortable with the presence of international non-governmental organisations in Greece), the situation here is not ‘getting better’.
In fact, while some schemes are providing temporary accommodation in apartments in Greek cities to refugees, which is certainly a step forward from their imprisonment (in some cases for more than two years) in tents in overcrowded detention centres, even these schemes will end when the refugees are judged to have ended their period in need of assistance.
Under the latest UNHCR proposals, even this – effectively a statement that people must leave their homes once they are granted refugee status in Greece, regardless of their capacity to find employment or another place to live – will now be cut back, as no refugee, regardless of their vulnerability, will be referred to the UNHCR accommodation programme; the major current source of housing for refugees in Greece, if they have been told they will be allowed to remain in Greece regardless of whether they have even yet been issued with a residency permit.
Greece is on the verge of a mass homelessness spike, which will not only cause suffering and maybe deaths for innocent men, women and children who have fled death in their homelands, but will also feed into social unrest across the state and public feeling against ‘aliens’.
Simultaneously, more people are arriving in Greece, at a faster rate than any point since 21 March 2016.
That is, this is not a ‘shrinking challenge’: it is an ongoing, and growing, situation which needs to be addressed. Greek detention centres on the Aegean islands – the first stopping-points for refugees under EU and Greek rules – still contain people who have been there for more than two years, are still enormously overcrowded, and are still providing inappropriate and inhumane shelter, and water and electricity just one hour per day.
And more people are arriving every day. In the last 24 hours, as this piece was being prepared, another 244 men, women and children arrived on the Aegean islands, raising the number so far this year to 5,907.
The situation is not ‘improving’ in Greece – for individuals who require and deserve assistance, or from the perspective of the ‘overall response’. If anything, it is deteriorating.
We must also note that in many cases, those who are being moved from the Aegean islands are being moved only to refugee camps on the Greek mainland, and that once they arrive, they are not receiving the services they deserve or need.
At Katsikas, a camp in Epirus, close to Ioannina, which re-opened on 27 December, men, women and children have no access to any official school (though some volunteers have stepped in to attempt to fill this enormous void, they cannot hope to provide the education the Greek state promised to provide to them), or to any dedicated healthcare service – including mental health specialists.
These are men, women and children who have fled war and terror in their homes, and struggled across countries where they felt – and often were – neglected and in some cases severely mistreated, only to arrive in Europe where they spent a year or more in overcrowded tent-cities, and yet they have no reliable access to either physical or dedicated mental health services, despite these, too, being a requirement of the Greek government.
On 20 March, one young man, named Milad, committed suicide at Katsikas. We did not know him, and cannot begin to do justice to his life, his thoughts or his ideas.
But at the meetings held in the aftermath of his death, many aid organisations shared their frustrations and concerns that even as they were facing being removed from sites all over Greece (this began in earnest in August last year, when MdM, Save the Children and NRC were removed from Lesvos by the Greek government: MdM’s team had included 15 medical professionals, and was replaced with one doctor and a nurse), the agencies specifically chosen by the Greek government to replace them are not being deployed.
This also applies in Thessaloniki, where the Greek government has failed – despite talking about the plan across the whole of Greece since February last year – to employ and deploy doctors and other medical experts to camps around the city. In 14 months, KEELPNO, the Greek health ministry, has not been able – or allowed – to take over services the Greek government promised it could and would provide.
The organisations have cited lack of funds. There is no reason to disbelieve them.
But the fact is that since 2014, the Greek government has accepted hundreds of millions of Euros from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, (AMIF) and welcomed the EU’s decision to stop funding the Greek response through its humanitarian arm, ECHO altogether, and instead to fund the response from then on through AMIF.
It should be noted that the advantage to the EU of doing so is that it is able to state that the situation in Greece is – by its own classification – no longer a ‘humanitarian’ one, if ECHO does not fund the response, and is instead a matter of ‘migration and integration’.
From the perspective of the Greek government, the advantage is that ECHO money is paid to aid organisations directly. AMIF funding has to be given to EU member state governments, which then decide how, and when, to spend them.
It is no coincidence that the August change saw the Greek government removing aid organisations from their posts. That is, of course, the government’s right.
But it is also no coincidence that as a result, services are not being provided at detention centres and camps, to innocent men, women and children, who need and deserve them.
And it is also no coincidence that the organisations which want to provide those services – and which the Greek government has promised will provide them – are now complaining that the Greek government has not provided them with the money to do so.
But it does mean that we have to ask a question. Where, exactly, is the AMIF money?
In November, we reported that the Greek government was forcing refugees to buy their own tickets for family relocations in states elsewhere in the EU. This came to light because they were only allowed to buy tickets from one travel agent (since removed from the contract) and ticket prices there were far higher than with some other agents.
But as we noted at the time, AMIF has allocated the Greek government €35.1m for refugee relocation ticket costs, of which, by February 2016, €14m had been paid. This is on the basis of €500 per refugee, per ticket, and is supposed to be spent on the individuals’ final journey from Greece to the country which will become their new home.
And yet, despite €35m being handed to Greece for this express purpose, refugees were being told that they had to buy their own tickets, because ‘there was no money available’. In some cases, aid agencies – exactly the same agencies who the Greek government has been working to remove from Greece – were covering the costs, because the relocation programme comes with strict deadlines, and if those deadlines, such as arriving in a new host country by a certain date, are missed, the chance to relocate is withdrawn.
It is of interest because now, while services are simply not being provided at sites across Greece, the government is once again claiming that ‘no money is available’. But AMIF has given Greece €294.6m. Where is the money, and why is it not providing the services it was designed to provide?
In the end, what we must do now is to highlight, to the EU in particular, and to the national and international media if necessary, that the crisis is not over, it is growing, and that even as it does so, the parts that were supposed to be ‘covered’ are in fact nothing of the sort.
The alternative is to simply wait for more people to suffer, and hope that someone finally takes notice.
The number of arrivals to Greece 1 January-4 April, have risen by 57 per cent on the same period last year.
It is up to us to make sure people know, and that those new arrivals are not thrown into years of neglect and suffering.
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