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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Movement and the gathering storm

Thessaloniki, 28 April

Arrivals to Eastern Aegean islands, 1 January – 26 April 2018, inclusive

Lesvos, 4,613. Total arrivals since 3 April: 1,728. Chios, 653. Total arrivals since 3 April: 413.

Samos, 1,577. Total arrivals since 3 April: 148. Leros, 110. Total arrivals since 3 April: 0.

Kos, 573. Total arrivals since 3 April: 62. Tilos, 0. Total arrivals since 3 April: 0.

Kastellorizo, 27. Total arrivals since 3 April: 0. Rhodes, 31. Total arrivals since 3 April: 16

Other islands, 565. Total arrivals since 3 April: 323

Total sea arrivals since 1 January 2018: 8,139

Total sea arrivals 3-26 April: 2,690

Figure at 26 April 2017: 4,592

Date at which 8,139 refugees had arrived by sea in 2017: 24 June

Transfers from Eastern Aegean islands to Greek mainland, 1 January – 19 April inclusive

Lesvos, 3,141. Total transfers since 3 April: 780. Chios, 1,344. Total transfers since 3 April: 265.

Samos, 1,159. Total transfers since 3 April: 185. Leros, 137. Total transfers since 3 April: 35.

Kos, 332. Total transfers since 3 April: 74. Rhodes, 52. Total transfers since 3 April: 14.

Other islands, 7. Total transfers since 3 April: 0.

Total transfers since 1 January: 6,172

Total transfers since 3 April: 1,413

An interesting thing about crises is the relatively few causes that they have. In some cases, a situation develops, quickly, that genuinely could not have been foreseen. In others, a disaster unfolds because it could not be avoided, but becomes a crisis because of lack of sensible forward-planning (most natural disasters fall under this heading).

It is unusual, however, to be in the middle of a crisis that has actually been caused by the deliberate actions of those who could and should have prevented them.

This, however, is the situation in Greece today.

In fact, not only are we are in the midst of a significant crisis related to refugees, without significant and targeted preventative action, at least one more will follow.

We wrote earlier this month about the increased number of refugees to have entered Greece so far this year, compared with the same period in 2017, noting that there had been a 57 per cent increase in new arrivals in the first three months of the year, compared to January-March 2017, and that 62.84 people had arrived each day, on average, compared to 40.02 in the corresponding period 12 months before.

The figure has now risen to 8,139 arrivals, a number not reached in 2017 until 24 June, and equal to 70.09 arrivals every day on average. The corresponding figure on 26 April 2017 was 39.58.

The number of new arrivals so far this year is 56.4 per cent higher than in the same period of 2017. If the rate increases this year exactly as it did last, we can now expect 46,739 men, women and children to arrive in Greece this year, compared to 29,884 last.

This would mean that Greece’s refugee population would jump from 74,500 (an extremely conservative estimate) to 121,238 by the end of this year.

And Greece is already coping extraordinarily poorly.

The islands – rising numbers and ‘freedom of movement’

The vast majority of refugees who enter the EU from the East do so via the Eastern Aegean islands, including Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Leros. This is largely because the islands, which belong to Greece, are extremely close (in Chios’ case, only around five miles) to the Western coast of Turkey, the state with the largest number of refugees on Earth.

There has, in reality, been no period during which accommodation for those people, who have fled war, terror and chaos in their homelands, and risked their lives in unsafe sea vessels (and in the case of some people, also on life-threatening mountain crossings) was acceptable.

We have noted on a number of occasions that the EU’s approach to the entry of refugees – in its hastily- (and immorally) thrashed-out policy related to the EU-Turkey Deal – is based on the US ‘model’ using Guantanamo Bay, and Australia’s globally-reviled detention system using Manus and Nauru islands: that is, to imprison arrivals off-shore while deciding whether to allow them to remain in the EU, rather than allowing people to enter and live in decent accommodation on the European mainland.

And we should be clear – despite the EU and Greek government’s preference for using the euphemistic ‘hot-spot’, the camps on the islands are in fact detention centres, in which people are trapped.

At ‘camps’ including Moria and Kara Tepe (Lesvos), Souda (Chios), Lepida (Leros), and Vathy (Samos), there are men, women and children who have been held for more than two years.

There is absolutely no legal justification for this, as even the EU and Greek government’s policies on the detention of refugees states that no-one should be held more than three months before a decision is made on their future.

That so many have (there are currently 15,918 refugees on the Eastern Aegean islands, though of course the majority of these have arrived since the EU-Turkey Deal came into effect on 20 March 2016) – that is, that so many men, women and children are jailed without having committed a crime, and have been forced to wait eight times as long as even the unjust law which allows their incarceration sets as the maximum length of their imprisonment – is because the Greek asylum system cannot cope with the demands placed upon it, and despite consistently promising to do so, the EU has never sent officers to assist it.

Our view is that nobody should be jailed without charge, but even under a policy which specifically allows the removal of fundamental human rights to freedom, the simple refusal to staff the system so it fulfills its own regulations is an act of negligence so startling – and so harmful to the health and well-being of men, women and children innocent of any crime and already at severe risk due to the experiences they have gone through prior to their arrival (and which in fact caused that arrival) that it is hard not to wonder whether it is in fact deliberate.

Nor does the treatment of those trapped in the detention centres dispel such concerns. We have spent the last 19 months documenting the state of the ‘accommodation’ on offer on the islands, including the five deaths of people trapped in tents in the deep snow of Winter 2016, some due to exposure and hypothermia, and others due to suffocation on poisonous gases created by their desperate efforts to stay warm.

This is the wealthiest political bloc in global history, in peacetime, in the 21st century, rather than a pre-industrial war-torn wasteland. The deaths were avoidable, and were indeed warned of by humanitarian agencies and workers, including ourselves, yet they were not prevented.

We have also documented the fact that the detention centres are massively overcrowded, with well over twice as many people as the safe maximum limit in Moria (6,653 in a capacity 3,000 detention centre), and more than four times as many people at Vathy, Samos (2,872 compared to a safe limit of 648). At Chios (1,431 people, safe capacity 1,014) and Kos (880, 816) the safe capacity has also been exceeded.

The result of this is not just overcrowding – though we should not forget that as a result of this outrageous situation, families are crammed into spaces in which most individuals would struggle to sleep comfortably – but also that men, women and children have been forced to spend the winter in summer tents, often pitched on concrete outside the warehouse shelter facilities which are supposed to be available. People are forced to sleep on concrete, in tents, which are not even tents designed to withstand the weather of the season. Some of these people have been there for two years.

Equally, as we have noted on a number of occasions, at Moria, electricity and hot water are available at best intermittently. Since September, it has been unusual for either to be available for more than one hour each day. The conditions for refugees – people who have committed no crime – in the world’s richest ever political bloc, are below those most people would force an animal to endure, let alone a human being.

Nor, as more people arrive, are more people being moved to the mainland. Instead, at Moria, there is now a ‘separate community’ of some 1,000-1,500 refugees at the so-called ‘Olive Grove’ site. ‘Olive Grove’ is separated from ‘Moria’ by a fence, and less than two metres.

The mainland

The Greek government’s refusal to move refugees from the islands to the Greek mainland has a number of causes.

Far from the highest is its own pretence that to do so would ‘encourage Turkey to send more refugees’. Not only does Turkey not have anything like that level of control over whether and when refugees attempt to cross the Aegean to Greece, we are already more than three months into a significant increase in arrival numbers, and the government has failed to take action.

‘Blame Turkey’ is a response designed to appeal to elements of Greek nationalism, but is far from an explanation for the government’s failure to act.

Instead, the government is ‘bound’ by other concerns: first, EU policy, exactly in line with Australian practice at Manus and Nauru, and the US’ system at Guantanamo (not the 'extraordinary rendition' centre, of course), requires that it must not be ‘too easy’ for refugees to reach the mainland (in this case, ‘the mainland’ refers to ‘mainland Greece’ as much as ‘mainland EU’: ‘too easy’ refers to ‘being able to reach the mainland without first being imprisoned on an island’) because if it were possible to reach the mainland without being imprisoned, this would not be sufficient ‘discouragement’ of refugees.

Yes, it seems that the EU has not noticed that people are coming despite this discouragement, and that all the bloc is doing is forcing people desperately escaping war, terror, chaos and death to then suffer in detention centres without electricity and hot water for no reason at all.

Second, EU and Greek government policy (once again exactly in line with those of Australia and the US) is to prevent refugees reaching the mainland ‘too easily’ (again, as above), because it believes that it will be more difficult to remove people who have reached the mainland, than those trapped on the islands.

Third, EU and Greek government policy, as above, is designed to attempt to discourage even people who have a good case for being granted asylum, from applying: it is hoped that a period in detention in sub-human conditions will discourage applications, and encourage withdrawals from those who have made them.

However, the fourth maybe most important, even as it is in part a product of the previous three: the Greek government has systematically closed refugee accommodation across the mainland, without providing alternatives.

In this, we should first be clear that the refugee camps on mainland Greece absolutely needed to close. The camps were opened – and the orders of the Right-wing nationalist ANEL, the minority members of Greece’s governing coalition – in industrial, agricultural and former military areas and warehouses in the Spring and Summer of 2016. Their locations were chosen not with the men, women and children who have to live in them in mind, but with the intention of ‘hiding’ them from the general population of Greece.

And they were a disaster. The independent Greek health body, KEELPNO, ran a three month study into the camps, and demanded that they be closed within three months (by September 2016) because they were damaging to physical and mental health.

Instead, the most recent closure took place in February this year. Some remain open to this day.

The problem, however, is not with the camps being closed, which should have been done considerably faster. It is, rather, with the fact that no alternative has been provided.

Greece has 500,000 empty buildings, and 74,000 refugees (many of whom are families, and so would wish to live together). Yet it has not housed its refugees. Even those who are in accommodation outside of refugee camps have been placed in apartments by aid organisations, including UNHCR, Terre des homes, CARE, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (the latter of which is leaving due to lack of funds), rather than the government, and those places are strictly temporary.

Instead, the Greek government has closed camps to ‘prove’ it is in control of the refugee situation, and that ‘progress’ is being made (we have explained its reasons for this on a number of occasions, but in short, the refugee crisis represents to the government the sole opportunity to prove – at home and to other EU governments – that it is capable of governing, as more normal routes have been removed by the EU’s imposition of economic policies designed to repay German and French banks. This is an understandable, but also inescapably a reckless plan, which has seen the government systematically sideline and exclude humanitarian aid organisations, which are designed to respond to humanitarian crises, and ‘go it alone’, even though governments are not).

In fact, as with its disastrous policy of excluding humanitarian organisations from camps and detention centres across the country, which has led to deaths, self-harm, mental and physical illness and chaos among the refugee community in Greece, the camp closures, combined with a failure to prepare and provide alternatives, have led to chaos.

Land entrants

There is a third factor combining with the above to create a growing crisis on the Greek mainland: an increased number of land crossings to Greece.

Media – in Thessaloniki in particular – has spent the last week highlighting an increasing number of street-sleepers in the city, almost all of whom are refugees (it is worth noting here that it is officially illegal to sleep rough in Greece; a policy which made more sense when state funding was allowed to be used to shelter people, and far less now that that funding is being confiscated to repay Greek debt).

The newspapers in particular are describing the situation as ‘the worst since the Summer of 2015’, when refugees would stop in Thessaloniki on their way north to Macedonia, and the EU beyond it.

Strictly speaking, this is true, but to date, there is an enormous difference between the Summer of 2015, when the majority of the 856,723 people who entered Greece from the East, arrived, and the Spring of 2018 when UNHCR reports that 2,700 people have arrived in Thessaloniki. (ASB reports that more than 500 people have been moved into – and through – Diavata refugee camp on the outskirts of Thessaloniki since 8 April. They are moved on to ‘other camps’).

The majority of the refugees, who have crossed into Greece over the Evros river which marks the state’s boundary with Turkey, have been bussed to the refugee camps at Diavata and Lagadikia, while others have waited to be arrested – including some who have actually queued outside the police station overnight – because this will give them a temporary right to stay in Greece.

One thing the media and some other commentators appear to be surprised about is that refugees are, increasingly, crossing overland (in fact, the river) rather than by sea. It is worth noting that the number of people to have come via this route is still a very small fraction of those who have crossed by sea, even this year alone, but the answer is quite simple: the EU has done its absolute utmost to deter men, women and children from crossing from Turkey to the Eastern Aegean islands, by turning them into prison camps.

The plan has worked. But what the EU – in common with Australia and the US, whose policies it has copied in their entirety – appears not to have considered (despite the repeated reminders of us and others like us) is that refugees generally flee their homelands, or indeed states between their homelands and those they end up in, because they must.

This means that they will attempt to escape, almost regardless of what awaits them, because they have no choice, other than death.

And the result – which should have been obvious and predictable for all, certainly was in the case of analysts and advisors, and which was specifically explained to representatives of EU and world governments – is an increase in the number of people attempting to enter Europe by alternative routes*.

*(one other factor in this has been the campaign of repression – ethnic and political – waged in Turkey by the state’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government since the failed coup of 15 July 2016. The ‘crackdown’ has targeted not only Kurds and Left-wingers, but also anyone the government claims to suspect is a member of FETO; the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, for whose existence there is still absolutely no evidence. More than 60,000 people have been arrested and more than 165,000 fired. Though of course Turkish people have passports and paperwork, many have been stopped at airports and rail stations and prevented from leaving the country, so these people, too, are forced to cross using less ‘regular’ routes. Hundreds – at least – of Turkish people are now renting properties in Thessaloniki and Athens, in particular, while awaiting opportunities and seeking options for a ‘next step’)

Humanitarian organisations are now reporting hundreds of homeless refugees in Greece’s major cities, (this does not include the 2,416 children on waiting lists for appropriate care and shelter, including 80 who are forced to sleep in police cells, and 350 who are being kept – illegally – in detention centres on the Greek mainland, or the roughly 4,650 adults in such centres) and without sufficient accommodation (despite the enormous number of empty buildings across the country) to house them, have instead resorted to setting up ‘waiting lists’.


Nor is this the only factor causing – and threatening – widespread homelessness.

Since the middle of 2016, when the EU (erroneously), began to congratulate itself on ‘solving the problem’ of large numbers of people entering the EU from the East, it has taken to arguing that the refugee situation in Greece is no longer one of ‘transition’ – people entering Greece just as a stepping-stone to travelling elsewhere in the EU (generally Germany or Sweden) – but of ‘integration’; people being expected to settle in Greece itself.

Of course, the claim is inaccurate. While ‘integration’ is a vital part of the refugee response in Greece, it has always been – and remains – a wild error to pretend it is the only part. Thousands of people entered Greece last year, and more than 8,000 have already arrived so far in 2018.

But even if we were to accept that ‘integration’ was the sole challenge facing Greece and the refugees who have arrived here, it would still be necessary to ask why so little had been achieved, or even set in place to make it happen.

Again, there are a number of factors, and actors, which have combined to create a crisis where none was necessary.

First – and in this instance perhaps most responsible – is the EU itself. The European Union panicked when 1.1m refugees entered in 2015, despite the fact that it has a population of 508m and is a collection of 27 states which constitute the wealthiest political bloc in global history.

It demanded instead that Turkey should take care of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and all other points East of the EU, even though Turkey’s population is 70m, it hosts the world’s largest number of refugees – 3.4m Syrians and 1.4m from Iraq and Afghanistan alone – it is the world’s 20th richest individual state and it is not even a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention.

At the same time, the EU effectively ended the Schengen agreement – its pledge that travel between EU states should be allowed unhindered – by closing borders across the continent. Even now, Greek people face the same challenges as people from the UK (an EU member but not part of the Schengen Zone) when attempting to travel to another member-state.

It did, however, claim it would relocate refugees from Greece (and Italy, as well as some from Turkey) across its member states.

It has completely failed to live up to this.

It promised that 160,000 people would be relocated, including 64,000 from Greece, by late September 2017. In fact, by 4 April, just 34,563 people have been relocated, 22,005 of them from Greece.

Nor is the process being pursued with any great vigilance. Since 21 March, just 152 people – Of Greece’s population of 74,000 refugees, and the 41,995 people who the EU pledged to relocate, but has so far failed to – have moved.

In any case, the entire idea of the EU’s wider claim – that refugees should be ‘integrated’ into Greek society – is, at best, extremely questionable.

At present, unemployment in Greece is at 20.6 per cent – the lowest level since 2011. That is, even at its best point in seven years, more than one in every five people of working age and fit enough to work in Greece cannot find a job.

For young people – those aged 18-34 – the situation is far worse. Unemployment among this age group is at 45 per cent, meaning almost one in every two people cannot get a job.

Added to that, in the case of each available job, an offer must be made first to a qualified Greek person, then only if one cannot be found may an offer be made to an EU citizen, and only if neither comes forward may any post be offered to a third-country national.

Under such circumstances, it is virtually impossible to imagine how the EU could possibly have decided that Greece should have sole responsibility for integrating the refugees that arrive there.

It is, of course, sensible to note that in fact 74,000 people is not an enormous number, or indeed that even the 122,000 or more we may expect to be here by the end of the year – only slightly more than one per cent of Greece’s population – is an insurmountable challenge under normal circumstances.

But circumstances are far from normal in Greece, and with 20 per cent of the population unemployed, the obstacles to refugees being able to integrate swiftly – if at all – are vast.

We might also remember that 122,000 people would be an addition to the EU – rather than Greek – population, not on one per cent, but of just 0.02 per cent. There simply is not any argument in which Greece turns out to be a better host than the EU for the refugees within its borders.

However, while the EU has created the problem, and refused to take the most sensible approach to solve it, it is not alone in being at fault.

We have already noted that the Greek government has failed to convert any of the 500,000 empty buildings in the state for accommodation. Nor has it found school places even for the refugees currently on the mainland, in part because the Education Ministry has failed in its own (self-set) target of finding ‘at least 1,400’ Arabic translators to help teach the now 15,000 (at least) school-age refugee children in Greece.

Equally, its Ministry of Migration has so far refused to ratify the (very good) plans for refugee integration submitted by the municipal authorities of Athens and Thessaloniki.

That is, Greece – which has had two years to come up with a plan to integrate men, women and children into its society, and has received €330m from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, plus €238m from its Internal Security Fund (as at 7 December 2017: as we have noted on several occasions, it is far from clear where the Greek government is storing this money, as it has not been paid to government departments or humanitarian groups charged with integration and other projects) – has not only failed to provide school places or shelter to refugees (it cannot be blamed for failing to provide jobs which do not exist), it has also failed even to put together a plan for this integration to happen.

Nor is this all. From 26 February, UNHCR altered its rules on accommodation, so that for the first time, anyone who is told that they will be granted asylum by Greece will not be allowed to be part of the UNHCR accommodation scheme (under which refugees in Greece are sheltered) even if they have not yet received a residence permit, without which they will not be able to find a place to live.

And this is important. Because as it stands, the refugee response in Greece is failing to provide school places, or accommodation, to those who need it. It cannot possibly provide employment without significant changes in the Greek economy and the humanitarian sector.

It is, in effect – and even if accidentally – a factory for homelessness, marginalisation and destitution.

And those things will lead to one or more of only three likely outcomes: widespread homelessness, street-living and begging by the men, women and children granted refuge in Greece, resulting in Greek people regarding all or most refugees as vagrants, nuisances and a drain on society; widespread criminalization among the refugee community, in which its members – refused the opportunity to work, learn or find places to live – turn to crime in order to avoid being forced onto the streets and into begging for survival, resulting in Greek people regarding refugees as dangerous drains on society; or both.

In other words, the EU and Greek government’s current response to the refugee response in Greece is in significant danger of fomenting genuine civil unrest, and causing widespread human suffering.

This can be avoided and indeed it must. But it will not be unless we focus on the simultaneous problems facing Greece, target our responses to overcome them, and keep speaking out on what is happening, what we are doing, why, and what will happen if we do not act, and act swiftly.

Freedom of movement

This piece was initially sparked by the decision of the Greek State Council (the Fourth Division of Greece’s Supreme Court) on 17 April, to end the law under which refugees arriving on the Aegean islands Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Rhodes, and Kos, are forced to remain there, along with the inherent problems with it caused by the EU’s refusal to help, and the Greek mainland’s complete lack of preparedness for it.

But we realised that these problems do not exist because of the change of law, but regardless of it.

In any case, as we predicted, the decision has in fact been effectively overturned by the Greek government.

In brief, the State Council voted by four members to three to end the law preventing the free movement of men, women and children who land on the Eastern Aegean islands, accepting that there was effectively no law in Greece which justified the activity (some two years and 27 days after the practice began).

Instead, the restriction was called for by Greece’s (then) director of asylum, Maria Stavropoulou, and ‘accepted’ (using a piece of legislation which was originally developed to prevent women from entering the ‘third leg’ of Halkidiki, which contains a large number of active monasteries).

In this, Greece and the wider European Union are in direct contravention of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Greece and all other EU member states are signatories. Article 26 of the Convention provides that ‘states shall afford refugees the right to choose their place of residence within the territory and to move freely within the State.’

The case was, sadly, something of a ‘perfect storm’ and thus unlikely to be repeated, as it was called by the Greek Council for Refugees, but backed strongly by the mayors of each of the six islands, which oppose the opening of new detention centres within their jurisdiction.

In the event, the ruling itself actually angered the refugee community on the islands, because it was passed only for new arrivals on the islands, thus leaving those who had already arrived – and in some cases been trapped there for more than two years, still trapped, and still stranded.

They responded with demonstrations, which largely reflected their anger at their (not unreasonable) feeling that the judgement had been made less with their welfare (and once again, some of these men, women and children have survived two winters in which people have literally died because of the weather, in unacceptably overcrowded conditions in which people lived through January and Februaries in summer tents, and had access to hot water and electricity just one hour per day) and more with the opposition of the islands to ‘hosting’ more refugees, in mind.

On Lesvos, on 23 April, a demonstration was attacked by far-Right wingers, who threw rocks and bottles at the demonstrators, who included women and children. The refugees did not react, except by the men shielding the children and women, and using blankets in an attempt to intercept the missiles.

The police focused not on the violence, but the refugees, and forced them, against their will, onto buses which took them to the detention centres they were in fact protesting against being trapped in.

It would be hard to invent a metaphor which better represents their predicament.

However, the demonstration came after the Greek government had acted to end the possibility of free movement even for new arrivals.

On 19 April, just two days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the government issued an ‘administrative decision’ reinstating the restriction of movement, and introduced a Bill which will introduce the policy as an official law. The Bill began to be debated in parliament on Tuesday, 24 April.

In itself, this was predictable, though we – and indeed Maria Stavropoulou had anticipated that the government would choose simply to ratify an EU directive that ‘Asylum applicants may move freely within the territory of the host Member State or within an area assigned to them by that Member State.’ (our italics)

That it did not is perhaps a reflection of the governing coalition’s unease and in some cases suspicion of the EU.

But the decision appears to have left Greece in an even worse position than it was in on 16 April: the government has unilaterally and arbitrarily overruled its own judiciary – which in some states would (and arguably should) be enough to spark a genuine constitutional crisis – while refugees have had Greece’s suspicion and distaste for them forcibly and dispiritingly reconfirmed.

Equally, the islands remain dangerously overcrowded, and conditions there inhuman and unacceptable, while the mainland is completely unprepared either for new arrivals, or to prevent or deal with the crises rising even as we speak.

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