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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Numbers: the missing 17,951?

There are at least 17,951 people who were registered as refugees and/or made an application for asylum, in Greece, from 1 January-18 October this year, currently missing from the UN and Greek government’s data on the refugee situation in the state.

First, a quick note.

Many of you had received these updates on a regular basis last year, which ended when we suffered a data loss. We did offer an update on 28 April, but since then, we have been engaged in a number of specific projects with individual organisations working in Greece, Turkey and far further afield (including, but not exclusive to Central America) which have meant that regular updates have been impossible.

A large number of things have happened in Greece since our last update on the situation here, some of which are indicated in the figures compiled below, and which include a large increase in ‘land’ arrivals (in fact, across the River Evros, which marks the border between Greece and Turkey).

Most concerningly, however, is that even if we take the figures which follow as entirely accurate (and we will note the reasons we should not), there appears to be at least 17,951 people ‘missing’ in Greece, or indeed elsewhere in the EU.

1. The increase in arrivals

We noted in April that the increase in the rate of arrivals, should it continue throughout the year, might see a 10 per cent increase in the total number of men, women and children who arrive to Greece by sea, on last year’s total. At present, the increase stands at 16 per cent – some 432 more people per month than in 2017.

In the whole of 2017, a total of 29,884 people arrived in Greece’s, Aegean islands by sea. We may also note that it took until 22 November 2017 for the 25,635th (and the 25,641st) person to arrive in 2017, to reach the islands.

Should arrivals continue at the current rate – and while this is by no means certain, there is no reason to believe they will significantly fall – this would mean that 34,711 men, women and children will have entered Greece by sea by 31 December 2018.

2. Relocations from the islands

The Greek government, working with UNHCR, has for the last 14 months run a system of relocation for people in the detention centres on the Aegean islands. Originally, it was hoped that these people – regarded as ‘vulnerable’ (some 91 per cent of those in the island detention centres are now classified by UNHCR and the Greek government as ‘vulnerable’) – would be moved into apartments under the UNHCR-led accommodation scheme, but a combination of lack of funding and an entirely predictable (and indeed widely-predicted) but somehow ignored increase in arrivals has made that impossible.

Instead, the Greek government has increased the capacity of mainland refugee camps – Katsikas, in Epirus, Western Greece, for example, is now listed as having a capacity of 1,198 people having been opened to host 490 (it is very close to its capacity as this report is issued), and is projected to be expanded to 1,800 by early 2019 at the latest – and in some cases, such as at Vagiochori, has in fact re-opened camps it previously closed because they were deemed ‘inappropriate’ for human habitation.

This is by no means an attempt to criticise the policy of moving people from the detention centres – they are enormously above capacity, and have insufficient electricity and hot water for their populations, while many are still living in summer tents despite EU and Greek pledges to provide decent accommodation, even as winter is rapidly drawing in. This is a situation on which we will write at a later date.

We must note, however, that thousands of people, all regarded (correctly) as ‘vulnerable’ are being moved from detention centres not to appropriate accommodation, but to camps where they must at best live in prefabricated containers, and in some cases in tents.

Transfers from the islands, 1 January-18 October 2018

*People who arrive at the ‘Other’ island detention centres are consistently moved to one of those named in the above table

3. Island detention centres

As the table above makes clear, the population of the Aegean island detention centres has increased significantly during the last nine and a half months (figures which follow will show that the total increase is in fact smaller than 5,505, because there have been men, women and children removed from the islands under the EU’s now officially completed Relocation Scheme, the immoral EU/Turkey Deal, and IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration programme).

We have previously noted that the entire detention centre response to the refugee situation in Greece was based on those already run by the US at the parts of Guantanamo Bay not used for extraordinary rendition, and by Australia at Manus and Nauru islands: that is, to prevent people from reaching mainland Europe, and to hold them in conditions poor enough to ‘discourage’ other people from attempting to enter Europe.

We could repeat that this policy is not only extraordinarily cruel, and indeed absolutely immoral, because it effectively punishes men, women and children who have committed no crime by imprisoning them in conditions which would be illegal in any prison in any EU member state, but also ludicrously ineffective (as shown by the increase in people making the journey this year) as the reason desperate people are fleeing their homes is not to enjoy the European lifestyle, but to escape the very real threat of death, maiming or torture at home: even conditions as horrific as those at the island detention centres will not prevent – and are not preventing – people from attempting to escape death.

We shall in the near future issue an update regarding the situation on the islands, and have already noted that electricity, hot water and even accommodation are far too limited for people to live to an acceptable standard, but the stark and unacceptable fact is that the detention centres were enormously overcrowded at the year’s start, and are far more so now.

At Lesvos’ detention centre, for example, there are as of 18th October 7,364 innocent men, women and children crammed into a space designed for just 3,100. There are so many people there that a formerly empty space, the ‘Olive Grove’ (which was, exactly as its name suggested, an area of olive trees) now ‘hosts’ 1,200 people, each living in summer tents. Indeed, there are 3,000 men, women and children currently living in tents at Moria alone.

Chios’ VIAL detention centre has 2,332 people in a space with a capacity of 1,014, Vathy at Samos has 4,450 people crammed into a space designed for a maximum of 648, while at Pyli, on Kos, there are 1,175 people in a detention centre with a capacity of 816.

Detention centre populations

In total, after factoring in the 3,385 people currently staying in camps run by local governments and aid organisations, as well as those who are part of the UNHCR-led accommodation scheme, there are currently at least 19,646 men, women and children trapped on Greece’s Aegean islands.

4. ‘Land’ crossings from Turkey

By 31 August this year, UNHCR estimated (it is worth stating here that even on the islands, the UN counts – arguably can count – only those who decide to make themselves known to them, other aid organisations, or the Greek authorities operating there: at the land border, there are even greater barriers to accurate numbers. The UNHCR estimates which follow may be significantly smaller than the actual number of people who entered Greece by land so far this year) that 12,207 men, women and children entered Greece by land.

In the same period (1 January-31 August) of 2017, the number of people who made this crossing was 3,778, some 8,429 fewer.

The ‘land’ crossing is, in fact, nothing of the sort. The border between Turkey and Greece is marked by the River Evros, and people regularly die attempting to make the crossing. Nor are people guaranteed safety if they do make it across: on 10 October, three women who had crossed the river were found on the Greek side, with their throats slashed.

Yet so far this year, there has been an increase of 69 per cent in crossings.

There are several possible reasons: Turkey’s 'state of emergency', under which thousands of people were arrested, tens of thousands fired, and people attempting to leave legally had their passports removed, lasted two years from 2016, and ended only in July, while the elections of the previous month saw the man responsible, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, returned to power for a period which could – due to extraordinary constitutional changes – last as long as he lives.

Simultaneously, Turkey’s civil war against its Kurdish population is now in its fourth year, threatening Turkish Kurds as well as Kurdish people who have fled Iraq, Iran and Syria, and as the war in Syria looks increasingly as if it will be won by the forces of Bashar al-Assad, who many refugees have fled in terror, the ‘reason’ to remain in Turkish refugee camps – to be close to return when it is safe to do so – ebbs away even as does the possibility that it will ever be safe for them.

In any case, the number of people to have entered Greece by land between 1 January and 31 August this year is 12,207, a rate of 1,526 per month.

Should this continue to 31 December, a total of 18,311 people will have arrived in Greece by land this year. Added to the 34,711 people who we can project to arrive by sea by the same date, this would mean that 53,022 people – at least those who have been registered – will have entered Greece in 2018.

Projected arrivals for 2018

5. The Missing 17,951

The importance of the increase in arrivals in 2018 is not limited to the fact that it constitutes a 42 per cent rise in desperate people fleeing to Europe, despite the Turkish coastguard being used by the EU as an effective militia arm, designed to prevent entries, and the draconian detention policies which await them.

It is also significant because according to official estimates, there were 70,142 refugees in Greece on 1 January 2018. And Greece – and by extension the entire EU (including the UK, which remains a member at present) has not coped well with that number. Men, women and children have died in refugee camps due to cold winters, and some people have now been living in camps and detention centres – in tents, in some cases, and in prefabs in others – for two years and seven months.

An increase of 53,022 – 76 per cent – is likely to be a disaster, unless significant improvements are made across the board in relation to the refugee response, and no such improvements are even being seriously discussed, at the time of writing.

In Greece at present, along with the 19,464 men, women and children trapped on the islands, there are, according to UNHCR, 42,099 people in the asylum system on the Greek mainland.

These include 3,320 unaccompanied children – those without family or adult guardians – of whom just 1,191 are in designated shelters: the rest are currently housed in hotels, and in the case of 127 children, are ‘living’ in police cells. Three hundred registered lone children – nine per cent – are listed as ‘location unknown’.

And to these, we can add those people currently held in mainland detention centres, those who are ‘self-settled’, those in camps not overseen by UNHCR, and the 2,336 people who have arrived on the mainland since 30th September, when the last UNHCR report was issued.

Current ‘confirmed’ refugee numbers

However, as already noted in this piece, some 37,842 people have arrived in Greece by land and sea since 1st January this year, while there were 70,142 men, women and children in the asylum application system – or who had been granted asylum – on 1st January. In total, there should be 107,984 refugee men, women and children in Greece as of 18th October 2018.

There are three systems, however, by which men, women and children can be removed from Greece under the refugee response – the EU’s relocation programme, the deeply immoral EU/Turkey Deal, under which people adjudged to have arrived without reason can be forced back to Turkey; and the IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) scheme.

The latter is, at best, morally dubious, because it offers cash to refugees in order for them to return home, but only if they do not start an application for asylum. In effect, they are paid not to enter Europe, a decision made far more likely by the abysmal conditions in the island detention centres.

However, IOM, which oversees the EU relocation scheme, has not updated any of the scheme’s programme’s statistics since 4 April, when just 295 people had been relocated since 1st January. The scheme officially ended in September 2017.

The Greek government reports that 1,745 people have so far this year been removed from Greece under the EU/Turkey Deal, while from 1 January-31 August, IOM removed 3,135 people under the EU relocation scheme as well as AVRR.

In short, of the 107,984 refugees who we could expect to be in Greece, only 5,175 people have left under ‘usual’ – albeit immoral – means. This would leave a total of 102,809 men, women and children.

Expected number

However, when we collate the numbers available regarding the refugee response in Greece – from UNHCR, IOM, the Greek government and a variety of internal Greek and international sources – there is evidence for just 84,858.

At a later date, we will discuss some of the reasons why this might be. They include double-counting by the government and aid agencies, including UNHCR; people feeling so desperate that they simply feel they must ‘disappear’ in order to live a decent life; and people forced into crime and trafficking rings. None reflect well on the European response to desperate men, women and children who have fled seeking safety from devastation, victimisation, and death.

Whatever the reasons for the startling gap between the number of people whose whereabouts are known, and those who have ‘disappeared’, there are currently 17,951 refugees – roughly 17.5 per cent, more than one in every six people – unaccounted for in Greece, on top of the nine per cent of unaccompanied children already acknowledged to be missing.

No-one in Europe can pretend that this is acceptable.

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