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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Blame; or, very few stories have only one side

In brief:

More than 1,000 people arrived by sea to the Aegean islands this week;

Vagiochori closes (officially on 2 November, but some people have been left with no alternative accommodation)

1. New arrivals by sea, 26 October-1 November 2018

2. Transfers from the islands

3. Detention centre populations

4. Combined land and sea arrivals to 25 October 2018 (land arrivals still using 31 August figure)

5. Mainland refugee population (‘confirmed’, as at 30 October & 1 November)

6. Monthly arrivals and daily averages

*2017 daily average arrivals, 81.87 people

Portugal, and relocations

Two weeks ago, our update focussed heavily on the fact that there were – at that point – 17,951 refugee men, women and children, missing in Greece. By now, the number is even higher, though we will not comment fully again on this until the latest figures for October are all available and published.

In fact, as we noted, the situation is significantly more alarming than that, because UNHCR lists the refugee population in Greece as 64,470, and this is the figure most often used by the media and aid organisations alike.

We must add to that figure another 20,458 people, to include ‘self-settled’ refugees, those being protected by other organisations, and those currently held in detention centres, who are not included in UNHCR’s estimates.

But even then, we have only accounted for 88,858 men, women and children.

In fact, by 18 October this year, there were – taking into consideration all new arrivals into Greece since 1 January, as well as all those who have left the state through official programmes – 102,809 refugees in Greece (up to and including 1 November, there have been another 1,794 new arrivals on the Aegean islands alone).

This is almost double the consistently-cited UNHCR estimate, and 17,951 more even than the total compiled using all organisational data.

That is, there were, on 18 October 2018, 17,951 refugees missing in Greece.

One factor which we noted in this piece was that data on the EU’s refugee relocation plan, under which a total of 98,255 people were supposed to be moved from Greece and Italy by 26 September 2017, had not been updated since 4 April this year.

At that point, just 34,557 people (21,999 from Greece, 12,558 from Italy) had been relocated – just over a third.

The scheme did not cease to operate at 26 September – some people who had applied could still be moved – but no new applicants have been accepted since that date.

We noted then that, at best, this meant that those of us working on the response could not be certain exactly how many people had been moved, and therefore how many remained in Greece, since 4 April. At worst, it meant that no-one had moved since that date.

A development this week indicates that the ‘worst’ is in fact the case.

Portugal and Greece announced on 26 October (the story linked below was published on Wednesday 31 October) that the former state had agreed an accord with the latter to begin a ‘pilot phase’ of ‘new’ relocations, under which 100 men, women and children would be allowed to begin new lives in Portugal. Depending on the pilot scheme’s success, a further 1,000 people will be moved between 1 January and 31 December 2019.

The agreement raises a number of serious concerns.

But before we come to them, we should state that though what follows may look like we are ‘blaming’ Portugal, the state has in fact been one of the better responders to the refugee situation in Greece.

It has, up to 4 April 2018 (we will revisit this) moved 1,192 refugees from Greece. Only five of the EU’s 28 member states have accepted more. And in terms of its obligation under the EU relocation programme, it has met 67 per cent of its target: only three of the five states to have accepted more, Ireland, Finland and Sweden, have done better (though only Ireland has reached its target) and the scheme’s average, as noted above, is 35.2 per cent.

Equally, the 1,000 people scheduled for relocation from Greece to Portugal – should they all be moved – would mean that the latter had in fact exceeded its obligation by 414 (2,192 people moved compared to an obligation to move 1,778).

By comparison, Austria has accepted zero refugees from Greece (plus 45 from Italy) compared to an obligation to welcome a total of 1,953 from both states. Poland has accepted zero refugees from either state, despite an obligation to accept 6,182, the Czech Republic has accepted 12 people from Greece and Italy combined (in fact, all 12 were moved from Greece) compared to a target of 2,691, while Slovakia has accepted a total of 16 people (also all from Greece) compared with an obligation to welcome 902.

The UK has refused even to take part in the programme, and so has accepted zero refugees under the scheme.

This is to state that with only a little information, one could make the mistake of ‘blaming’ Portugal.

Now, Portugal is of course ‘to blame’ for its failure to move as many people as it said it would in reasonable time, though we should note that only Malta (168 relocations) has met its target, and Ireland relocated more than its obligation (1,022 compared to 600), in the three years, one month and one week since the agreement came into operation.

It is also important to take into account that Leichtenstein {10}, Norway {1,508} and Switzerland {1,500} entered the scheme voluntarily, as non-EU member states, and met the targets they set completely. Without their combined 3,018 relocations, the EU states’ actual achievement is just 31,539 relocations out of a targeted 98,255 – a success rate of just 32 per cent: less than a third of all required and promised relocations.

In the light of this, Portugal’s effort to date, and its commitment for the next 14 months, are to be welcomed – though it is depressing to conclude that its efforts, which have seen it take well over three years to fulfil just 67 per cent of its basic obligations for a scheme designed to last two years, are comparatively ‘praiseworthy’.

But there are two further concerns.

The first is that in the last seven days alone (26 October-1 November), more than 1,000 people (1,031) have arrived on the Aegean islands. That is, Portugal’s pledge for the next 12 months is not enough to meet one week’s worth of new arrivals by sea alone (once again, before we ‘blame’ Portugal, we should note that at present literally no other EU state has made such an agreement: Portugal is doing too little and is absolutely outstripping the rest of the EU on this issue), let alone those arriving by land.

The second brings us back to where we began.

Because as we stated at the start of this section, we were concerned that no data on movements from Greece through the EU refugee relocation programme had been updated since 4 April 2018, which – we surmised – either meant that someone was failing to do their job, and we could not possibly know how many refugees were supposed to be in Greece, or alternatively that no-one had been moved since that date.

The report on Portugal’s accord with Greece appears to make it clear that the latter is the case.

Because within it, it is revealed that the official EU Commission data on the relocation programme records that to 30 October, Portugal had moved a total of 1,192 men, women and children from Greece. Exactly the same number it had moved by 4 April this year.

In no case is a state listed in this data as having moved more people from Greece than at 4 April 2018, even though some states (notably Austria) have been listed as moving more from Italy (Austria has now accepted 45 refugees from Italy, and zero from Greece, for example. However, only 166 more people have been moved from Italy since 4 April), meaning that this is not data which has been ‘regurgitated’ from the 4 April update, but is accurate up to and including 30 October.

That is, according to the most recent data from the organisation in overall control of the scheme, the relocation programme has moved nobody from Greece in the last seven months. There are still – at least – 17,951 men, women and children missing in Greece, and the ‘go-to’ figure for the number of refugees in the state in fact includes less than half of Greece’s refugee population.

Once again, any ‘blame’ aimed at Portugal – as if ‘blame’ were ever a useful idea in any case – should certainly not be laid at its door alone. There are far better places for it all over Europe.

Relocations from Greece since 4 April 2018


A brief note about Thiva, where early on 31 October, five men were stabbed and a woman badly burned in an outbreak of violence at the camp.

The exact reasons for this incident are still not entirely clear, but four of the six people injured, including the woman, were rushed to hospital as a result of their wounds.

There is, of course, no ‘excuse’ for any attempt on another person’s life, but we would note that the camp has large populations of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans (along with Pakistani and Iranian people), and like every camp in Greece forces people who have already experienced extreme hardship, with its resulting mental health endangerment, into dehumanising conditions and to face their own preconceptions about other national groups on a daily basis.

As one example of the conditions at Thiva – the way in which people who fear they have been forgotten by the world are forcibly reminded of what they fear to be fact – a three and a half year-old boy drowned on 18 June this year, when he fell into an unprotected sewage cesspool.

Such an event would be a tragic experience for any family and community. It is even more bitter when the community itself has fled terror and death and arrived in the EU, only to lose a young child in the place they have been forced to live.

There is, in fact, no problem at all with the concept of people of different races mixing with one another – people should and must meet in order to overcome prejudicial attitudes – but to ask them to do so when they are cast into a living nightmare, with the added pressure of an ever-increasing sense of competition for resources and simply to be remembered, is an extremely unreasonable.

This short note is intended only as a reminder: even when people are to blame for their behaviour, we must look its causes, in order to address them and reduce the likelihood of other terrible acts and occurrences.

Greece and (the Republic of North) Macedonia

Once again, a brief note on a development in Greek politics and its international relations.

Yesterday, (1 November 2018) saw the first commercial flight in 12 years, between Greece and the state which is soon set to be called The Republic of North Macedonia (RNM).

The service, from Athens to Skopje, will fly twice per week, the first time a direct air link has existed since 2006.

Though flights between the two states ran between 2003 and 2006, they were stopped by Greece when RNM – then FYROM – named its international airport after Alexander the Great.

In February, as a gesture of goodwill, the state’s Left-wing government, elected in May 2017 with Zoran Zaev, renamed the airport Skopje International.

RNM’s Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani flew in Thursday’s service, having been in Athens to discuss his state’s new name. Following the talks, on his return to RNM, he said that Greece was now his state’s ‘greatest ally’ and that the service was ‘a symbol of our countries’ building relations’.

Those of you who have read our previous pieces on Greece’s arguments with FYROM/RNM, will be aware that we have a very clear view on this – and a view with which many people in the Greek region of Makedonia disagree.

However, it is to be hoped that the new name of the Republic of North Macedonia – narrowly voted for in October by the state’s population – will bring the arguments which were fuelled by politicians and others in both nations, to an end.

Greece has already pledged to support RNM’s entry to NATO and the EU – both of which the latter was denied by Greek veto – as a result of the agreement on its new name.

Camp Update: Katsikas, Epirus, Western Greece

As noted in previous updates, the Greek government has, since September, been moving some of the ‘most vulnerable’ (91 per cent of refugees in the island detention centres are now officially listed as vulnerable*) people from the Aegean islands’ detention centres.

*Koraki note

In fact, this process was supposed to have begun in August, and the Greek government had said it would have moved 3,000 people by mid-September. In the event, it actually started at the beginning of September, and by the middle of that month, 1,746 people had been moved to the mainland.

Even this only happened after UNHCR, the islands’ municipalities and the European Commission made consistent demands and threats that people on the islands must be moved immediately from the detention centres, and as we have noted in previous updates, in many cases they have been moved to camps which had previously been closed because they were regarded as unfit for human habitation.

We should note that from 1 September to 31 October, the Greek government has moved 6,724 people from the islands. This must be regarded as a positive step.

Unfortunately, in the same period, 7,994 people have arrived.

That is, even under intense regional and international pressure, the Greek government’s programme has, far from reducing the number of people trapped in inhuman conditions on the islands, actually failed even to keep pace with the rate of arrivals, despite the fact that the people moved under the scheme are often being placed in camps already declared unfit for human habitation.

In fact, since 1 September, the island detention centres’ population has increased, by 1,273.

The team at Habibi.Works, a facility close to Katsikas camp, where Greek people and refugees can work, create, use 3-d printers, laser cutters, sew, cook and take part in other creative and artistic activities, describes the situation at the camp since several hundred people arrived under the scheme in September and early October.

A new chapter began for Katsikas refugee camp, Epirus, on 29 September, when 14 red buses full of people arrived.

The camp’s size almost doubled on this day: from around 500 people to around 900 people, with new arrivals to be expected (since this was written, the camp has grown in population to around 1,100 people – discussions, though at present they are only that, suggest that this may soon be extended further, to 1,800 people*). They have been moved from the island detention centres, primarily Moria on Lesvos.

*Koraki note

At Katsikas, hygiene is far better than the conditions at the detention centres, and people live in containers rather than tents.

Even though conditions are better than the detention centres, where people have been going through hell, they rightly see and describe grievances, and demand dignified living conditions in their new ‘accommodation’.

They, and those who were already living in camps in Epirus, raise the following concerns:

People who are registering for asylum in Greece have been told they must wait until the year 2021 before they are even interviewed about their asylum claim.

This means a wait of up to three years, in which time these men, women and children face the real possibility of living in containers, in camps outside of major population areas: without housing, and pushed to the very peripheries of society, they are caught for an indeterminate period – but certainly no less than two years and three months – in a legal limbo.

At Katsikas, this means the following:

  1. Because the Ministry of Education plans to construct (but has not yet built) a kindergarten on-site, children will be completely without education for at least the next few months, and even then will not be able to learn and develop alongside Greek children, thus losing any chance of early integration into their new society (we should point out that children being at school would also offer their parents a way to meet members of their new community, and become a part of it).

  2. Because the ‘Social Pharmacy’ on-site closed in September, after two years of supporting financially-weak people with chronic diseases, those people now face the real possibility of more than two years of being unable to afford medicine unless they choose to save from other essential purposes. ‘Health or food’ is now a real prospect in 21st Century Europe.

  3. Oxfam, Doctors of the World, and MSF have already left Katsikas camp, and it is strongly rumoured that UNHCR may also pull out of operations in Epirus at the end of this year, because its local offices will apparently not receive funding for the year 2019. This means that at the moment that there are more men, women and children living at Katsikas than at any point since December 2016, there are fewer people working with and for them than at any time since the camp opened.

  4. There are around 3,000 refugees currently living in Epirus. Soon there will be more. They have fled war, chaos, terror and the real threat of death in their homelands, some losing friends and family members before they went, and others losing the people they love on their journeys to safety. Since they arrived, they have spent up to two years and seven months in massively-overcrowded and under-provisioned detention centres, and they now face three more years without proper homes or even legal status. But they are attended by only a tiny unit of psychologists who are expected to move and work all across the region. There is no adequate response in place for severe trauma, depression, suicidal behaviour and substance abuse.

This is the reality for the men, women and children living close to Habibi.Works. How do they survive the weight of their recent past, their present, and their foreseeable futures? How do they, and those of us who work with and for them, deal with the feeling of hopelessness, frustration, loss, even the feelings of prejudice between people of different cultures which can be amplified by a fear that everyone is now competing for survival against one another?

At Habibi.Works, our approach is not based on ‘hand-outs’ or ‘looking after’ people, but on courage.

We do not regard the people at camps in Epirus who use our workshops and services as victims of their circumstances. Instead, they create and shape their circumstances whenever possible.

The newcomers to Katsikas have built and repaired a remarkable number of shelves, shoe racks, bicycles and other things since they arrived, but it is always about more than the objects created.

We encourage people to build and create, and often they go ‘home’ with the object they needed and built themselves. But they also leave the workshops with having produced something independently and with feelings of not being completely powerless; not feeling like a victim; not giving up. They can meet and share experience in a safe and protected environment, and acknowledge that people from different places follow different rules and philosophies in life; which is completely fine.

The situation here at Katsikas – and in Epirus in general – will not be solved by any single organisation. But in the face of a devastating past, and a far from stable future, providing the means for people to learn from each other and demonstrate their talents and abilities is one step towards making a shocking situation a little less difficult to bear.

For more on Habibi.Works, please visit:

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