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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

One Year On: We Need Your Help, Commissioner

Moria 2 November 2020. Picture by Mohammad Reza

Dear Madam Commissioner, Ms Johansson,

Welcome back to Greece.

We hope you will enjoy your time here, but we are afraid we must let you know that since your last visit, just over a year ago, things have not been going well.

While you were away

From 1 March 2020 (which we know was a couple of weeks before your visit) to 21 March 2021, 4,554 men, women and children were registered as new arrivals at refugee camps on the Greek islands.

In one particularly terrible case, two teenage boys reached a refugee camp on Samos, in the Aegean Sea, where they intended to apply for asylum as is their legal right.

Uniformed Greek officers took them out of the camp, claiming they (the boys) were being taken for COVID-19 tests. Instead, they were forced onto a Greek coastguard vessel and taken out to sea, where they were dumped in an engineless life-raft – effectively an inflatable tent – and set adrift.

That case has been registered with the European Court of Human Rights.

In an even more savage and completely unacceptable defiance of international law, showing not only disdain for the human rights of men, women and children trying to find safe places to live – in fact just at this stage trying to be allowed to apply for the right to live somewhere safe – seven men were set adrift by Greek officials on Friday 19 March 2021. All seven had been put in plastic hand restraints.

Two of the seven drowned at sea. Their bodies have been recovered. One of the men died at Cesme hospital, Western Turkey, soon after the remaining members of the group were rescued by the Turkish Coastguard. A fourth man has still not been found.

In short, at least three – almost certainly four – people have been killed at sea having been handcuffed and then set adrift. Their crime? Attempting to reach a place of safety in which they could apply for asylum.

We are particularly keen to bring this to your attention because we know that just before your last visit to Greece, you specifically stated that the Greek government ‘must uphold the right to asylum’ and ‘you can’t beat them {refugees and asylum seekers}’.

With this in mind we must note that all pushbacks and all other efforts to prevent people from entering the proper legal process and apply for asylum are illegal. There are dozens of cases in which pushed-back men, women and children testify to having been beaten by uniformed Greek officers before being forced out of Greece, and in the 19 March 2021 case, at least three people were killed by the Greek government’s practice.

We must call upon you, as a representative of the European Union, to support international law, and to end this disgusting practice.

Unfortunately, that is not all.

As you know, on 9 September 2020, a fire destroyed Moria refugee camp on Lesvos.

The camp was a disgrace in every possibly term. Hot water and electricity were available sporadically at best, the food was atrocious, people died in the winter, and the camp was consistently at four or more times its safe capacity – the latter was in fact the reason why the fire was able to do so much damage.

Astonishing, given that this was a centre for extraordinarily vulnerable people, in the world’s richest-ever political bloc, in the 21st Century.

But one might have hoped – especially given that the EU gave the Greek government €750,000 to deal with the disaster - that something better could have been provided.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

The Greek government has opened another tent camp, which flooded within three weeks of opening, and has flooded four times since, ruining people’s few remaining possessions.

There was no electricity whatsoever at the camp for almost four months, and no showers for almost as long: people had to wash with buckets of cold water.

This would have been bad enough in a secluded site in the middle of summer (it would in fact have been absolutely unacceptable even then) but the reality is that this was mid-winter, in an exposed location on the sea-front, with the wind whipping across the site.

Sadly, that is not all. As well as tents being destroyed by extreme weather conditions, it has also been found that this site – a former military training ground littered with ordnance of the exact type these men, women and children have fled – has levels of lead far in excess of those safe for for human habitation. That is, these people, seeking somewhere decent to live, have instead been forced into a freezing, Mediaeval nightmare, in which they risk lead poisoning simply by being alive.

That risk increases every day.

As an extra relevant note, we feel we should also inform you that on 25 March 2021, the day before we put this short letter together for you, Vathy refugee camp on Samos was very nearly four times over its safe capacity: 3,179 men, women and children are crammed into a camp with a capacity of 648.

VIAL camp at Chios is also over capacity, with 1,344 people in a space which is allowed – by the safety regulations designed by the Greek state – to accommodate 1,014.

We must request, Madame Commissioner, that you act to end this dangerous, inhumane, illegal and immoral situation.

We are aware that since your last visit, you have liaised with Mr Notis Mitarachis, Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum, regarding a series of ‘new camps’ to be built on the Aegean islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos.

We understand that these have been sold to you as ‘better-equipped’ than the tent camps currently in place here.

They may well be. They will also have rooves – something so far left out of the EU’s refugee response in the five years since the EU-Turkey Statement came into effect in March 2016.

For those reasons, we can understand that you may believe this is a ‘step forward’ for Greece, for the EU, and for the men, women and children seeking to build lives here having been forced from their homes by war, terror, chaos, disease, disaster and death.

But we feel we must inform you that the Greek government intends for these to be closed camps. That the people who enter them (those who get that far, we should say, as in the last 12 months more than twice as many people have been illegally pushed-back by the Greek government before getting the chance) will not be allowed to leave – at all – until their asylum applications have been processed.

We note this because we know you oppose this, and promised on 10 September 2020 that the EU ‘will not fund closed camps’. Yet, perhaps because you were not made aware of the full situation, you agreed less than three months later, that the EU would in fact fund these camps.

We know you know that locking up asylum seekers solely because they are asylum seekers is illegal. We also know that you do not want to fund closed camps.

We feel we should also remind you that the current ‘turnaround’ time for asylum applications – from the moment a person enters the system to the moment at which a decision is made – here in Greece is five years. These men, women and children will be imprisoned – locked in a building they are not allowed to leave – for five years. Having committed no crime.

This means there will be children who will spend more time locked up for no reason whatsoever – than they have been alive up to the point they arrive in the EU.

We know you do not want this.

We must request you prevent these ‘closed camps’ – to all intents and purposes jails – from being opened.

On the mainland, too, things are extraordinarily bad.

The refugee camps all over the country have been on the strictest lockdown in periods during which the rest of Greece has seen shops, bars and restaurants open.

There is no excuse for this whatsoever.

The government is building walls around six camps in Northern Greece, for absolutely no sensible reason whatsoever.

Meanwhile, when the government moves people from the islands to the mainland, it either forces them into the already overcrowded mainland camps – at Katsikas, in Epirus, men, women and children have had less then three square metres of living space per person for more than 12 months now – or it forces people out of those camps to make space for the arrivals from the islands, with no decent places for them to move to.

Once again, there is no excuse or reason for this. It would be horrifying in a small nation-state in the bottom ten percent of global economic strength. In the EU, it is simply impossible to accept.

We must request, Madam Commissioner, that you act to end this atrocious situation. Whether by helping Greece utilise the 500,000 buildings which currently sit empty within its borders, or by making sure other EU member states offer decent places for these men, women and children to live, we implore you to act to end the suffering of these people.

Madam Commissioner, we – like you – know that the EU can and should be a beacon of legal and decent behaviour towards people in need, and a protector and promoter of international law. But it will only be this if it acts to make it happen. And at present, here in Greece, it is very far from it.

Please help us to act to correct the horrifying, immoral, illegal, and dangerous reality which is the European Union as experienced by innocent men, women and children seeking a decent place to live.

Thank you very much,

Yours faithfully,

Koraki and concerned citizens from Greece, the EU and elsewhere


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