7 de abril de 2016

Refugee crisis - indeed a European crisis 

By Ana Gomes, MEP

Over 50.000 asylum seekers are now stranded in Greece, since a group of EU Member States ganged up to close the borders and barr the so called "Balkans route". People are desperate, nowhere to go and refusing to be sent back to Turkey or to the wars and terror they escaped from, after costly and dangerous journeys to get protection in Europe.

With three other S&D MEPs  - Tanja Fajon, Paul Tang and Miltos Kyrkos - I visited last weekend several refugee camps in Greece to find out the problems and figure the implications of the EU-Turkey agreement of March 17. We were in Lesbos, where we visited the Moria "closed facility" and the Kara Tepe camp run by the municipality; in Athens we visited refugees squatting at Piraeus and in the organised camps of Schistos and Eleonas; and in Thessaloniki, se were at the government-run camp of Diavata and the wild camping site of Idomeni, on the FYROM closed border.

Here is my opinion on what I have seen: 


I came back with admiration for the Greek people, civil society and authorities. Despite being under terrible duress and deprived of resources by the austerity policies,  through their solidarity and hospitality they are saving Europe from worse disrepute. The Greek State cannot hire staff to reinforce civil protection, immigration, asylum or police. And it is the Greek Army who is providing infrastructure and logistics and securing  organised camps and "hotspots" opening up throughout the country to lodge refugees.

Sadly, I confirmed the perception that the EU-Turkey agreement is illegal and already dragging the EU into violating international law and basic human rights: the so called "closed facilities" are indeed detention centres for asylum seekers. We saw it inside the Moria camp, already becoming badly overcrowded despite only taking people arriving after 20 March. And they keep arriving -  last Friday in the morning 500, only at Lesbos. Im the Moria detention camp there were already over 2500 refugees, many forced to sleep out on the rough. The day before that, people detained at the Chios "closed facility" rioted and over 500 managed to break out and go squatting around a port...


I reinforced my belief that the EU-Turkey agreement is impracticable: people are not supposed to stay in detention beyond 25 days, but then they will be released and sent out into another limbo, since it is highly unlikely that their asylum requests will be successfully completed, even less judicially appealed, during that time lapse. Neither will relocation into another EU Member State happen in significant numbers, since very few offers for relocation have been made (Portugal, my country, is a rare exception of a proactive Member State wanting to do more than its fair share). And very few Greek and EASO officials are available to match requests and offers, even less to organise the transfer of people into another country (since October only about 1000 Syrians and Iraqis were relocated into other EU MS). 


In fact, a major problem which EUCO and EC grossly underestimated was the fact that Greek Immigration, Asylum and Home Affairs officials are dramatically overstretched, with a huge backlog in processing asylum requests for years. And, even if, as intended, priority is to be given now to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, it will be hard to speed up significantly the process. Enough to explain that if refugees want to apply for asylum, or relocation, or family reunification, they will have to do it ...via Skype! And often camps do not have even functioning Wi-Fi, not to mention the difficulty to effectively establish the Skype connection. At the Schistos camp, in Athens, where Wi-Fi works, we were told that if anyone manages to establish the Skype connection today, at best he/she will have a first interview scheduled for...next June! 

So, if EUCO and EC want to help speed up the processing of asylum, relocation and family reunification processes, they should urgently reinforce Greece's capacity in terms of admissibility/asylum/relocation/resettlement  experts and in Skype/Wi-Fi connections in camps... Besides not just promising, but actually delivering on the pledges to receive relocated asylum seekers - only 3.000 pledges were so far made and many capitals indecently constrain them by even more indecent caveats (prefer Syrians to Eritreans, or Christians to Muslims, no single young men, etc...)


We heard that EU Member States have promised at the EU Council to send Greece thousands of experts to reinforce  EASO and FRONTEX. EASO was promised 400: but this week only 35 are arriving (4 from Portugal). If FRONTEX receives much more it shows that the purpose is to actually speed up returns/deportations to Turkey, not to accelerate relocation and asylum processing...

And news of deportations (confirmed by the first occurred April 4th) are dangerously disquieting for people in camps, causing even more frustration and confusion, all that fuelling anger and violence, including domestic violence, sexual exploitation of women and children and further exploitation of refugees by traffickers. And traffickers roam around in camps: in fact the EU-Turkey deal may give them even more profit, they are already adjusting to the needs, opening up new and more dangerous routes. The only way that would dry out the human traffickers sordid business is the one that the EU Council till this days has ignored, despite much demanded in the European Parliament: opening safe and legal ways for asylum seekers and migrants to apply for protection/admission in European countries.


UNHCR, MSF and other non-governmental organisations decided to withdraw  most services (except the protection teams) from some camps, namely the "closed facilities", in order not to be complicit with refugee detention and forced returns.  News of forced returns cause panic and may soon lead to uglier scenes in the camps: all staff attending to the refugees told us that people adamantly refuse to be sent back to Turkey, some even threatening to throw them selves to the sea and drown.

UNHCR, besides, contests the notion of Turkey as a "safe country". Or that any country can be deemed "safe" for anyone or all from a certain nationality: according to the Refugee Convention, every person has the right to request asylum and have the case considered individually. And at least for Iraqi, Syrian or Turkish Kurds, Turkey is clearly not a "safe country".


But considering that EUCO and EC intend that priority to be given to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, what will happen to the Afghanis, Pakistanis, Iranians, Eritreans and Congolese and others that we met in many camps, mostly arrived before March 20? How can they be returned to Turkey or to any other country without being given the chance to apply for asylum, relocation or family reunification? And the fact is that most of the people who, we have met in the camps told us they knew nothing of those possibilities, they had asked for protection and had not been given a chance or an interlocutor to submit any application, even less by skype!...In the Schistos camp alone, over 2000 men, women and children from Afghanistan agonize in the limbo. 


We also enquired about special procedures to protect unaccompanied minors - and they continue to arrive, despite the alarming fact that over 10.000 have "disappeared". Greek authorities are conscious of the tremendous vulnerabilities, but again critically under-equipped to deal with the dimension of the problem. Expert NGOs help as much as they can, but admit that there are not even enough prosecutors to ensure a judicial authority will follow the minors. And in wild camps such as Idomeni, it is obvious that child exploitation is rife and growing...


Idomeni is the nastiest face of Europe today. As a sign ominously read by the long, dense and raucous line of people waiting to get some food: "Human Rights Don't Apply Here". 11.000 men, women and children are stranded by the closure of the border and for two months living in flimsy tents in the mud. The camp is a sort of Wild West tent city, some refugees already improvising shops... The trafficking rings roam around, instilling the illusion that borders could reopen at any moment. The 28 UNHCR  staff present and the EASO team visiting are overstretched, unable to reach out to most people to persuade them to be relocated to more structured and safe camps. And be prepared to wait there... For what and when, nobody knows! officers try to persuade people to register and understand that there are three options: reunification with relatives (I met several women with children claiming to have their husbands in Germany or Sweden), relocation and asylum in Greece. When any of those will happen or at least their formal request will start to be processed - nobody knows... That adds to the general sense of helplessness that is building tension, inclusively against officers attending to the refugees' needs.


As we saw on our way to Idomeni.  The main road was blocked by squatting refugees in hundreds of tents near a gas station. A truck approached and was forced to stop by dozens of children and adults crying out "Open up the borders". Minutes later the truck was let to pass. But a child waved a bottle with gasoline and threatened to throw it at the truck; two people used a similar to set themselves on fire in Chios last week... Worse may come to shame us all, Europeans, even more, for our incapacity to manage a problem that much poorer and vulnerable countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and even Turkey, have managed with more compassion, competence and political will.


Encouraging, that there was no sense of hostility towards us, Europeans, as we passed through the camps and talked to the refugees in so stressful and nerve wrecking situation. On the contrary, people were welcoming us with smiles and patience, some eager to tell their story and to show us their babies. In the middle of so much distress and misery, some even managed to display a sense of humour. Like the Palestinian men from Yarmouk camp (Syria) at the Diavata camp who replied, when I asked where they wanted to go: "Alemanya??? What Alemanya!! Considering what we went and are going through now, we would rather go to ...Senegal!"

Indeed, what "Alemanya"? What Germany? What EU? Frau Merkel may have had good intentions, and even a strategic sense of Germany's and Europe's demographic needs, when she announced her country's open door for refugees fleeing Iraq & Syria war last summer. But in view of the afflux it generated and the crisis engineered by the refusal of other EU Member States to share the burden and closthe borders, she chose...to outsource the problem to Turkey.

The EU-Turkey deal is sinking EU's credibility in human rights and in respect for international law. And I am not even elaborating on the outrageous succumbing of European leaders to Erdogan's blackmail...

Transferring the people from the abject conditions at Idomeni into other more structured camps in Greece and into other EUMS must be a priority. But, ultimately, the crisis can only be  solved when borders will reopen and the Schengen controls will be restored and reinforced.

The same German authorities and the same EC that nastily threaten countries like Greece and Portugal for not being able to reach decimals as per the Fiscal Compact in aleatory budget deficit targets, did not lift a finger till this day - for instance proposing to suspend European funds - against Hungary, Austria and other Visegrad Member States which ganged up to violate the Schengen Agreement by closing borders and by asphyxiating Greece with the escalation of this crisis. 

This is not my Europe, the one that I used to be proud of, the one that I want to help build. And if this is German Europe, then it is committing suicide.


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