Concern over EU plans to send refugees back to Greece

Refugees and migrants living in overcrowded camps in Greece as Europe prepares to return newly arrived asylum seekers.

Stranded Syrian refugees carry their children through a snow storm at a refugee camp north of Athens
Conditions in Greek refugee camps have worsened with winter weather [Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]

Refugees, the Greek government and non-governmental organisations have expressed concern about Germany’s decision to return asylum seekers to Greece in mid-March. 

The German interior ministry announced on Thursday that it would return newly arrived asylum seekers to Greece – effectively suspending a five-year ban on such returns – in accordance with the Dublin Regulation protocol.

Helpless refugees freezing in cold-hit Greece

Under the Dublin rules, asylum seekers must be returned to the first European Union member country they entered. However, Germany has for the past five years refrained from carrying out such transfers owing to the increasingly poor humanitarian conditions refugees and migrants endure in Greece.

The decision came just a month after the European Commission recommended that member countries return refugees and migrants who first entered the EU in Greece back to that country. 

Abdulazez Dukhan, an 18-year-old who arrived in Greece nearly a year ago after fleeing Homs in Syria, said sending asylum seekers back to Greece will lead to a “sorry situation”. 

Dukhan is among the estimated 62,000 refugees and migrants who are currently stranded in mainland Greece and its islands owing to a wave of border closures across Europe that followed an agreement between the EU and Turkey in March 2016.

He came to Athens two weeks ago after living in a camp in northern Greece’s Thessaloniki for several months. “Here it’s really difficult. I’ve been visiting many camps,” he told Al Jazeera.

“There are so many people in squats [in Athens] also, in abandoned buildings and schools. The camps don’t want to take any more people.”

An estimated 62,000 refugees and migrants are stuck in Greece [Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters]
An estimated 62,000 refugees and migrants are stuck in Greece [Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters]

Dukhan, who runs Through Refugee Eyes, a photography-driven social media project to raise awareness about the plight of refugees, said the relocation programme for asylum seekers has moved at a snail’s pace. 

“The people waiting for [relocation] interviews don’t have anything. There’s no work, you can’t do anything.” 

Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has criticised the EU’s plans, arguing that the current legal framework is “unable to respond to the historic migration flows and leaves the burden to the member states that migrants first arrive in”. 

Speaking in December, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s deputy head, argued that the returns will help to bring back Europe’s asylum system to its normal state. 

“This will provide further disincentives against irregular entry and secondary movements, and is an important step for the return to a normally functioning … system,” he said. 

‘Nonsensical idea’

Elinor Raikes, regional representative for the Europe response at the International Rescue Committee, described the plan as a “rather premature and nonsensical idea”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Raikes described the conditions in many Greek camps as “substandard and dangerous”.

“We are obviously very concerned by this announcement that EU leaders will start sending back asylum seekers to first countries of entry like Greece and Italy.”

In recent weeks, winter weather has gripped the region and left thousands of refugees and migrants – particularly those living in tents and irregular housing – exposed to the elements. 

Raikes said: “The extreme weather of the last week has exposed even more of the shortcomings of the EU’s response and the response of countries in the Balkans.”

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She added that Greek authorities should look for a better solution to accommodate the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who are already in the country. “Camps should be a short-term humanitarian intervention.”

As of December, the EU had relocated only 5 percent of refugees and migrants who registered for the programme in Greece and Italy. The union intends to relocate the entire 160,000 people by September. 

Greece's migration minister says the burden of the refugee crisis has been unfairly placed on Greece [Orestis Panagiotou/EPA]  
Greece’s migration minister says the burden of the refugee crisis has been unfairly placed on Greece [Orestis Panagiotou/EPA]  

Last month, Greece’s Mouzalas claimed that no refugees or migrants were living in tents or without heating, aside from around 100 people in the Athens-area Elliniko camp.

Mouzalas reiterated his claim on January 5, saying that “there are no refugees or migrants living in the cold any more” with the exception of roughly 140 tents in Athens and the Vayiohori camp near Thessaloniki.

‘Not a safe place for refugees’

Yet, in a joint statement published last week, dozens of solidarity networks and NGOs denounced the living conditions in Greece’s refugee camps, pointing out that several camps lack heating, electricity and hot water.

The statement urged all parties to “oppose any plans by the European Commission and European governments to resume planned Dublin returns to Greece”, arguing that “survival in Greece cannot be guaranteed for the refugees in light of the inadequate living conditions”.

Separately, Human Rights Watch urged the EU not to move forward with the returns.

Salam Aldeen, the Danish-Iraqi founder of the Team Humanity organisation, said asylum seekers who passed through Greece “have already been through the hell of living here”.

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“Greece is not a safe place to live for refugees. I have seen people in incredibly freezing conditions. I have seen children with diseases,” he told Al Jazeera. “They don’t have a future in Greece.”

Violent gangs threaten refugees in Greece

Milena Zajovic, a Zagreb-based spokesperson for the Are You Syrious refugee solidarity group, accused Europe of “playing ping pong” with refugees and migrants.

She argued that European border closures that followed the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, along with pushbacks on borders across the Balkans, have led to more desperate people using smugglers and other dangerous means to reach Western Europe.

For those stuck in Greece, degrading conditions in camps, a lack of money, little access to humanitarian goods and an ostensible increase in far-right attacks have created a web of daily complications at a time when hope that the borders will reopen shrinks yet more.

“Our volunteers work with people who are losing their limbs to frostbite and resorting to prostitution in order to provide for their families, because Greek officials and international players such as UNHCR don’t seem to have the capacity to properly take care of over 60,000 people stranded in Greece,” Zajovic told Al Jazeera.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @Anealla

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Source: Al Jazeera