Syrian refugees in Europe: The law is not on their side

Europe should do more than export arms to war zones.

Syrian refugees gather at Syntagma Square calling for Greek government assistance [Getty]

More than 150 Syrian war refugees, old men, women and babies among them, have been protesting peacefully opposite the Greek parliament in the heart of Athens since November 19. Some of them have been on a hunger strike since Monday and several have been hospitalised. They demand nothing more and nothing less than the equivalent of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the US declaration of independence. But to actually put this into practice, they must defy laws currently in place in the European Union, of which Greece is a member.

The refugees, who have even set up a dedicated Facebook page, want to leave Greece with adequate travel documents. They want to pursue happiness in other European nations, where they believe conditions will be better for them compared to the crisis-hit country where they are currently stuck, having escaped war and ruthless traffickers.

“We demand the Greek government to find a solution for Syrians in Greece,” reads a sign in English, at the small protest camp which the refugees take care to keep tidy. Packs of food are set out but left untouched. One night, a homeless Greek woman couldn’t help herself from taking a tangerine from an open bag and was pleasantly surprised when no one reacted.

Bound by the Dublin System

Unfortunately, and despite the refugees’ best behaviour, Greek authorities cannot legally grant the protesters the right to travel freely to other European countries and look for work or apply for asylum there. Greece is bound by the so-called Dublin System (including all EU member countries apart from Croatia, along with Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), whereby refugees making their way to Europe must apply for asylum and then remain in the European country they first reach. Greece and Italy bear the brunt of this burden.

Unfortunately and despite the refugees’ best behaviour, Greek authorities cannot legally grant the protesters the right to travel freely to other European countries and look for work or apply for asylum there.

Interestingly, Syrians enjoy a privileged status, compared to other refugees – if qualifying for war refugee status can be called a privilege. Provided they have a Syrian passport or identification card, even expired, they can apply for and receive political asylum on the same day. No other alien nationals have this right. If a refugee has a relative already benefiting from asylum in another Dublin System country, they can apply to be reunited with them. This would take two to three months.

If a Syrian refugee does not have any documents, they again can apply for asylum in Greece, but the process would take longer. Applying for asylum would mean the protesters would have access to aid for food, housing and public healthcare, as a government minister who met them on the square last week tried to explain. As for the right to work, unfortunately they would be in the same precarious situation as most Greeks, who face soaring unemployment.

Indeed, Greece has seen its economy lose a quarter of its output in the last six years. Last Tuesday, if the protesters had looked to the other side of Syntagma Square, they would have seen the offices of Greece’s finance ministry still lit, deep into the night, as officials were preparing for tough negotiations with international creditors.

Even so, it is interesting to see other groups of Greek protesters offering support. For example, among the first to help, bringing food, clothes and blankets, were the almost 600 public sector cleaning ladies who were fired because of the austerity measures and who have staged another sit-in not far from the square. The Syrian protesters are aware of all this and that is why they are refusing to apply for asylum.

What about Palestinians and Iraqis?

Syrians, of course, are not the only foreigners suffering. Palestinians, who for years were living as refugees in Syria, have seen their lives once again torn inside out. And never mind those seeking to escape the permanent pain of the West Bank and Gaza. This recently was put in the spotlight by the story of a young Palestinian girl who left Syria for Europe with her parents. Her parents drowned at sea when traffickers rammed their boat. Approximately 500 souls were lost. Masa Dasouki survived, to face a different kind of ordeal, as she is now living in an Athens orphanage and for the moment cannot be reunited with her uncle, who got asylum in Sweden. The situation has grown worse for Iraqis, too.

Moreover, the situation for all migrants in Greece, simply is bad. A new documentary by acclaimed Palestinian film-maker Mahdi Fleifel illustrates one aspect. The other aspect is the plight of those migrants held in detention camps. In the rest of Europe it is not ideal, either. Yet thousands keep coming.

It would seem that the Syrian protesters are demanding the impossible. They do not have the law on their side. But laws can change. Europe should be doing something more than export arms. And countries like Greece and Italy should not become dumping grounds for the world’s wretched. Even the pope recently urged European leaders to do more for migrants. So, what is left? Divine intervention?

Menelaos Tzafalias is a freelance journalist and producer based in Athens, Greece. He has worked as an associate producer on the documentary “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre”, a story about migrants and labour relations in early 20th century US.