Refugees trapped in Greece need a plan that works

Europe’s abysmal handling of the global refugee crisis and of the manageable number of people arriving at its borders looking for protection are going down in history as a stain on our collective conscience.

European governments are failing refugees and the European Union is betraying the very principles upon which it was founded: freedom, equality, human rights and the rule of law.

Instead of using the tools at its disposal to welcome its fair share of the global refugee population, Europe is increasingly looking to make deals that trap refugees in other countries.

One such deal, the EU-Turkey Statement (known as the EU-Turkey deal), is flawed and it is painfully evident that stockpiling refugees on Greek islands does not work.

“Let us out of this place as soon as possible…..”

B.K.D. 17-year old Syrian Kurdish boy, Chios, Greece

The EU-Turkey Deal

Among Europe’s failed migration policies, the EU-Turkey deal stands out as a knife in the heart of the international refugee protection system.

Under the deal, all asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands via Turkey are to be returned to Turkey on the flawed assumption that their rights as refugees will be respected there. In return, in theory at least, Europe agreed to accept one Syrian asylum-seeker from Turkey for every Syrian sent back to Turkey.

Legal challenges have blocked the return of asylum-seekers to Turkey for now. But nobody knows how long this will last.

In the meantime hundreds of refugees and migrants are arriving each week, even if their number has decreased significantly since the deal came into effect.

Since then, all new arrivals are being held on the Greek islands, resulting in severe overcrowding, appalling conditions, uncertainty about their future and the crushing of hope. 

A year after it came into effect, the human cost of this deal has become abundantly clear on the Greek islands, where tens of thousands of refugees remain trapped.

Reception efforts and resources to welcome refugees have been diverted to detention, deterrence and finding asylum applications inadmissible on the premise of Turkey being a safe country.

These islands where volunteers from across Europe have provided a warm welcome have been transformed into islands of despair, a so-called ‘home’ for those who must suffer so that others are discouraged from joining them. 

Kadheeja’s story

“I left Iraq because there were a lot of problems…They killed my brother without any reason… my father had a bullet in his head… 

We came to Europe because we need a safe place.”

– Kadheeja, Iraqi refugee, trapped on Chios.

Noori’s story

“Noori” is a young Syrian who comes from a family of doctors. As the war continued he too wanted to help the injured, so he went to study nursing at university.

But in April 2015 his village was hit and he saw two neighbouring families die with his own eyes. Devastated, Noori left Syria and headed to Europe in search of safety.

His journey took him through Turkey, but getting in wasn’t easy. The first two times he was arrested, beaten and sent back to Syria. On his third attempt he said they were attacked by an armed group and 11 of his companions were killed. 

Finally he made it in, but fellow Syrians told him how difficult it was to get work and following the failed coup attempt in July 2016 the situation was even more unstable. Noori was scared and felt that there was ‘’no future’’ for him there, so he travelled on to Greece.

He applied for asylum days after arriving on Lesvos but his application was declared “inadmissible” and dismissed without further examination. Turkey was wrongly deemed a “safe country” for Noori to return to and he was arrested immediately.

He has been in detention for more than six months while his lawyers challenge the decision. He is being held in inhuman and degrading conditions in Lesvos police station, far in excess of the 90 day legal maximum, and applications for his release have been rejected. 

He has scabies as a result of the dire conditions. Furthermore, his detention continues despite a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the aerial bombings in Syria.

Noori is at risk of becoming the first Syrian asylum-seeker to be forcibly returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey Deal, which would set a dangerous precedent for the potential return of more asylum-seekers.

A worrying trend

When I first arrived here, I had a lot of hope, a lot of dreams…

Offa, a Syrian painter trapped on Chios since August 2016

The failure and the human cost of the EU-Turkey Deal should serve as a warning against future deals with other countries, which leaders stand poised to sign up to.

The EU-Turkey deal cannot be used as a blueprint for dealing with the global refugee crisis. Europe has a duty, both moral and legal, to welcome those fleeing conflict and persecution. This is not a responsibility to be outsourced to other countries. The cost to Europe – and the cost to refugees – is too high.

But it does not have to be this way. We can do better. 

Time for a real deal

It’s time for European leaders to do the right thing. They must urgently put in place an effective plan to help refugees; a real deal based on protection, shared responsibility and international law.

This will be the difference between disorganized arrivals which benefit criminal smugglers and orderly, manageable arrivals. It will be the difference between human rights and human suffering.

Fortress Europe is not a solution. We can do better than this and we must, because if we want to be a society which prides itself on being free, fair and just, there is no work-around for protecting refugees.