Our island mentality

With the focus on amped up security around Calais, the wider context of refugees arriving in Europe is being ignored. In Athens, children living on the streets has become the norm. 

Alexandra Embiricos
17 August 2015

Informal refugee camp in Athens. Photo: EmbiricosThe on-going “Migrant Crisis” in Calais has dominated the front pages of every major British newspaper, and swept through social media newsfeeds. No doubt, the 3,000 or so migrants waiting for a chance to attempt to cross the English channel is cause for concern, not least because they represent the failure of a system designed to help them. Troubling also, is the stigmatising rhetoric employed by British media and politicians designating those attempting the crossing as a threat to the UK, and the shocking lack of context with which the problem in Calais is portrayed.

The wider context of refugees arriving in the rest of Europe has taken a back seat in light of amped up security around Calais, with £7m dedicated to building a fence between the slums of the Jungle and the main roads to the port and the Eurotunnel. Yet the situation in Calais is only a fraction of the problem. The issue extends in far beyond our island home.

In Athens, grassroots initiatives continue to do what they can for vulnerable refugees living in makeshift camps, but the situation is becoming completely untenable. Greece alone faces an unprecedented number of refugees landing on its island beaches. Over a thousand daily have been arriving on the shores of Mitiline over the last weeks, with those lucky enough to make the crossing filtering into Athens to live on the streets.

In the face of an economy repeatedly brought to the brink of collapse, Greece is struggling to cope without the support of its European partners. 

The view from Athens

In a small flat close to the Acropolis, a team of volunteers gather every day to cook, deliver, and distribute food to refugees with nowhere better to go than various camps in parks scattered around Athens. The flat is airy and welcoming, with a children’s corner where volunteers help uprooted children do their homework twice a week. In the open kitchen, onions are being chopped to put into a huge metal pot, simmering on an industrial-size gas burner on the ground. The entire project is completely funded by donations from the local Greek community.

Community Kitchen was founded four years ago by Constantinos, who found himself out of work during the financial crisis and decided to dedicate himself to helping those in a more desperate situation. He is quick to point out that this is a matter of solidarity, rather than charity. “Every day that you go there, you get to know people, you talk with them, eat with them, they become your friends”.

Considering that the majority of refugees in the camp in Pedion tou Arious stay for a maximum of fifteen days before moving on, the friendships often continue over borders as individuals search for a safer place for themselves and their families.

Abidullah speaks near fluent Turkish. He had passed through Turkey after fleeing the Taliban presence in his hometown in Afghanistan. After working for a year in Pakistan, he made the treacherous journey to Istanbul, where his wife and four children later joined him. Now, Abidullah and his son are living in a tent in a park in Athens. He had just managed to send his wife and three younger children by plane to Finland, and is hoping to join them soon.

Community Kitchen. Photo: EmbiricosThe story of fractured families is not uncommon, yet deeply unrepresented when we talk about the state of refugee protection in Europe. The majority of the people in Pedion tou Arious are families; one group of young children gleefully point out who is whose brother or little sister. A bright seven year old called Mohammed explains, through an adult Afghan refugee who speaks fluent Greek, that he can’t go home because his country is at war.

The fact that children are living on the streets with no social support or opportunities for education, is as shocking as it is commonplace in Greece. These are the people who slip through the cracks of the seven o’clock news, and who politicians refer to as part of the “swarm”.

Fleeing conflict, seeking asylum

In one day Community Kitchen provides food for over 200 refugees. Not only does this serve to highlight the desperate situation in Greece, which counts over 200,000 refugees on its streets, but it brings greater context to the 3,000 people waiting at Calais for the opportunity to claim asylum across the channel, a number which can easily be absorbed by the UK.

The vast majority of those in the camps at Calais, notoriously referred to as ‘the Jungle’, are men, women, and children fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in some of the world’s most unstable states. The top four countries of origin of people claiming asylum in the UK are Eritrea, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan, countries either in the depths of conflict or in the grips of authoritarian regimes.

Nevertheless, the dominant portrayal of these people in media and politics continue to be that of the ‘illegal’ or ‘economic’ immigrant. Cameron’s recent “swarm” comment plays into this conception of refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers out to get the UK’s welfare support, or dangerous black men bringing with them crime and insecurity. These depictions are not only largely false, they are stigmatising, and increasingly serve to polarise the opinions of British citizens. Whipping up hysteria and paranoia about the state of immigration into the UK is not only muddying the facts about the current ‘migrant crisis’, but ignores the broader issue which encompasses all of Europe.

“It is in the light of refugees’ secondary movement through ‘safe’ EU countries that these perspectives gain particular traction.” Says Zoe Gardner of UK charity Asylum Aid, “These refugees may have come from war zones, some argue, but there is no war on in Greece or France, so if they fail to seek asylum in those countries, but rather continue towards Northern Europe, they are proving their motives to be economic, rather than protection oriented.”

“Not only does this perspective ignore the fuzzy edges of the ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’ categories – as if fleeing war or persecution relieved you of the need to work and support yourself and your family – but it is legally incoherent.” Ms Gardner continues.

Under the 1951 Convention individuals are under no obligation to seek refuge in the first safe country they reach, however European laws such as the Dublin III regulations have been designed to assign responsibility for processing asylum claims. The most commonly used clause assigns responsibility to the first country of entry of the EU, most often countries such as Greece or Italy.  

These rules presume the existence of common European asylum standards, or even the possibility of applying for asylum at all in any EU country, while the reality is starkly different for refugees who are left destitute and often with no chance of real protection in Greece, Italy and even in France, which fails to provide housing for many.

The myth of the common European asylum system

Najia, a young woman of no more than eighteen, arrived in the Athens camp four days ago. With no support services and little money, she does not know what her next move will be and is wary of making hasty decisions, knowing well the difficulties she faces trying to claim asylum. Claiming asylum in Greece has become increasingly difficult, with the main regional Asylum Office drastically scaling back operations in light of funding difficulties and understaffing.

Recent clashes on the island of Kos between migrants, locked in a stadium in the summer heat, serve to highlight how desperate the situation has become. Processing asylum applications has become a Sisyphean feat, and police are struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of people stranded on the island while they wait to be registered. 

The UK and EU as a whole need to do more to absorb the strain of thousands of refugees entering countries like Greece Sleeping in a park. Photo: Embiricosas global displacement soars to levels unprecedented since the Second World War, with 2.9 million refugees. Fair and co-ordinated relocation schemes, to alleviate the pressures on the EU’s poorer border states to more prosperous countries facing smaller refugee responsibilities, are desperately needed as a show of European solidarity. France and Germany have already agreed to take in between them 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, and the UK should be ready to play its part.

So far, The UK has only accepted 187 Syrian Refugees on its vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Of the 23,731 asylum applications received in the UK in 2014, only 5,433 were granted on the initial decision.

Even with our island mentality, men and women in the UK would react similarly to Costantinos if faced with the same problems as Greece. The UK indeed has a historical precedent for its generosity towards refugees, accepting more than 10,000 feeing Kosovo in 1999. But ever-increasing hysteria generated by British politicians and newspapers is making this difficult, as it assigns responsibility for shared problems to our neighbours and beyond. As Constantinos comments, “We have the same problems. If I only provide for myself, everything else goes dark, it’s meaningless if I don’t share what light I can.”


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