Can Europe Make It?

Syrian refugees in Athens and the consequences of Fortress Europe

“They don’t want us in Greece. But they won’t let us leave. We are in a place worse than a prison. We can’t work, we have no housing, no medical care, schools for our kids and we are running out of money.”

Matthaios Tsimitakis
12 December 2014
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Syrian refugees in Syntagma Square, Athens. Demotix/Theodoros Karakozidis. Some rights reserved.

Ιt’s a forgotten story from World War Ι, but between 1919 and 1923 some 17,000 Greeks found refuge in several cities in Syria, when Kemal Ataturk’s army massacred ethnic minorities in Asia minor, while fighting to establish modern Turkey.

A century later, thousands of Syrian refugees are trying to take the return route travelling through Turkey, only to find themselves drowning in the Mediteranean, jailed for months sometimes in Greek detention centres, or in a legal limbo due to the country's strict asylum policy that affects even war refugees. And those who do get a permit to stay in Greece are found struggling in a xenophobic and increasingly hostile environment due to the growing racism of a part of the population and a lack of humanitarian policies that can provide succour to the most vulnerable.

The Irish journalist who broke the story found the historical detail that makes many of us feel ashamed of our government's immigration and refugee policy. It will not be disclosed publicly, but on several occasions Greek officials have admitted that a hostile policy would actually send the message to those who are planning to emigrate back home not to take the Greek route to the west. This in essence is the policy dictated by fortress Europe.

It means long bureaucratic and precarious (for those who can not provide legal proof of their ethnicity) asylum procedures, sometimes accompanied by detention in inappropriate facilities. Police ill-treatment that goes uncontrolled and tolerance to the rising xenophobia. The country is also failing to distinguish refugees from immigrants while practicing push back policies and and for years it was failing to recognize the racist motive in a distinct category of emerging crimes that needed to be addressed urgently, despite an international outcry

As a result, the message did cross the sea and now the Syrian refugees who risk their lives to go west prefer to move in the shadows before they appear in a friendly European country like Germany or Sweden where they will be granted protection and benefits that will allow them to take care of their families. The facts are telling: Out of 46500 Syrians who arrived in Greece, since 2011, only an estimated 1600 have applied for asylum.

A week ago, a ship with 700 refugees from Syria and Iraq, some of them unaccompanied children, pregnant women, elderly and the sick were forced to dock at the port of Ierapetra in Crete, Greece's biggest island. The vessel was sailing out of control but to their surprise the coastguards who went to the rescue were asked to leave and let the ship sail into international waters until it reached Italy! Unsurprisingly, 26 unaccompanied children were taken to the detention center of Amygdaleza where they will stay in terrible conditions with elders, until the police manages to find a solution.

Another group of refugees in Athens decided to take a decisive step in challenging the invisibility and deprivation they’re forced to suffer at the moment thanks both to European treaties such as Dublin II, and a non-existent Greek refugee policy. One hundred and fifty men, women and even children have camped outside the parliament in the rain for more than fifteen days, demanding the right to travel to Europe or the provision of safe conditions for refugees in Greece.

It is one of the very few times where a precarious social group, which is in a constant danger and avoids any run-in with the law, actually demand their legal rights. All of them have heartbreaking stories of loss and pain in the Syrian war, but they also sketch the Greek attitude in dark colors. “They don’t want us in Greece. But they won’t let us leave. We are in a place worse than a prison. We can’t work, we have no housing, no medical care, schools for our kids and we are running out of money”. This is how Bassel, a 28 year old finance manager described the situation.

Indeed some of their compatriots after surviving the ruthless smugglers of the Aegean, are forced to live on the streets in homelessness, in danger of racist attacks with no medical or other treatment. NGOs, left groups and Greek citizens are providing clothes and food, a common assembly of the Syrian campers of Syntagma and people who express solidarity is established and a campaign runs in social media under the hashtag #syrianrefugeesgr.

The conservative answer on the matter, expressed by the government claims that it cannot do much due to the financial difficulties and European law, which is not on the refugees’ side but forces the authorities to keep people in Greece. The abstract notion of a “European law” obviously fails to grasp the despair and dead end of the refugees and it fails to understand why they are challenging the status quo.

Soon after the protest took publicity, authorities found a suitable accommodation for the protesters, but it was rejected with dignity and pride on the basis that it constitutes philanthropy and doesn’t solve the problem. In short: If Greece doesn’t want to treat victims of war, then they don’t want to stay in Greece either. So far, 600 refugees are protesting every morning and 375 sleep outside the parliament every night but only forty accepted to apply for asylum and benefit from the City’s proposal. Ironically, both the mayor of the city and the conservative ruling party are following up on the “European law” mantra, by demanding the evacuation of the square due to the preparation for the celebration of Christmas!

Apparently, Athens is seen to be the doorstep of Europe for those coming from the East and South and someone has to clean up the mess. Greece is trapped indeed in a heartless European policy that prefers to keep the problem off its turf and maybe on neighbouring Turkey’s soil. Added to that, push back and border surveillance policies with drones and the building of fences are becoming big business now, so despite the complaints one can see the continent investing in fortress Europe instead of actively supporting humanitarian values.

The pressure from below seems to be starting to work. The Syrian protesters have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights and under the pressure of the UN, 28 Western countries accepted to take 5% of the overall population of Syrian refugees currently living in camps in the neighboring countries of Syria.  

Europe needs to do much more than that as conservative estimations assume that 3 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and another 6.5 million are internally displaced in the country. Interestingly the neighboring countries of the gulf also refuse to accept more refugees, so they turn to the west. Europe should see the current wave as an honor for its humanitarian traditions, rather than a threat, as it is doing now.

The UNHCR and several NGOs argue that Greece too can do a lot more to accommodate refugees. On one rare occasion the director of the Greek branch of the UNHCR insisted that the country has taken steps in improving the treatment of immigrants and refugees, but conceded that it needs to do a lot more in order to meet basic standards as dictated by international treaties. More importantly, he is calling on the Greek government to open the discussion at the European level in regards to the freedom of movement between borders for people in need such as refugees. During the formation of Jean Claude Juncker’s European commission, the agenda of immigration and internal affairs has been given to the Greek commissioner, Dimitri Avramopoulos.

The Greek government has an excellent opportunity not only to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, or to fix its international image of being an inhumane country that has no regard for the fatally afflicted, but to lead a positive European action that can save thousands of lives.

In a statement they released online, the Syrian protestors of Syntagma state the obvious: “we escaped death in Syria and we escaped death in the Aegean. We want to live with dignity in Europe. Open up the gates and give us the documents that will allow us to travel there”!

Open the gates, fortress Europe.

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