| borders greece–turkey frontier |
punctured dinghies, life jackets and clothes that litter beaches throughout the Dodecanese islands – and also in the graves of those who didn’t survive the crossings; more than 1,400 migrants have drowned in the Aegean. Between 40 and 60 Kurds and Afghans are buried at the Saint Panteleimon cemetery, which overlooks Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, identified only by their nationalities and numbers.
Recently, the numbers coming to these islands have fallen dramatically for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Today, the grim former warehouses at Pagani, one of the worst Greek detention centres, are mostly empty, its blackened walls and Arabic slogans a reminder of the hunger strikes and protests that led the authorities to close it in October 2009. Migrants still cross the narrow strip of water between Turkey and the nearby islands, but these journeys have become less frequent. During a night patrol with the Samos coastguard, we didn’t encounter a single migrant vessel as the high-powered patrol boat sluiced back and forth across the strait of Samos only a few kilometres from the Turkish coast.
The Hellenic Coast Guard has rescued thousands of migrants, but its officers have also been accused by human rights organisations of physically abusing migrants and carrying out summary deportations known as ‘pushbacks’ – puncturing or demobilising their boats and dragging them into Turkish territorial waters.
As we bobbed about on the maritime border in the strait of Samos, Lieutenant Emmanoui Schonarauis cheerfully explained some of the strategies used by his crew when they encountered boats along the maritime border, from pretending to be Turkish to moving the boat up and down in front of their boats and other ‘jokes to make them afraid’.
Schonarauis didn’t say so explicitly, but it was obvious that these ‘jokes’ weren’t intended for the coastguards’ amusement. Their purpose was to prevent or deter migrants from entering Greek territory, where they might be able to claim asylum. As a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Greek government is theoretically committed to providing refugee protection to those who ask for it. But Greece has one of the lowest rates of acceptance for asylum seekers in Europe. Asylum applications are initially assessed by the police themselves, and nearly all applicants are rejected in the first instance. Appealing against rejection is a difficult and expensive process.
Rejected asylum seekers can be held in detention for three months and then issued with deportation orders. But since many of them come from countries without diplomatic representation in Greece, they are usually told to make their own way out of the country within 30 days. Most end up in Athens or in ports on the Adriatic coast, hoping to go to other European coun-
‘It’s a crazy situation. They’re not allowed to come, they’re not allowed to stay, and they’re not allowed to leave’
tries, where they are likely to be arrested again and put through the same detention and expulsion procedures.
i n l i mbo Few migrants remain in Greece willingly, but those who succeed in reaching Western Europe are likely to be ensnared by the EU’s Dublin II regulation, which obliges all asylum seekers to make their appeals in their first country of arrival. All migrants detained by Greek police have their fingerprints fed into a European database and those arrested outside Greece can be deported back again to make their applications in a country that hardly ever accepts them.
This dysfunctional system has left tens of thousands of migrants trapped in Greece in a state of permanent illegality. ‘It’s a crazy situation,’ says Toulina Demeli, a refugee lawyer in Lesvos. ‘They’re not allowed to come, they’re not allowed to stay, and they’re not allowed to leave.’
Demeli works at the Villa Azadi (House of Freedom) near Mytilene, a former hospital for the disabled that has been converted into a reception centre for unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents, and offers a temporary refuge to mostly Afghan teenagers who would otherwise be living on the street. But this freedom is strictly relative. As soon as they reach 18, they will be released into a Greek society that has no place for them, and forced to choose between illegality and returning to a war zone where many of them have no parents.
The system has been repeatedly condemned by national and international organisations working with refugees. Until recently, neither Greece nor the EU appeared disposed to do anything about a situation that has effectively turned Greece into a dumping ground for Europe’s unwanted people. In September last year, Greece presented its National Action Plan on Asylum Reform and Migration Management to the European Commission, which pledged a raft of reforms, including the transfer of the asylum process from the police to a civilian authority. Both the UN high commissioner for refugees and the Greek Council for Refugees cautiously welcomed the proposals, and the European commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, pledged European financial assistance to implement them.
It remains to be seen whether the EU or the Greek government has the political will to reform a system that has left thousands of migrants marginalised and stranded, and often reduced to bare survival. ‘Europe has to understand that we are a transit country,’ says Zoe Liebetezou, team leader of the Hellenika Rescue team in Lesvos. ‘Nobody wants to stay here – to do what? Even we have problems, so the problem is not for us. The problem is for everybody.’
For the time being, the main priority appears to be to stop people coming across the border and to make life as difficult as possible for those who do. And as the Greek economic crisis continues to bite, the situation isn’t likely to improve. In November last year, units from the EU’s armed Rapid Intervention Border Teams were deployed for the first time on the Evros border.
‘Things are going to be very hard for everyone in Greece over the next few months,’ says Papa Stratis, a Greek Orthodox priest who provides migrants with food, clothing and humanitarian assistance in Lesvos. ‘But they are going to be particularly hard for migrants.’ G
40 www.geographical.co.uk february 2011