By Monica Costa Riba
Occasionally there are moments when the world shifts on its axis and lives change forever. For Amin and Marian – a Syrian couple from Aleppo – and their four young children, one such transformative moment came one cold morning last February. And I had the privilege to witness it.
I was in Northern Greece visiting the sprawling refugee camp of Softex. Located in an abandoned industrial warehouse outside Thessaloniki, Softex is a foreboding place at the best of times. On a cold, grey February morning, it is not a place where anyone would choose to be.
I was walking across the concrete-floored warehouse when I first saw Amin standing outside his canvas tent, his hood up against the cold.
I approached and introduced myself. He looked at me despondently. I asked if I could ask him a few questions and he shrugged, signalling me into his tent where his wife, Marian, was sitting on the floor with their two-year-old son.
“What is life like here in Softex?” I asked him. “What can I tell you that you cannot already see?” he replied gesturing around him. The couple started telling me a little about their life in Syria and how they had fled the war. Since being smuggled into Greece from Turkey in an overcrowded boat more than year earlier, they had been stranded in refugee camps in appalling conditions. The stress and the fatigue of their ordeal was audible in their voices and visible on their faces.
Just then, Amin’s phone rang. He answered and it quickly became clear that this was no ordinary phone call. Amin was listening intently – his face tense with concentration. “This Thursday?” he asked. “I have to be at the Irish embassy in Athens?...This Thursday?...Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The tension had lifted and smiles erupted followed by tears. “We have been accepted in Ireland. We are leaving this place. We will finally start a new life,” said Amin, hugging his wife and son closely.
Aman, Miriam and their children are among the lucky ones. As part of the two year EU emergency relocation programme which ends today, European states have accepted less than 30 percent of the asylum seekers that they pledged to relocate back in September 2015. Indeed, of the 66,400 asylum seekers from Greece and 39,600 from Italy, European countries pledged to take in, only 19,740 people from Greece and 8,839 from Italy have benefited from the scheme.
With few exceptions, the majority of European states have not seriously engaged with the scheme. They have failed to offer places according to their commitments or have accepted asylum seekers at a very slow pace, compounding the unnecessary suffering of men, women and children who have been left stranded after already enduring traumatic experiences in perilous journeys to reach Europe.
Among the worst offenders are Poland and Hungary, both of which have refused to accept a single asylum-seeker from Italy and Greece. Slovakia, which unsuccessfully challenged the relocation scheme in the European Court, has only accepted 16 of the 902 asylum-seekers it was assigned, and the Czech Republic only 12 of 2691.