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.
Spain has fulfilled just 13.7% of its quota, while Belgium has fulfilled 25.6%. The Netherlands has fulfilled 39.6% of the target it committed to, and Portugal 49.1%.
Malta is the only EU country that has fulfilled its commitments. Notably, Finland has welcomed 1,951 asylum-seekers (or 94% of its commitment) while Germany is the country that has relocated the most, more than 8,000 people. Ireland has taken in 459 asylum-seekers, or 76.5% of its commitment. Norway and Lichtenstein opted in to the scheme voluntarily, and have both fulfilled their commitments to relocate 1500 and 10 respectively.
The EU relocation scheme agreed in 2015 was far from perfect. It was only opened to asylum seekers from nationalities with a high rate of acceptance in Europe (mainly Syrians and Eritreans) leaving thousands of people in need of protection arriving in Greece and Italy with no safe options to reach other countries in Europe. But despite the shortcomings it was a first attempt to put in place a temporary system based on internal solidarity among European states. Such initiatives are much needed, but still fall short in address the scale of the problem.
In Greece, following the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border – the so called Balkans route – ‘relocation’ to other European countries became the only alternative to safely move elsewhere in Europe for thousands trapped in horrendous conditions.
Europe cannot hide from their responsibilities to protect people fleeing violence and persecution through relocation or other means, including through work visas and swift family reunification procedures.
Now that the two year EU relocation scheme is coming to an end, European states should act to ensure that all eligible people who arrived in Greece and Italy before the end of the scheme are swiftly relocated in line with their obligations, This includes, many women, men and children who arrived on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal was agreed on 20 March 2016 and who have been excluded from the relocation scheme. As well as allowing them to carry on with their lives in safety and dignity, making these people eligible would relieve pressure and improve conditions on the Greek islands, which have deteriorated as arrivals have risen over the summer months.
Amin, Miriam and their children finally touched down in Dublin earlier this month. In Greece, Mariam had told me: “We will be happy anywhere. We just want to live in a place where were we can start again and my children can go back to school. They have lost too much.” Hopefully Ireland will be that place.
Monica Costa Riba is Amnesty International’s migration campaigner.
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