_By Irem Arf_
Marwa* was a teacher in Aleppo before the war forced her to flee. When she arrived in Europe, she felt treated “like a lesser person.”
“I can’t understand why we have to stay here in this awful and dangerous camp. I don’t know how long I can hold up,” she told me outside the Vathy camp on the island of Samos in Greece, where she has been living for over two months.
If you can call it living. Overcrowded, filthy and surrounded by barbed wire, Vathy is not a place anyone would stay by choice.
Marwa travelled by dinghy across the Aegean Sea passing through Turkey, where she felt unsafe as a single refugee woman. Just like so many others escaping the horrors of war and persecution, she thought she could restart her life in safety in Europe. Instead, she says “fear is a constant” in her life in Vathy camp.
Marwa is one of the thousands who got stuck on the Greek islands because of a deal the EU struck two years ago with Turkey to return everyone irregularly arriving on the islands back there. However, the deal’s assumption that everyone can quickly be sent back to Turkey, which it falsely considered a safe third country for asylum seekers, is flawed. Of the almost 60,000 who have arrived on the Greek islands since the deal, only 1,570 have been returned to Turkey under it.
Before the deal, people arriving on the islands could move onto mainland Greece in a matter of weeks, if not days. Now, many have to remain for months on end in camps designed for initial registration.
Severe overcrowding and inadequate facilities in places such as Vathy camp (capacity 700, population over 2,400 according to Greek authorities) are exposing men, women and children to unsanitary living conditions and putting their health, safety and security at risk every day.
On a recent visit there, we saw hundreds of people, including children, sleeping in tents getting soaked in frequent rain. For the residents, there is peril everywhere.
Parents say they take shifts to scare off rats at night, fearing they may bite small children and babies.
Women feel unsafe to take showers or use toilets after dark because they lack locks. They say they don’t even feel safe to sleep at night.
There is no electricity provided to tents, so many families have had to improvise with extension cables. They worry about the exposed electrical cables where children run and play, but they have no choice: no electricity means no heating.
The stated aim of the EU-Turkey deal was to “break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk.”
Despite a huge drop in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands, also influenced by the closure of the Balkans route, which refugees used in order to leave Greece for other EU countries, people do continue to irregularly cross EU borders, many relying on smugglers.
Refugees in Turkey still have no real alternative to dangerous irregular journeys to Europe. Only 12,476 out of the 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey having been offered resettlement in an EU country under the deal as of 7 March 2018.
Bafflingly, despite these failings – even on the deal’s own, flawed terms – it is being hailed as a success. Its backers point to the significant reduction in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands and in the number of deaths in the Aegean. But 130 human lives lost in the Aegean Sea since the deal is still 130 too many. We are hearing that more and more people are trying to cross the river on the land border between Turkey and Greece to avoid the fate of being trapped on the islands and there too they have died trying.
Nobody would argue against preventing deaths. But subjecting people to unbearable conditions in camps on the Greek islands and threatening them with being sent back is not the answer to this.
More safe and legal routes must be put in place; not only because they provide a real and responsible alternative to the dangerous journeys refugees are right now forced to take. But also as a means to help a fairer distribution of refugees amongst all EU member states and ensure more orderly management of new arrivals. There must also be acknowledgement that as long as refugees remain in desperate need of protection, erecting barriers, visible or invisible, will not stop them journeying towards it. Either those barriers come down, or new cracks are found. When that happens, Europe will once again be unprepared to prevent chaos and tragedies.
The situation on the Greek islands epitomizes the EU’s asylum and migration policy, which relies on externalizing migration management and responsibility for refugees to countries outside Europe, or on its borders. By shifting the perceived problem – that is, people fleeing war and persecution – into the distance, politicians are able to ignore the fundamental flaws in Europe’s asylum system, and the need for a new one where everyone does their fair share.
*Not her real name.
Irem Arf is a migration researcher at Amnesty International.
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