5.000 people take to the streets for refugee rights. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Greece faces backlash for refugee crises

Greece came under fire for violations of asylum law as aid groups push for an investigation into the country with refugees continuing to face hardships.


On Sept. 22, Oxfam International and WeMove Europe filed a legal complaint to the European Commission, asking for infringement procedures against Greece and its misconduct towards refugees. 


The complaint elaborated on the EU laws Greece had violated: lack of access to asylum applications, violation of procedural guarantees, arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, inadequate reception and detention center conditions, as well as illegal and violent pushbacks. 


The organizations stated in the complaint Greece’s failures are done “deliberately, on a drastic scale, in a systematic manner and on an ongoing basis.” 


“The European Commission is the guardian of EU law, and it should uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all people across Europe,” said Marissa Ryan, Head of Oxfam’s EU office. “The Commission should urgently assess whether the Greek authorities respect EU law and otherwise trigger legal proceedings against Greece for exposing people seeking asylum on its territory to suffering and abuse.”


“Every year, two million people come to Europe,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, to the European Parliament. “We should be able—we have to be able to manage that.”


An anonymous senior Greek immigration source told Al Jazeera Greece’s new asylum law, that went into effect this year, allowed for more rigorous proceedings, citing Greece’s asylum service has the authority to either reject or suspend an application. They also claim it still followed the EU Asylum Directive.


“The previous law was favorable to applicants,” the source said. “The new law was meant to go in the opposite direction.”


However, opposition remains prevalent on Greek land for their treatment of asylum seekers as multiple reports have surfaced about authorities abandoning migrants at sea. In August, the New York Times reported Greek authorities have displaced at least 1,072 people in life rafts since March. 


A month later, AP News and CNN journalists encountered groups of asylum seekers on life rafts in cooperation with the Turkish coast guard. The former had been on a ride-along and picked up 37 people, while the latter went to observe search-and-rescue efforts finding 11 people.


According to The Guardian, the pushbacks either involve setting refugees adrift out into Turkish waters or threatening those who had already landed with bodily harm before putting them out to sea once more.


Reports by the various news groups have all cited grave comments from the refugees regarding their treatment. One such comment was made by 22-year-old Nabizada telling AP News that “the Greek police [had done to them] what people [wouldn’t do] to animals”. 


“They took our phones and said a bus will come and take you to the camp,” said Omid Hussain Nabizada, a refugee from Iran, to AP News. “But they took us and put us on a ship. They left us on the water in a very bad way on these boats.”


“Safeguarding Greece’s borders and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece, about the pushbacks in August. “Both are and should be possible.”


Of the refugees setting foot in EU soil this year, only 23% reached Greece, a far smaller percentage than the 60% that had arrived in 2019, as reported by Al Jazeera. Greek migration minister Notis Mitarakis denied the fewer arrivals had been caused by government-sanctioned pushbacks.


“We are protecting our borders with determination, observing our international obligations, and European regulations,” Mitarakis said. “Illegal entries are not acceptable, and that is entirely in line with international law.”


In the midst of the silent expulsion, refugees also had to flee from Greece’s largest camp, as it burned to the ground on Sept. 8, after asylum seekers started fires in protest of poor living conditions made worse by a strict COVID-19 related lockdown. With refugees primarily stuck between Moria and Mytilene, authorities provided a new camp at Kara Tepe that could accommodate 5,000 people, a significant reduction from Moria’s near 13,000-person capacity. 


However, as people take up residence in the former shooting range, health concerns mount as the camp fails to accommodate basic hygiene. Doctors Without Borders criticized the location, as field coordinator Caroline Willemen notes that the camp is “extremely exposed to [inclement] weather” with dangers of flooding should strong winds blow alongside rain. 


Both Doctors Without Borders and the camp’s residents alike have called the place “worse than Moria.” 


“People living [in the Moria refugee camp] have already endured leaving their lives, homes, and possessions when fleeing to Europe. Now, this fire has likely destroyed anything they had left,” said Adriana Tidona, a migration researcher for Amnesty International. “The Greek authorities, the EU and its member states must act immediately to ensure the safety of everyone affected.”


“Europe says, ‘We want to help refugees.’ Greece says, ‘We don’t want you here,’ and I understand that—there aren’t even enough jobs for the locals,” Masomeh Etemadi, a refugee from Iran,  said to The New York Times. “But if Europe really wants to help us, why don’t they come here and help us?”