Post by Spyros Rizakos. Spyrios is a Greek lawyer and a sociologist focusing on migration and asylum at the national and EU level. He is also the Head of the Greek human rights organization AITIMA.

An Afghan asylum seeker and her daughter cross a trash-filled gully at an improvised camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, November 2019. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

The EU-Turkey statement and its implementation by the SYRIZA government

In March 2016, EU leaders and Turkey issued a joint statement declaring that migrants travelling from Turkey to any Greek island would be returned back to Turkey. Following this, Greek authorities imposed a restriction of stay on all new arrivals, under which no-one could leave the islands, thus leaving thousands stranded. The number of asylum seekers soon exceeded the capacity of the Reception and Identification Centers (also known as hot-spots). With no space in these centers, the living conditions inside them quickly deteriorated. Additionally, countless asylum seekers had to live in deplorable conditions outside.  Thus, thousands of asylum seekers—who were already in a precarious status to begin with—were forced to live in conditions violating their dignity in formal and makeshift camps at the edge or near the islands’ capitals. 

Although many civil society organizations denounced the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement and asked for the abolishment of the containment policy, the SYRIZA government continued the policy, which worsened the situation of both asylum seekers and local communities.

In particular, the policy had the following effects:

·       Despite the frequent transfers of asylum seekers to the mainland, the number of those contained in the islands exceeded the capacity of the Reception and Identification Centers (6,000), at times reaching 18,000.
·      Three asylum seekers lost their lives under the deplorable living conditions.
·       Asylum seekers frequently protested and sometimes clashed with the police.
·       Far-right groups organized attacks against asylum seekers.

A new political context

In the second half of 2019, the new European Commission took office and a new government came into power in Greece when the Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) won the elections. This political context at both the EU and national level signaled the beginning of a new phase, which aimed to drastically increase returns to Turkey.

As Prime Minister Mitsotakis had already stated in the pre-election period that decongestion of the islands must be done in the right geographical direction—towards Turkey and not mainland Greece—the new Greek government could not find themselves hurried into transferring asylum seekers to the mainland. At the same time, there was a big increase of new arrivals to the islands from Turkey. Thus, the migrant population in the islands increased and the prospect of a deteriorating situation seemed more likely.

Although the government announced that it would decongest the islands, this never happened, causing a further increase in the refugee population. This alarmed the UNCouncil of Europe and civil society, which called for the immediate alleviation of the situation. Nevertheless, the islands remained congested and the refugee population continued growing.

The impact on asylum seekers

On 2 April 2020 almost 40,000 asylum seekers are stranded in the islands, even though capacity remains around 6,000. In other words, 34,000 are living in conditions constituting a humanitarian crisis in makeshift settlements, next to sewage and garbage, and without sufficient medical care. 

As MSF recently pointed out, this situation gravely endangers asylum seekers’ health. Moreover, the North Aegean Regional Authority stated in a previous report that conditions in the Moria Reception and Identification Center pose a threat to public health as well. 

In addition to this asylum seekers’ hardship, the Greek authorities have started to prioritize cases of new arrivals in the islands, thus putting older cases on hold.   

In Lesvos, the living conditions, coupled with the new vetting of asylum applications, have already led to asylum seekers’ demonstrations. In some cases, such as the city of Mytiline, riot police have violently stopped asylum seekers. Tensions among asylum seekers are likely to mount as the new law on asylum passed recently by the Greek government, which has introduced various procedural requirements, will result in many asylum seekers being denied asylum.

The impact on local communities

From another perspective, one can see that almost four years after the EU-Turkey joint statement, asylum seekers’ towns with almost equal population have been formed at the edge or near the islands’ capitals. For example, the city of Mytiline has a population of around 27,000, while in the Moria Reception and Identification Center there are around 19,000 asylum seekers. Accordingly, the city of Samos (Vathi) has a population of about 8,000, while the Reception and Identification Center has about 7,000.

Evidently, this has a severe impact on local communities. By placing a big population of asylum seekers near local societies without any social planning, the authorities have disrupted life in the islands. Public infrastructure in the islands, which has already been weakened by 10 years of austerity in Greece, has to cope with a doubled population. Consequently, this means that the basic needs of both locals and asylum seekers are not sufficiently met. This is especially evident in the field of medical care. According to the Greek Federation of Employees in Public Hospitals,  the hospitals in Lesvos, Chios, Leros and Samos cannot cope with the increased number of patients that need medical care.

The overall situation results in a feeling of discontent being spread to a significant part of the local population, which facilitates the promotion of xenophobic and racist views as well as targeting and scapegoating asylum seekers. Recently, the government announced the establishment of new closed centers in the islands for asylum seekers. This development, together with the abandonment of decongestion plans, provoked a reaction among the local population and caused big demonstrations. The positions of most local actors and the main motto of the mobilization—“We want our islands back. We want our lives back”—reflect the fact that, for a large part of the local population, asylum seekers are viewed as a burden and potentially as a threat. At the same time, there is also growing hostility against NGOs staff assisting asylum seekers. It is no surprise that in this context vigilante groups were formed and started attacking asylum seekers as well as NGOs staff.

The coronavirus pandemic

The situation in the Greek islands has become even gloomier with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the Greek authorities were among those taking early action to impose social distancing as a means to prevent the spread of the virus, this didn’t apply to refugee camps. Following this, there were several urgent appeals and warnings -coming, among others, from European doctors and EU Parliament LIBE Committee - to evacuate the crowded refugee camps in the Greek islands in order to contain coronavirus. However they were not heeded by the Greek government nor EU authorities  which called only for the evacuation to safety of the most vulnerable in the overcrowded Greek migrant camps.

Conclusion

In conclusion, due to the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement, not only have tensions mounted, but conditions in the Greek islands have deteriorated as well. Therefore, this situation poses serious danger for both asylum seekers and the local communities. However, EU and Greek authorities appear to continue defending their policy.  Rather than defuse tensions and hazards, the increase of returns has become the paramount objective. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Rizakos, S. (2020). The situation in the Greek islands four years after the EU-Turkey statement. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/04/situation-greek [date]