Will the 50,000 refugees in Greece be relocated, and will the humanitarian crisis recede?


Picture of Dr. Kirsty Hughes
Dr. Kirsty Hughes

Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe

Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations and Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe

The 50,000 asylum-seekers who got to Greece before the EU’s cut-off date of 20th March may seem to be the lucky ones, compared to those awaiting deportation from Lesbos and other islands. But the desperate conditions in Idomeni, Piraeus and in some of the official camps, and the snail-like pace of the EU’s relocation programme, suggest lucky is the wrong word.

We’re five months into the EU’s relocation scheme for up to 66,000 refugees in Greece – of certain nationalities – and barely 600 have gone so far. And the EU’s top priority appears to be increasing the numbers of its own asylum experts on the islands to speed deportations, rather than prioritising the high number needing relocation.

Babar Baloch, regional spokesman for the UNHCR, is concerned both by the slow pace of the scheme, and the discrimination by nationality. The EU, he explains, has set a cut-off limit of nationalities eligible for the scheme at 75% average success in asylum claims: “Afghans are more than 65% successful in claims, you can’t base it on nationality, it’s discrimination”. As a result, Syrians, almost half of the 50,000 in Greece, and Iraqis, about 19%, are eligible for relocation, Afghans are not despite being about 28% of the total.

If around 32,000 are therefore eligible, at current rates this process could take over twenty years. It is meant to take two – and clearly needs to shift gear sharply but EU leaders are more focused on the EU-Turkey deal than speeding up this vital programme.

Baloch calls Idomeni – the sprawling, unofficial camp at the border where there are around 11,000 people including 4,000 children – “not a place for human beings to be, people are living in misery”. Yet he sees the process of moving people to better camps as likely to take “weeks and months”.

This process could take over twenty years. It is meant to take two

In Piraeus, where almost 5,000 refugees continue to live in dismal conditions in tents pitched on the rough concrete and tarmac of the Athens port, children play as large lorries and cars periodically go by. There is no shade, no shops, little sanitation and no security. The Hellenic Red Cross has a mobile medical clinic there, and does a daily distribution of food and hygiene items. One of its workers told me they are dealing with problems from eye and ear infections, diaorrhea, viruses, fevers, to injuries from fighting. A number of young men were injured in a big fight between Syrians and Afghans the previous evening – two seriously.

Three Syrian women with six children told me their husbands are in Germany. They have been at the port for three weeks – one of the children, a toddler not yet two, has been sick and not eating for two weeks. They are anxious, lacking information, fearful, with seven sleeping in one tent. Human Rights Watch in a recent in-depth report called the conditions in Piraeus “appalling”.

The Greek authorities have been trying to move people to other camps with some but limited success. A week ago, buses arrived and 300 mainly Syrians, families, left for a new camp. It was a disorganised process. Some Norwegian volunteers, from ‘A drop in the ocean’ charity, dashed around the tents in an attempt to identify vulnerable families to go on the buses. But in Piraeus, as in Idomeni, people are worried about where they are going, and whether the camps will actually be better.

They are anxious, lacking information, fearful

There are now around 30 camps across Greece, but some are basic and overcrowded. Constance Theisen, humanitarian worker for Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), says the closing of the Macedonian border has “created a humanitarian crisis in some areas so even basic standards are not met”. While Greek authorities have been quite fast, she says, in creating emergency shelters, there is a real capacity problem and “it needs to move to a second phase. Twenty or twenty-five thousand people will be stuck here [mainly Afghans not eligible for EU relocation] and the Greek Asylum Service takes up to a year to decide claims”. Afghans are eligible to claim asylum in Greece, but they will not be fast-tracked like in the EU scheme where each application is meant to be dealt with in two months

Babar Baloch is concerned that getting decent camps ready is taking far too long. He criticises the EU, not Greece, for this: “There is a genuine issue of capacity [in Greece] … the EU needs to step forward and help Greece, it cannot be left alone to deal with all this. It is an EU responsibility”. The EU has provided substantial amounts of humanitarian funding, but the EU should directly provide staff, expertise and other assistance.

There are no signs that the EU relocations will speed up any time soon. The European Commission has said there needs to be 6,000 relocations a month from Greece and Italy. I put this figure to Daniel Esdras, the head of the Greek office of the International Organisation for Migration, who deals with voluntary refugee returns and is helping organise the final steps in the EU relocation process (after the Greek Asylum Service has coordinated with member states and assessed each individual for relocation). Esdras blenches at the idea of 6,000 a month; “let’s get to 1,000 and then see”, but he says for their part of the process – which takes only a week or ten days – if bigger numbers come through they can bring in more staff. They organise medical checks, tickets, orientation on the country of relocation.

The EU should be taking full responsibility

Esdras says there are not enough pledges of places by EU member states, some of which have made none, others ask to take refugees only next year and the Brussels attacks have reduced what momentum there was. They are also helping around 800 people a month in voluntary returns, but the process can be tricky. For instance, Afghans who want to return to Iran, having worked there for several years, cannot because they have no right of residence. Constance Theisen, MSF, is also concerned that with thirty camps across Greece, often in rural areas, organising relocation and asylum applications will be very difficult.

For the EU, who as Baloch says should be taking full responsibility, establishing decent temporary shelters and services for 50,000 people and relocating 32,000 of those in two years is not a large challenge by humanitarian or organisational standards.

Baloch speaking for the UNHCR is clear: “So far, there has been a lot of responsibility shifting, but the answer is not it is Greece’s or Germany’s, that is not correct – it is the EU’s issue”. For now, the signs are not good that the EU will rise rapidly and effectively to the challenge.

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