REFUGEE SOLIDARITY SUMMIT
DEVELOPMENTS IN GREECE – FULL STATEMENT
MARCH 2020 (Last updated – 9th March)
In recent weeks we have all seen reports of an alarming escalation of the situation in Greece, particularly on the Aegean Islands and at the land border with Turkey. Some of you have been in touch with us saying that you want to do something to help, but feel powerless about the situation. We feel the same way, so we have put together some information that we gathered from our sources on the ground and various agencies who are working in Greece. Hopefully it will be useful in helping to understand the situation and in seeing ways that you can help by lending your support to campaigns. Here is a digest of the facts as we understand them.
THE GREEK/TURKISH BORDER
Turkish President Erdoğan released a statement on the 29th Feb 2020 that he was “opening the doors” to Europe because Turkey could “no longer handle the burden of refugees fleeing from Syria”. This decision reportedly came after an airstrike a few days prior, in the northern region of Idlib province which killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers stationed there to support the Syrian opposition. Turkey then opened its western border with Syria, resulting in unconfirmed numbers of people crossing into Turkish territory.
It is unlikely that refugees who have recently crossed from Syria into Turkey are the same individuals trying to cross into Greece. The UN reported on Saturday 29th Feb 2020 that the majority of people gathered at the official Greek/Turkish border were from Afghanistan. Furthermore the numbers claimed by Turkey have been disputed by the Bulgarian and Greek Governments. In a statement the Greek Prime Minister accused Turkey of facilitating the movement of refugees to the borders with Greece to “promote it’s geopolitical agenda”.
However there have been a great number of people amassing at the Turkish/Greek border. According to Lado Gvilava – Turkey Chief of Mission for International Organisation for Migration (IOM) “Thousands of migrants, including families with young children, are passing a cold night along the border between Turkey and Greece”. “On Sunday 1st, staff working along the 212km-long border between Turkey and Greece observed people in groups of between several dozen and more than 3,000 at the multiple informal border crossings” and In the capital “IOM team ambers have observed at least 13,000 people gathered at the formal border crossing points at Pazarkule and Ipsala”. You can read her account in full here.
The UNHCR has released the following statement regarding the welfare of the people at the Greece/Turkey border, highlighting the fact that there is no legal basis for Greece suspending its acceptance of asylum applications.
There is a detailed update on the situation on the Greece-Turkey border here written by Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi for DW on the 4th March 2020.
Greek human rights organisations condemned the situation here (In Greek).
Migrant Women’s Network are a Europe-wide feminist umbrella organisation that directly represents the opinion of migrant & refugee women & girls at the European and International level they issued the following call.
Refugee Rights Europe produced a report on the dangers of the current situation particularly for young people and children refugee children, available here.
The New Humanitarian has an in depth and up to date analysis of the situation, available here.
Is the opening of the Turkish/Syrian border connected to the rise in people trying to cross the Greek land and sea borders this week?
According to our sources and to official reports, this is as yet unclear.
Although Erdogan claimed on Saturday that 18,000 migrants had already crossed the border from Turkey to Europe, the UN reported on Saturday 29th Feb 2020 that the majority of people gathered at the official Greek/Turkish border were from Afghanistan, which calls into question Turkeys claims. The Greek ministry for foreign affairs confirmed on Sunday 3rd March 2020 that “Ten thousand people at Evros were prevented from entering into Greece over the weekend”. and the Greek police confirmed that at least 500 people had arrived by sea on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos near the Turkish coast within a few hours of the announcement.
THE GREEK ISLANDS
Conditions on the Greek islands are appalling and have been steadily worsening since the summer of last year when Human Rights Watch produced the following report. There have been escalating tensions between locals and the authorities regarding the plans by the Greek Government to build larger detention facilities on the islands . A plan that is opposed by Greek locals and NGOs and grassroots operatives alike. In recent weeks protests by locals have received heavy handed responses by the Greek police, with reports of them beating local residents on Lesvos and using CS gas against protesters. New arrivals on the island have been attacked by groups of militant locals on refugees and aid workers and NGO property has been destroyed in targeted attacks. For some months, there have been many protests by people who are seeking refuge about the inhumane conditions on the island and many which have resulted in violent clashes and increasingly more heavy handed tactics have been adopted by the Greek police. There has been an increase in police presence on the islands and facist organisations have reportedly arrived on the islands to co-opt the struggle by locals against the arrival and detention of more refugees.
In response to the general conditions on the islands MSF said to us: “We have highlighted, from the outset of our action on the Greek islands, the serious humanitarian consequences of the Europe-Turkey Deal and their respective policies. We urge once again the Greek Government and the European Union to take immediate action to de-escalate the situation. We call for the immediate transfer of all asylum seekers living on the islands to appropriate housing in the mainland or other EU countries, with priority being given to families and vulnerable people, and to the improvement of the services provided.” They released a statement today regarding the situation, available here.
The UNHCR shared this sentiment saying that there is an urgent need for Europe to address the critical situation on the Greek islands, UNHCR is today appealing to the Greek Government, the EU, and European States to:
- Urgently reduce the crowding and risks by ensuring additional reception places on the mainland for at least 20,000 people and move them there as quickly as possible.
- Improve living conditions for those who remain on the islands, prioritising water, sanitation and healthcare.
- Help unaccompanied children by relocating them elsewhere in Europe and by allowing them to reunite with their families.
- Focus on ensuring that asylum procedures are not just faster, but fair and proper too.
- Include safeguards in the imminent revision of the asylum law and its application.
- Invest in long-term solutions for those people who are recognized as refugees, by giving them the opportunity to become self-reliant.
Their full report is here.
THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS ON THE ISLANDS
Footage from Greece in recent days has shown police using tear gas on refugee camps , of the Greek army apparently firing live ammunition out to sea as an apparent deterrent to vessels carrying people to Europe’s shores. We have seen the Greek coast guard apparently engaged in violent push backs at sea and we have read reports of Greek Security forces reacting violently to new arrivals.
All of the above are an apparent contravention of international refugee conventions and which have attracted condemnation from human rights groups. Croatian human rights groups Centre for Peace Studies (CMS) and Are You Syrious? sent the following open letter to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on Wednesday, commenting on the recent crisis on the Greek-Turkish border and calling for a reform of the common European asylum policy. The intergovernmental Council of Europe human rights association, and Amnesty International UK gave strong criticism and yet these actions are being supported by EU officials . Whilst we appreciate that the burden of responsibility on Greece is very great and that most European states particularly the UK would be no less inhumane, we are still troubled by these occurrences.
Our contacts on the ground on the Aegean Island of Samos have said the following.
“There has been an increase in arrivals over the last few days, but it is not unmanageable yet.(This week, 1,288 people arrived on the Aegean islands, an increase from last week’s 778 arrivals). The main problems are on Lesvos and to some extent Chios, where organisations have been forced to stop working because it has become dangerous for them and have suspended their activities in Moria and elsewhere on the island. There have been instances of angry locals beating people up, and there have been arson attacks on NGO and volunteer run warehouses and vehicles. The main volunteer warehouse on Chios was burnt down and a Greek NGO owned vehicle was set alight on Samos this week. Because of this unrest the police on Lesvos have stopped NGOs working and in some areas on Lesvos they have been arresting volunteers who were still helping with boat arrivals on the shore side”.
MSF and the UNHCR gave us the following statements on the escalating tensions on the Greek islands
UNHCR said it is “working with authorities at all levels – in Greece, the EU and in the UK to ensure action is taken. We are also working to ensure that people do not have to undertake dangerous journeys either across the Aegean to Greece or across the Central Mediterranean by trying to expand resettlement places as well as access to family reunion through our work with the Families Together coalition. In recent days our staff and others have been attacked for carrying out their work trying to help refugees, and we also released this to the press in Greece”. They released a detailed statement, available here.
“MSF condemns any violent act or aggressive behaviour against humanitarian workers, volunteer groups, asylum seekers and any other person in the Northeast Aegean islands.We are on alert and very concerned about the recent attacks on humanitarian workers and volunteers in Lesvos, since after the harassment of three of our workers in the last twenty days, more violent incidents have taken place, despite informing the competent authorities on the island. These attacks are being carried our by a small group of individuals, which does not represent the Lesvos community as a whole. As a result many humanitarian organisations as well as volunteers who are working on the island have suspended their activities and cannot provide assistance to asylum seekers at the camp of Moria or elsewhere on the island.
THE SUSPENSION OF ASYLUM CLAIMS BY GREECE
Greek government has released a statement that it will suspend all asylum claims in Greece for one month and summarily deport migrants entering illegally. Neither of the above are legal under EU law and have been condemned by international human rights lawyers. As detailed in this report by InfoMigrants, available here.
EU RESPONSE: OUR THOUGHTS
The European Commission chief Ursula Von Der Leyen released a statement ‘the bloc’s top priority is to provide Greece and Bulgaria with ‘full support.’ You can read more about this here. In a recent statement to DW News German Green party MEP Erik Marquardt said “Turkey is under huge pressure and is creating a propaganda show by letting refugees leave the country”. He also added “It’s shameful that European governments are not prepared to take in a few thousand people currently stuck on Lesbos in crisis-like conditions, he added “Europe is treating people fleeing war like animals”.
Erik Marquardt’s observation highlights what many of us onlookers (humanitarians, activists, responders, campaigners and project coordinators) feel is conspicuously absent from all official EU responses: What is absent is the Humanity.
We have seen numerous quotes from EU officials and the media about defence and security. We have seen them regularly refer to the need to ‘stem the flow’ and ‘protect the EU borders’ We observe this terrible humanitarian crisis being described as a ‘migration surge’. Even more crass was the European Commission president, Ms Von der Leyen’s statement praising Greek authorities for acting as a shield. She said:
“This border is not only a Greek border, it is also a European border… I thank Greece for being our European aspida (the Greek word for shield) in these times,” she then continued “I thank the Greek border guards and coast guards, the police, servicemen and servicewomen and Frontex for their tireless effort.” There was no mention of the humanitarian efforts by UN, INGOS and charity humanitarian workers working tirelessly to respond to the worsening and no mention either of the mounting pressure on the Greek Islands.
Von der Leyen’s statement clearly demonstrates that she is unconcerned by the humanitarian violations occurring on Europe’s Borders and by the contraventions of European Union law and of International protocols on the protection of Refugees. We feel that her choice of language and the lack of reaction to these breaches of European Law are a clear indication of how the EU is positioning itself on this issue.
There is a clear lack of political will by EU states to meet with their humanitarian responsibility for vulnerable people seeking asylum from Europe and furthermore they show no recognition of, or regret for the unnecessary misery their lack of action is causing thousands of innocent people both refugee newcomers and Greek people alike or for the breach of their Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch released the following statement on The 28th Feb. 2020 “The EU has an opportunity to show it can respond with compassion to the arrival of people fleeing conflict and persecution by putting their dignity and humanity at the center of its response,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “Greater responsibility-sharing among EU states, respecting the right to seek asylum, and ensuring that people are treated humanely should be the hallmarks of any EU response”.
Where is the humanity?
Where is the compassion?
Where is the peace building?
Where is the solutions based thinking?
Where is the humanitarian support from the EU?
As Northern European countries become less welcoming & fail to meet their humanitarian responsibilities in receiving people seeking refuge, the situation grows more and more hostile in Greece. This is particularly impactful on the islands which are becoming more and more overwhelmed and as result hostility and violence grow. The islands are at breaking point.
The assertion that this is a crisis of security rather than a crisis of humanity is extremely worrying and disheartening.
There needs to be an EU wide humanitarian solution reached urgently.
PRACTICAL ADVICE TO GRASSROOTS OPERATIVES/ VOLUNTEERS
If you are planning to volunteer in Greece we would advise that you think very carefully and research the area you are planning to go to and we would advise extreme caution before travelling to the Greek Islands in the current climate, particularly if you are inexperienced or if you are not linked to a well – established organisation already operating on the islands. We are strongly advising people against volunteering in rescue operations at this time.
Risk assessments of the situation are being carried out by Indigo Volunteers – one of the main facilitators of volunteers to the Greek Islands – to establish whether they will be sending any more volunteers to the islands in the coming weeks. So we strongly advise that you don’t decide to go there without due care and attention. A detailed report has been compiled by our friends at Athens Volunteer Facebook Group here.
Lesvos – Many experienced and well-established organisations on the island are currently in the process of evacuating the island and most groups and projects are temporarily closed. People are either leaving or are hankering down and waiting for the situation to stabilise.
Chios – Although much calmer than Lesvos recently a volunteer warehouse was burnt down and there has been some tensions between locals and Greek authorities which mean that the situation is still considered volatile and people are advised to go there only if they are very well informed as to the station on the ground are planning to volunteer with a well established and experienced group on the ground.
Samos is currently ‘business as usual’ but our colleagues on the ground tell us that risk assessment are being carried out, as there is a strong possibility of negative developments ( and the potential of greater numbers of people arriving in the near future ) but at the moment things are relatively calm, although conditions for those seeking refuge remain unacceptable and unlawful.
Leros and Kos
Unfortunately we do not have detailed and up to date info on Leros and Kos at present but we have reached out to trusted sources on the ground and will add info to our website in coming days.
RETURNING VOLUNTEER WELLBEING
Many volunteers returning from the Greek Islands to Athens and our friends over at Athens Volunteer Information Facebook Group have published this detailed and up to date information and advise for them, available here.
SOLIDARITY & SUPPORT
The Refugee Solidarity Summit will be looking at ways that we can signpost returned volunteers to support and services that may be helpful for them and establishing if we can potentially support and connect with partners to provide some resources, therapeutic and holistic support in the coming weeks we will update on that soon.
We will be producing a detailed Culture of Care resource as part of The Refugee Solidarity Summit legacy and will be sharing this with you once finished.
Topics around wellbeing and support of volunteers, safeguarding ourselves and others, avoiding burnout and compassionate responding came up a LOT at The Summit. We will post a video about volunteer burnout that was recorded at the Summit.
But for now we urge that, like us, you stick together and support each other and try not to get too dismayed by all the worrying reports and try not to let it negatively affect your own wellbeing. Feeling powerless in the face of momentous social injustice can be a very debilitating or anxiety inducing feeling, so be sure not too isolate yourself and if you are feeling angry, upset, hopeless, triggered or overwhelmed by recent events, please remember to seek support from peers via the following platforms and groups:
SSUN & PEACEFUL BORDERS- https://peacefulborders.org/ssun/
SIDE BY SIDE WITH VOLUNTEERS- https://www.facebook.com/SidebySidevolunteers/
REFUGEE VOLUNTEER SUPPORT GROUP- https://www.facebook.com/groups/1424742354318380/
THE BURNOUT COLLECTIVE- https://www.facebook.com/theburnoutcollective/
Here are a few resources we have found useful recently.
MINDFULNEXT – Alessandra Pigni’s website and her most recent book has been a great source of comfort:
TARA BRACH – Simple and unpretentious mindfulness and meditation practices https://www.tarabrach.com/
CENTRE FOR MIND BODY MEDICINE – https://cmbm.org/self-care/
A Podcast on Healing/Justice – https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/healingjustice/healing-justice
Report By Pru Waldorf on behalf of The Refugee Solidarity Summit