I am talking to Muhammad* from Iraq; a father of two, he lost a third child on the way to Lesbos on board a dangerous rubber dinghy. He is reliving this trauma with his wife in their tent in the unofficial camp in Moria. Facing an uncertain future, like so many others there, his worries extend to his very identity as an Iraqi. The family's passports are Iranian, as they were stripped of their Iraqi identification papers during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran took their land, he explains. As Iraqis, they are fleeing from constant discrimination in Iran, but the bureaucracy of the asylum system causes them a lot of difficulties on their journey to Europe without accurate identity documents.
His situation is a manifestation of the unacceptable human cost of the constantly negotiated, politicised movement of borders. He believes that, first and foremost, he is a victim of border disputes between Iran and Iraq; a victim of the natural border that is the Aegean Sea; and is now a victim of his identity as an Iraqi and the asylum system. The humanitarian consequences of borders are evidence that we live in a world where people seem to exist in order to serve the system, rather than the other way around.
In Moria, the ever-tougher EU border policies mean that the refugees and migrants depart in "waves" from Mytilini in Lesbos, as the opening of the Greece-Macedonia border is negotiated constantly. Earlier this week, when only Iraqis and Syrians with valid identity papers were allowed to cross, the camps in Lesbos filled with Afghans; rumours spread that 6,000 Afghans were turned away at the border but no camp was set up there, leaving them all, especially the women and children, at risk and having to sleep in the open in a cold Macedonian winter.
It was reported that Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency, FRONTEX, said that if no country will take "unwanted" economic migrants and asylum seekers with nationalities not allowed to move along the Balkan Route, such as Afghans, it is likely that they will all remain in Greece. According to Leggeri, those who don't meet the requirements for protection and are considered to be "economic migrants" are "supposed to leave Greece within a month." The future is thus a concern for people who may not be fleeing from internationally recognised war and persecution, but unrecognised conflict, discrimination, economic deterioration, institutional inequality or other circumstances that would drive someone to leave their homeland. Since most arrived on boats from Turkey, they should be returned there but the FRONTEX chief added that practically no migrants can be sent back. This is due to failures in the implementation of the agreement controlling the readmission of migrants from Greece to Turkey, he explained.
A core principle is Non-Refoulement, which means that no refugee shall be sent back to a country if his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; or where there are substantial grounds for believing that s/he would be in danger of being subjected to torture. Some of the "illegal migrants" being stopped from entering Macedonia may fall under these categories but were not given refugee status based on the discrimination from which they are fleeing.
The authorities in Moria have stopped registering Pakistanis, and arrested and threatened to deport those who tried to register. With no prospect of moving off the island, they remain stuck with no status, like the Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians. Trying to figure out the options for such people gives us in Moria a lot of heartache. "Sister, please help," several men pleaded. "We can't go back to Pakistan." We managed to get about 200 of them out of the official registration camp. Having already suffered state violence and socio-economic insecurities in Pakistan, they head for Europe in the hope of a brighter future. Some Pakistanis and Bangladeshis want to go to Britain, the country that partitioned India, creating fertile ground for much of the communal violence that we see today. The partition of India left a legacy in Pakistan's political and socio-economic demise. It is natural for anyone to seek a better life wherever it can be found, so Britain and France, as former colonial powers, should have a special understanding of their past relationship with the countries from which most of the migrants come.
As of last week, Afghans can no longer legally cross the border into Macedonia. Some 6,000 of them were pushed back at the border and remain in Greece. As Afghans keep arriving on Lesbos, they will be stuck either in an unofficial camp on the island or in the port of Athens.
Most of the people are in family groups, and as accommodation and food runs out, and general conditions worsen rapidly, their health is threatened. They will soon be forced to start looking for alternative routes, supporting the smugglers' illegal and lethal exploitation of their vulnerability. Children and women are especially at risk from traffickers, with frequent sexual exploitation during their journey.
Idomeni is a small village on the Greece-Macedonia border; it remains the only legal route for most people travelling further into Europe. Buses are let through occasionally, but only Iraqis and Syrians with valid ID cards can pass. Reports claim that up to 70,000 people were expected to be held up in Greece by the end of February.
Meanwhile, NATO has joined the chaotic authorities on the island, patrolling around Lesbos in a warship. A lot of refugee boats arrived just before the NATO vessel started its patrol, and only two came in on the day that it arrived. Nobody seems quite sure why NATO is here, or how effective its mission is, as another 20 refugee boats arrived in the warship's wake. Apparently the NATO ship is to protect people from human traffickers and work with the Turkish and Greek coastguards, based on a new agreement which has overcome territorial tension between the two neighbours.
AFP reported that Greece has been threatened with suspension from the frontier-free Schengen Area if it does not do more to stop waving through migrants to other countries, and improve reception and registration conditions for refugees who land on its soil. However, the EU's Dublin Regulations say that migrants must apply for asylum in the first country in which they land, but this system is set to be overhauled in the coming months as it has proved unworkable due to the scale of the current crisis. Turkey's deputy interior minister plans to meet ministers from all 28 EU states at the main talks on Thursday, as the EU also pushes Ankara on a deal aimed at cutting the number of arrivals.
Turkey and the EU signed a deal in November in which Ankara agreed to curb the number of refugees crossing to Greece in return for €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in aid and the speeding up of its EU membership bid. An EU-Turkey summit on the deal will take place on 7 March.
For Muhammad, though, all that matters is to find work and support his family, and to move on with some dignity intact. He has chosen to accept a temporary stay in Greece and hopes to get a job in the service sector, picking olives or doing other farm labour. Perhaps Europe is missing the point about what great strength and ability to contribute to society such people have. The migrants I spoke to are looking for dignity and safety, rights that they cannot and should not be deprived of. After all, people have always migrated, and always will. The Europeans should understand this; they have been doing the same thing for centuries.
*Personal names have been changed to protect people's identities.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.