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Food fights and hunger strikes: the chaos of protests as asylum seekers fear illegal deportation from Greece

Today at Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, the asylum system is on its knees; deportations have halted all processes of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), through which 95 per cent of refugees within the hotspot made their claim to stay in Europe. In Chios, that figure went up from 20 to 70 per cent, probably due to lack of clear information before.

This comes after several weeks of protests inside and outside the detention camp in Moria, including food fights and hunger strikes; it is chaos. Activists, volunteers and rescue teams, together with the UNHCR, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty international and several other NGOs and civil society agencies have demonstrated fundamental flaws in the deportation deal, as well as its implementation, between Greece and Turkey. One hunger strike was initiated by mainly Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan asylum seekers, who went without food for two days because they have limited access to the asylum process within the camp, putting them all at constant risk of deportation.

The European Commission has finally come to the islands, including the arrival of many more EASO staff. A basic human rights agency will advise Brussels. EU commission staff told a local coordination meeting that they were taken by surprise by the EU-Turkey deal. They’ve now asked more people from Brussels and Athens to come and see the situation for themselves, as currently there are no safeguards in place.

When people register in the camp, they are given papers detailing their rights, but they are only available in English and Arabic, so Urdu, Punjabi, Farsi, Kurdish and Pashtu speakers, as well as illiterate migrants, are excluded. Around 60 per cent of the refugees and migrants are non-Syrians, so the lack of information on Europe’s asylum laws is a serious issue. Moreover, the UN confirmed yesterday that at least 18 of the 136 Pakistanis deported yesterday had, in fact, sought asylum and were therefore deported back to Turkey illegally. Several personal contacts of mine confirmed that this number was actually much higher. Two of the deportees tried to commit suicide when they reached Turkey and are being treated in a local hospital; according to the local coordination group there, one was said to have died last night.

The fact that FRONTEX and the police forces in charge of this operation are untrained and understaffed is very worrying as there is no attention paid to monitoring rights violations. Nor is any attention given to the sensitivity that all of the people have been in a closed facility and stuck on the island for over 6 weeks, like most of the approximately 1,000 Pakistanis on Lesvos. UNHCR is petitioning against the deportation deal as it is illegal, merely being “recast” as legal with both Turkey and Greece altering their asylum laws.

The European External Action Service has a waiting list of 3,000 people and has only processed 18 cases so far; it has been forced to resume operations after a week of inactivity, despite the severity of the situation. This is due to an incredible effort by all detainees to claim asylum verbally, within the camp, so as to prevent more illegal deportations. Once this was known, all deportations had to be put on hold, not least because of the presence of so many journalists on Lesvos bringing the issue to the attention of the general public around the world.

Turkey is not prepared to receive the many refugees and migrants who are labelled as “irregular” and “economic”, yet after spending two months with focus groups, talking to at least 150 individuals in order to hear their stories, not one has told me that he has made this perilous journey simply to get a new job. People are seeking a future protected from life-threatening genocide, religious persecution, terrorism and wars. To suggest that they are merely economic migrants is to do them a grave injustice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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