On Tuesday, the European Union gave Greece two weeks to “tighten its borders” and finalise a plan for the spending of the €700 million allocated in response to the crisis situation in Greece. EU officials visited Lesvos last week, saw the issues surrounding the implementation of the new EU-Turkey “repatriation” deal and reacted with strong disappointment at the proposed plan from Athens. Whilst inadequacies in the humanitarian response, training of personnel and the capacity and conditions for refugees are unquestionably unacceptable, the deal’s structure is causing domestic, international and relationship issues due to its inability to “respond” to and accommodate the reality of the large-scale movement of people.
Sending back asylum seekers and other “mistakes”
At least 20 of the refugees deported from the hotspot of Vial, in Chios, had sought asylum; in Moria on the island of Lesvos, another hotspot, the number was 18. People are thus being deported illegally, despite the UNHCR giving the police a list of legal requirements. The UN has confirmed that over 95 per cent of the detainees in Moria have claimed asylum, bringing the already precarious system to its knees. This makes the enormous, intimidating, presence of Frontex on the island superfluous; instead, the EU is now promising to send European Asylum Support Office (EASO) staff to the island to “fast-track” asylum cases. Exchanging the fierce, militarised Frontex face of Europe’s borders with service staff who work according to human rights standards sounds hopeful, but it could very well merely whitewash the institutionalised illegal push-backs of people fleeing colonialism’s deadly legacies. Furthermore, the fast-tracking of people remains.
“Refugees in Greece are gathering in groups of 1,000 to 2,000 and planning to invade our border,” Prime Minister Boyko Borisov told the Bulgarian parliament. He complained that conditions at the hotspots are “horrific”. The EU blames Greece for the refugees’ inadequate and punishing conditions.
Several volunteers and journalists have reported incidents of sexism, racism and discrimination on the basis of nationalism, random arrests and brutality by the police in both Lesvos and Chios. One volunteer said that a policeman told her that he would take her to a basement where no one could hear her screams, when the solidarity cafe she helps to run in Chios was raided without warrant or warning last December. “I’ve been stopped several times with my [food distribution] van,” she explained. “They know me now.” She said that she is harassed constantly on the basis of her solidarity work and the fact that she is a woman. Several other volunteers have experienced similar conduct and attitudes from the poorly-trained policemen and riot police.
Attacks on Chios
On Thursday night, the refugees in Chios port were victims of a terrifying mob of angry fascist men who threw bottles and Molotov cocktails at the gate where they were taking shelter. Intimidating behaviour by the riot police and army made the refugee families distressed and anxious as they tried to sleep in the port. A group of local women were inside the camp with other volunteers, helping a gradual relocation of the families to the nearby church and the other camp of Souda. Meanwhile, ten refugees expressing a wish to stay were arrested and charged with disobedience by the police. When I asked an officer whether people were allowed to move outside the port or were being sealed in — that’s how it looked when the mob started circling the port gate — he said that he did not know but, in any case, we volunteers and journalists should leave the port. The ten men are now unlikely to get their asylum as they now have a criminal record. Lawyers are working on the case as the refugees were not disobeying orders; the fascist mob which attacked men, women and children with bottles and Molotov cocktails, were neither arrested nor even reprimanded.
There is a sense that national (-ist) pride seems to be the response to the deal’s scandalous and severely inadequate protection of human rights; it fails to take into account the desire of the refugees to move and doesn’t understand the dynamics of local implementation. In Chios, shipping is a big business that connects the island with the mainland. Following the occupation of the port by the refugees, ships had to be re-directed elsewhere and anger at the economic consequences is prompting the scapegoating and violent fascist “retaliation”.
Europe’s barbaric handling of the refugees in Macedonia and by Hungarian vigilantes, as well as the police and military on mainland Greece, Vial and Moria, is clear. Several volunteers have reported seeing police throwing stones at the fences and calling the refugees “animals”. I spoke to people through the fence and they confirmed that their rights had been violated in both camps, including their right to international protection. Several illegal deportations of asylum seekers have happened over the past 10 days, making everyone very anxious. Nevertheless, people are kept uninformed by the international and local NGOs, which are also being given conflicting information by the authorities; if you don’t speak Arabic or Farsi, you will not understand the leaflets explaining refugee and asylum rights. Accurate verbal information remains sporadic. At the registration desk, refugees are given a piece of paper that asks, in English, whether they want to be deported or have asylum in Greece. As most refugees do not want either, they tick “no” to both questions, thus facilitating the confusion and “justifying” the process of deportation to Turkey, despite it not being a “safe third country”.
There has been no official Greek response to Borisov’s reprimand, which comes ahead of scheduled talks on the refugee crisis between the foreign ministers of Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania in Thessaloniki on 21 and 22 April.