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The Greek island of Lesbos is struggling with overwhelming numbers of refugees arriving daily on its shores. What can be done to solve this humanitarian crisis?
On arriving in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, refugees, locals and tourists crowd the busy port. At first glance, we are indistinguishable. Young Syrian guys with backpacks could easily be mistaken for Turkish or Italian tourists. Cafés and restaurants are full and bustling.
Also immediately in view, however, are many, many small tents. Parks and public areas are full of people, families with young children and babies, sleeping outdoors. There is also a large crowd is congregated outside what I learned is the only registration centre on the island.The interactions between local shopkeepers and refugees I witnessed were calm and considerate, in spite of the language barriers.
The locals are well used to their island being a transit point and sell tents, food, toiletries, SIM cards, and onward travel to those who have the resources and papers to leave. Volunteers here have provided welcome for years in a remarkable display of solidarity, in spite of the impact of austerity on life for the locals.
The sheer number of those seeking refuge is putting pressure on the Greek islands, however, and has been for some time. Only a tiny proportion of refugees ever attempt to get to Europe – most remain in their regions of origin. Unfortunately, refugees wishing to come to Europe generally have to use irregular means, and so are concentrated on Greece’s southern beaches, rather than dispersed across the ports and airports of Europe like other travellers.
They are distinguished, not merely by their need for international protection, but also by their lack of legal travel routes. About 200,000 people have arrived in Greece from Turkey already this year—a significant increase from 43,000 in 2014. This increase puts greater pressure on the Greek islands, where thousands arrive daily. Greece has started to organise transport to the mainland, but not as fast as people arrive.
Due to the fact that there is no safe and legal access to Europe offered to those seeking refuge, they arrive disproportionately by sea, often physically, emotionally and financially depleted by the journey. My arrival in Lesbos was easy and cheap: The ferry journey from Turkey to Greece cost me 15 euros. Refugees, on the other hand, reportedly pay around 1000 euros for the dangerous dinghy crossing. They then usually walk from the beaches in the north of the island for many kilometres, often in searing heat. The roads are full of people walking, as on other islands.
Yet, if refugees were able to make safe, regular journeys, then they could bring at least some belongings and have their life savings intact to start new lives. They would arrive across all of the EU’s ports and airports, not on its southern beaches or via rescue vessels. The EU’s own Fundamental Rights Agency has set out a range of options to allow safe access to protection. For instance, EU Member States could process humanitarian visa applications in their embassies, or extend other visa categories to those fleeing. A collective move in this direction is legally warranted.
Resettlement is another alternative to offer safe and legal access to protection. UNHCR urges resettling 10% of Syrian refugees (not just to Europe, but elsewhere too), 400,000 people. The EU’s collective resettlement commitment made in April was 20,000 places for refugees around the world. The disparity between political ‘realism’ and the real need is vast. Who knows how many refugees would have been saved dangerous journeys had these options been available? How many would have waited had humanitarian visas and credible resettlements pledges been made at the appropriate scale?
Instead, Europe made it difficult and dangerous for people to come, yet desperation is a strong driver. People still come, and we see seasonal surges in arrivals. Refugees continue to get on boats. By ignoring the predictable need for refuge, Europe creates a humanitarian crisis at its external borders, and a political one as arrivals continue to be chaotic and unmanaged. Governments seek to deflect responsibility for what is evidently a collective international and regional responsibility.
The alternative is to make humanitarian visas acessible, provide people with safe access to asylum and issue large resettlement quotas, not only to the EU, but other countries of asylum and resettlement globally.
Not only do people arrive without many belongings, it is local volunteers and the tiny international NGO presence that provides all the assistance on Lesbos. Speaking to seasoned humanitarian workers, experienced at responding to situations of ‘mass influx’ in developing countries, the constraints of operating in Europe become all too apparent. While Greece has clear obligations under EU law to provide suitable ‘reception conditions’ for asylum-seekers, when it fails, there is little provided in terms of a humanitarian safety net.
The European Court of Human Rights has already condemned Greece for the inhuman and degrading living conditions it exposes asylum-seekers to. In spite of the valiant efforts of local volunteers on the island, refugees are left to sleep in parks. There are many informal volunteer-run settlements and an overcrowded official camp. Whilst the refugees only stay for a short period of time before leaving the island, conditions in these camps are truly and needlessly squalid. Basic sanitation is lacking and the camp is largely informal and unmanaged.
The response needed, quite simply, is that when individual EU states fail to do so, the EU as an organisation must provide a humanitarian safety net to ensure refugees are treated with dignity and respect, funding and supporting local and international NGOs.
The lack of safe and legal routes into the EU is not the only legal vacuum made manifest on the island. Refugees must get a ‘paper’ in order to leave the island, but for most there is no obvious legal process or official explanation of what lies ahead. Syrians tend to get swift passage to the mainland of Greece and permission to stay for 6 months. Other nationalities languish on Lesbos for longer, and then are usually issued with a paper requiring them to leave Greece within 30 days.
Yet the refugees’ journey has barely begun. Reaching Europe should mean reaching safety, but that isn’t the case for those who arrive on Lesbos. Once on mainland Europe, most refugees will leave again because Greece cannot offer protection and a viable future. Whilst it seems Greece’s asylum system is getting better, access to advice about asylum procedures is lacking. Only 2,610 people formally sought asylum in Greece out of the 200,000 arrivals – the vast majority move on.
The legality of Greece and the EU receiving refugees and then effectively compelling them to leave again, embarking on a further dangerous irregular journey, is doubtful. Those wishing to claim asylum elsewhere in the EU cannot approach embassies in Athens for visas, but must instead become ‘illegal’ once more, and cross the Balkans by land. The onward journey they face is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous. Yet, most should ultimately have their claims recognised: we know most who arrive by boat are refugees. Those arriving in Lesbos at present include mainly Syrians, Afghans, often from ethnic minorities, and Iraqis.
Thus far, EU countries have agreed voluntarily to ‘relocate’ 32,256 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy over two years. This is so out of kilter with the reality of 200,000 arrivals this year, 97% of whom move on. Refugees are relocating themselves, at great personal and financial risk.
‘Relocation’ needs to be urgently reframed to ensure safe passage with travel documents and humanitarian evacuation from the Greek islands. Not only to the Greek mainland, but directly to countries of asylum across the EU. The Greek government demonstrably cannot organise this, so a multi-actor team including UNHCR and international NGOs must be funded to organise evacuation for the vulnerable, and travel documents for safe passage across the EU for others.
What can Europeans do?
The humanitarian response to the refugee crisis on the island of Lesbos is led by local volunteers. You can support them directly, and your donations do get through. As the numbers increase, however, a coordinated response is long overdue. International humanitarian organisations here in Lesbos include International Rescue Committee and Medecins Sans Frontières. Individual donations give them the much needed funds and the capacity to work where governments are too weak or too passive in the face of great human need.
The debate in Europe is shifting. Chancellor Merkel is providing a strong lead and citizen action in many countries is putting pressure on governments. Much is at stake at the next EU Summit. The European Commission is due to issue new proposals on Wednesday 9 September (ahead of the next EU Justice and Home Affairs summit on 14 September), including proposals for a permanent relocation system for greater numbers of people.
For the thousands on the Greek islands with a dangerous Balkan journey in front of them, evacuation and safe passage with appropriate travel documents, which would allow them to bypass the Balkans and travel legally and safely onwards, is crucial.
This is where people power matters: if we lobby all of our national governments, we can at least ensure that for those who arrive, there is a place of safety waiting, not more suffering and yet another dangerous journey. For relocation to work, other EU countries need to agree in advance to accept asylum-seekers in significant numbers, so that they can travel directly to where their claims will be examined.
Without this coordination, the refugees’ journeys will continue.
Cathryn Costello is Andrew W Mellon Associate Professor in International Human Rights and Refugee Law, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University.