© Giorgos Moutafis/Amnesty International
Lives in limbo: A reflection on the European response to tragedy

Author: Eleanor Butterwick

Since 2015, the European Union has been struggling to deal with a refugee and migrant crisis that was brought to a head by the wars in Syria and Iraq. According to Eurostat, by the end of 2015, 1.3 million people fleeing conflict and persecution had travelled through Greece in search of safety and a better life in Europe. The International Rescue Committee states that 62,000 of these vulnerable and desperate people now remain in Greece. They are in a state of limbo: one foot in Greece but still hoping to be taken in by Germany or another EU country. Their greatest fear is to be sent back to Turkey or to the place from where they came.

A recent report by the European Commission to the European Parliament (COM (2017) 204 final) highlights the EU’s overall approach as one of containment and ultimately a return of refugees to Turkey, if possible.

Their “Priority Action” for the processing of vulnerable cases is particularly interesting. It is a short paragraph, but when distilled down it shows the Commission’s own particularly bureaucratic approach to dealing with vulnerable people (and surely all refugees are vulnerable). They note that the Greek Asylum Service along with the European Asylum Support Office are working on defining some of the vulnerability categories and are developing a Standard Medical Assessment Template for the processing of vulnerable persons. In addition, this is being developed in the context of what support services can be offered by Turkey rather than Greece.

If the vulnerable refugees could remain in Greece, they would, most likely, get better support. According to Article 14(8) L4375/2016, Greece considers the following groups vulnerable: unaccompanied minors, persons who have a disability or who are suffering from an incurable or serious illness, the elderly, women in pregnancy or having recently given birth, single parents with minor children, victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence or exploitation, persons with a post-traumatic disorder, in particularly survivors and relatives of victims of ship-wrecks, and victims of human trafficking.

However, those with mental health problems and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, both conditions suffered by many in the camps, are not considered to have life threatening conditions and are therefore not deemed to be vulnerable. A recent report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Brussels highlighted this new policy from the EU to press the Greek authorities and medical aid organizations to reduce the number of asylum seekers identified as “vulnerable”.

HRW said on 1 June 2017 that the EU and the Greek government now prefer to contain all asylum seekers on the Greek islands. Before the new policy, asylum seekers identified as vulnerable could be transferred to the mainland to have their cases handled there. And this move, based on Greek law, would also give access to specialist services for the most vulnerable.

The deal struck by the EU with Turkey in March 2016 would return most asylum seekers from the Greek islands to Turkey – a deal designed to move one refugee from Turkey to an EU country for each refugee that Turkey accepted back (in short, one vulnerable life exchanged for another). The deal coincided with EU pledges around political concessions such as easing Turkish visa access to the EU and promises to restart negotiations to join the EU – all of which have stalled spectacularly after the failed coup in Turkey and President Erdogan’s clampdown on any form of criticism. The deal has left some 12,800 asylum seekers bottle-necked in unsafe, and insanitary conditions in camps on Greek islands such as Chios, Lesvos, Kos, Leros and Samos.

It seems that lack of political will and a clear humanitarian strategy, rather than lack of money, is a big part of the issue. This view was highlighted in a report titled “Where did the money go? How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis” in the Guardian newspaper on the 9th March 2017.  Based on Eurostat sources, EU emergency funding allocated to Greece has been 352.8 million Euros and so far 340 million has been released – on a crude calculation of spreading this over 62,000 refugees, then each could be allocated €5,500. The Guardian report stated a dollar figure of $14,088 per beneficiary and then went on to quote a senior official from ECHO (the EU’s humanitarian operations directorate) who estimated that as much as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted. If true, this is not only disappointing, but a terrible comment on the West’s response to one of greatest humanitarian crises in recent times. The figures quoted may not have allocated a huge financial sum per person but they certainly would have been enough to provide basic sanitation, safe and secure living conditions, along with access to medicine and education.

As someone who is new to the work of the non-governmental organization, Action from Switzerland, I have been struck by their focus on practical help, their dynamism and humanitarianism while working in terrible conditions. On Chios, women are supported through AfS’s Athena Centre for Women and its many extra vulnerable refugees are supported through its advocacy and psychological services. Humanity and dignity are essential for all people, but especially for those who have had their lives upended and put on hold by violence and persecution, only to land in an environment rife in stress and uncertainty.

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