The COVID-19 pandemic has created an additional layer of difficulty for refugees and asylum seekers, with frontline states like Greece facing unprecedented pressure in dealing simultaneously with a humanitarian crisis and the health crisis. The situation calls for EU states to speed up the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) since the current impasse is exacerbating the life conditions of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.
Greece hosts about 120,000 refugees and asylum seekers, 37,000 of which are currently on the Greek islands. Lesvos alone hosts 19,500 refugees and asylum seekers, including thousands of unaccompanied children, the vast majority of whom are still in camps or homeless. Within Greece, the pressure to address a growing humanitarian crisis has resulted in increased domestic tensions. The government recently accused NGO’s and civil society organisations of inciting unrest and benefitting from the chaos in the hotspots. Earlier this year, there were protests by island communities against the government and, more recently, Greece witnessed clashes between anti-migrant groups in island communities and organisations working to support migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The complex situation in Greece is exacerbated by the inability of EU states to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), despite plans by the new EU Commission, some states and European parliamentarians to work towards a compromise.
We spoke to Lora Papa about the realities of the situation on the ground in Greece and what policymakers can learn from local action. She heads METAdrasi, a Greek NGO supporting the reception and integration of migrants and refugees in Greece. We discussed how local NGOs are strengthening their advocacy for better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, despite the increased challenges of COVID-19. Drawing on experiences of organisations like METAdrasi during the Corona pandemic, we offer three lessons for those policymakers who are looking to resolve the current prolonged stalemate in reforming the Common European Asylum System.
- Transfer refugees and asylum seekers to locations with better living conditions
The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the need for the Greek government to provide better living conditions for refugees and asylum seekers, who often live in overcrowded camps and spaces with poor sanitary conditions. Because of these inhumane living circumstances, they are unable to comply fully with public health recommendations like social distancing or regular hand washing. Refugees and asylum seekers in camps are trying to comply with safety measures by, for instance, keeping at a safe distance in queues and using personal protective gear like masks.
The pandemic has forced the Greek government to resume the process of transferring refugees and asylum seekers from the hotspots to reception facilities on the mainland, where conditions are equally squalid, to prevent an outbreak on the islands. Government and NGOs envisage increasing housing for refugees in rented hotels and apartments but it remains uncertain whether local landlords will agree to this proposal. But, inconsistent government measures such as, the decision to evict 10,000 recognized refugees from camps, hotels and apartments on the mainland, will render them homeless and further complicate the transfer of refugees.
On the mainland, quarantine measures have been imposed in three migrant housing facilities. Local actors have urged the government to implement quarantine and lockdown measures to ensure and facilitate access to cash, food supplies and medical care in migrant camps, in the hope to contain the further spread of the virus.
2. Forge a coalition of the willing to scale up relocation and family reunification
European countries and cities working together with international and local actors need to make good on their commitment to relocate unaccompanied children from migrant camps. One in three arrivals to Greek refugee camps are children, and over a third of unaccompanied minors arriving in Greece have family members in other member states and are eligible for family reunification.
Local actors have criticised the administrative and legal obstacles to family reunification, which is a legal option for some refugees and asylum seekers. Currently, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany, have begun evacuating unaccompanied minors from refugee camps in Greece. This fast track procedure adopted by European states is proof of the will to find effective solutions during crisis periods. The procedure can serve as a blueprint for a permanent mechanism for relocation. Ten countries, including Portugal, and some European cities have indicated their resolve to ignore administrative bottlenecks and the deadlock in reforms to seek pragmatic solutions to resettling unaccompanied migrants. Although states have different criteria to determine which children to resettle, the resolve to overcome these obstacles reveals a willingness to reach a compromise in resettlement discussions.
3. Focus on our shared humanity and work collaboratively to find innovative solutions
All actors need to focus on our shared humanity to address the pandemic and humanitarian crisis in Greece. Government officials like Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras have clearly stated that the government needs to ensure the protection of vulnerable groups like refugees and asylum seekers in addition to its citizens. Yet rising fear among Greek communities might increase pressure on the Government to refocus on securing its borders and preventing asylum seekers from entering Greece. These blockages which were already happening at the Greek-Turiksh border between February and March this year have been exacerbated by the health emergency. For instance, unconfirmed media reports that Turkey is sending over infected refugees to Greece are stoking negative sentiments in an already tense and charged political environment.
Local actors – like METAdrasi – are intensifying their assistance in migrant camps to make up for the reduced aid flow.. More so, local actors have introduced innovative solutions to provide ongoing educational assistance to children in the absence of technology by, for instance, placing pick up and drop off boxes for assignments in the hot spots.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the urgent need for action and new approaches to Europe’s asylum system and ongoing humanitarian crisis. Current measures in Greece show that it is possible to bridge the current impasse in the CEAS through emergency actions and with the help of willing states and cities. But this is not sustainable. The hotspot approach was meant to be temporary, however it has now adopted a prolonged character. The current challenges that refugees and asylum seekers are exposed to daily in Greek hotspots underline the need for swift action to reform the CEAS.
Policymakers in Brussels and European capitals should use the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to reflect and reset the discussions on such reform, focusing on our shared humanity. Bridging partnerships between local and international actors and working with the coalition of willing actors will also be crucial to solving the current impasse. Refugees, asylum seekers and actors in frontline states are in need of a prompt solution, to prevent political inaction from exacerbating any further their already unbearable situation.
Author: Amanda Bisong, Policy Officer, ECDPM
The authors are grateful for the feedback and support provided by Amy Leach, ODI, Asli Selin Okyay (IAI), Valeria Pintus (ECDPM) and Maria Brozou (ETTG).
Image courtesy of Metadrasi via Facebook.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.