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10 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:01pm

“You thought you came for human rights”: meet the refugees stranded in Greece after the EU/Turkey deal

They number 50,000 and they live in dirt and mud in the middle of Europe.

By Johanna Mitscherlich

“You thought you came for human rights. But you are like animals; you don’t have any human rights.” This is how Kamal was greeted by a border guard on his arrival in Greece, his first steps on European soil. Kamal is a lawyer from Aleppo, a father who has risked his life to save what was left of his family after his parents were killed when his house was hit by a bomb. But no one commented on that when he arrived in a boat in Greece, soaked in water and shivering from the cold. Like more than 50,000 other refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq he is now stranded in Greece.

They were on their way to western Europe to reunite with their families. Instead, they are now living in dispersed camps in mainland Greece, stuck in squalid conditions. Most of the refugees in Greece are women and children and live in overcrowded accommodation sites, without proper access to sanitary facilities, quality food and protection. In the past days I met heavily pregnant women who were sleeping on cold, muddy floors with hundreds of other people; children with severe respiratory diseases and scabies. I usually take pride in calling myself a European, but standing in the refugee camps in Greece, and witnessing the wholly inadequate support I felt deeply ashamed.

I have met Syrian refugees in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, along the Balkan route and in Germany and have seen their suffering. More than 6m people are fleeing within Syria and more than 5m are living in dire conditions in neighbouring countries. These people here, however, are not in faraway places and they are not millions. They number 50,000 and they live in dirt and mud in the middle of Europe. The EU estimates that between 35,000 and 40,000 persons in Greece are eligible for relocation. So far, however, only 876 have been transferred to other EU member states. It seems that right now detention and deportation have become a priority, not the safety and dignity of these stranded, suffering people.

Europe has a population of 500m, and the European Union is the world’s biggest global economy entity. What can possibly be so difficult to act decisively, establish an effective process to quickly relocate 50,000 people to alleviate the urgent humanitarian situation? Why does it take so long to improve conditions for stranded refugees, and act in a responsible manner based on human rights principles, meeting the EU’s own commitments to relocate these people?

Like Kamal, most refugees could not even start their relocation or family reunification process. To apply for relocation, refugees have to call via skype; office hours are from Monday to Thursday from 3-5pm and Fridays from 12-5pm. For family reunification they can call the service hotline Thursday mornings between 9 and 10. With such narrow timeframe it becomes quickly overwhelmed with the number of calls, and it can only answer 25-30 calls per hour. Most camps do not have WIFI and people have depleted all of their resources to bring themselves and their children to safety.

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I met a mother who has not seen her underage children for almost a year and spent her last €50 on phone credit in order to make an appointment for family reunification. “It’s like winning the lottery,” she told me. These families survived the war, lost their loved-ones and had to leave their entire previous life behind them. How is it acceptable to have them beg for money so they can buy phone credit in a futile effort to reach officials through skype in the one hour a week they are available?

Shortly after the EU-Turkey-Deal came into effect and it became clear that borders would remain closed, Kamal’s brother committed suicide in Aleppo. “He did not know what to do or where to go anymore. He called me and said that he cannot continue waiting to be hit by a bomb,” he says. Closing borders sends a very clear message to those who are trapped in war-zones, those for whom the fundamental human rights to life and to seek asylum seem to have been cancelled.

Kamal, his wife and baby girl are now living with a Greek family, who shares their home and the little they have, despite being hard hit by the economic crisis in their own country. It is the hospitality, resourcefulness and generosity of the Greek people, thousands of volunteers and the work of organisations such as CARE’s partner Solidarity Now, which uphold humanity and decency in this humanitarian catastrophe. It is time that European governments learn a lesson from them.

The solution to this avoidable crisis is in the hands of European governments, wealthy governments who have the means and the expertise to provide Greece with the support it has requested. They urgently need this additional capacity from fellow European governments to improve the humanitarian situation and respond to tens of thousands of requests for relocation and family reunification. And there can be no further delay; EU members must urgently process and accept refugees to their countries.  Then Kamal can realise there is no truth to the insults that met him on his arrival in Europe – the continent is far better than that.

Johanna Mitscherlich, CARE International

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