Why is Greece forcing asylum seekers to remain on the Greek islands?

An EU-Turkey “statement” from March 2016 committed Turkey to accept the return of all asylum seekers who reached the Greek Islands by traveling through Turkey and crossing the sea. In return the EU agreed to provide billions of euros in aid and other benefits, and to resettle an equal number of Syrians who were already in Turkey.

The Greek government, under a “containment” policy, decided to keep asylum seekers confined to the islands to facilitate their speedy processing and return to Turkey.

What are the consequences of this containment policy?

The islands have become places of indefinite confinement for thousands of people where they do not have timely access to asylum procedures nor benefit from the protection they are entitled to. Many have been stuck there for months on end.

This has significant consequences for their health and wellbeing. In addition to dire living conditions, including insufficient food, many can’t get physical and mental health services or education for their children or even police protection if violence breaks out in these tense conditions.

Women and girls say they experience sexual harassment and threat of violence daily, deterring them from leaving their shelters or even going to the bathroom alone. They express little confidence that Greek authorities would help or protect them if they report incidents.

Aren’t conditions on the mainland just as bad?

Even though the conditions on the mainland need improvement, they are much better than on the islands. The mainland has facilities that are not overcrowded, are protected from the winter weather, and offer better security and access to services, with some room for expansion.

In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) accommodation program provides 22,000 rented housing places to vulnerable asylum-seekers and refugees, including to asylum seekers transferred from the islands.

The EU and other member states should financially support Greece to expand asylum seekers’ accommodation on the mainland and take steps to relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries. Other EU member states should also refrain from resuming returns of asylum seekers to Greece, which would exacerbate its problems with reception conditions for asylum seekers.

Wouldn’t speeding up asylum procedures on the islands end the overcrowding and the dire conditions?

In reality, the majority of asylum seekers trapped on the islands lack a realistic prospect of return to Turkey under the deal, either because they are considered “vulnerable” and protected from the expedited proceedings that are in place to implement the agreement, have family elsewhere in the EU and are entitled to reunite with them, or come from countries with conditions that make it likely they will be admitted to the regular Greek asylum system for a full examination of their claim. Migration control is not grounds for harming the wellbeing, health and dignity of those trapped on the islands.

The only way to increase the number or speed of returns to Turkey would be by weakening the safeguards or quality of the process. This is no way to treat a traumatized population, and the wrong way to alleviate overcrowding or address the systemic issues linked to the containment policy and EU-Turkey deal that have created this inhumane situation on the islands.

Won’t opening the islands encourage more asylum seekers to take a risky journey by sea from Turkey to Greece?

It is unclear how much of a role the policy of containment has played in decreasing arrivals in comparison with other factors. The border closures along the Western Balkans route to the north of Greece, making it very difficult to reach other EU countries by land via Greece, increased Turkey’s action against smuggling networks, and the prospect of having to remain in Greece, even on the mainland, are also likely to be important factors in discouraging arrivals alongside the containment policy.

Containing asylum seekers on the Greek islands in substandard and appalling conditions that violate their rights and Greece’s international obligations in the hope that it will deter others from coming is bad policy. The EU should look instead at sharing responsibility across member states, tackling root causes of migration, and increasing availability of more safe and legal channels into the EU.

What can the rest of the EU do to help improve the dire conditions on the islands?

The EU and its member states should agree on the need to end the containment policy and to immediately transfer the asylum seekers to Greece’s mainland. They should support the Greek government’s efforts to meet the protection needs of all asylum seekers in its territory, and ensure their safety and dignity, including relocating asylum seekers from Greece.

Pic: Two refugees receiving assistance from Terre des Hommes in Greece.