While the Greek islands used to be places of transit where asylum seekers and migrants spent only days on their way to other European countries, as a result of an EU agreement with Turkey, thousands are stranded on Greece’s Aegean islands.
On March 18, the EU and Turkey will mark the one -year anniversary of their joint statement , which sought to stem the flows of asylum-seekers and migrants crossing from Turkey’s shores to the Greek islands. But as this anniversary approaches, Refugee International believes there little cause to celebrate and much more cause for concern. While EU leaders have presented the policy as a success, pointing to the significant decrease in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands since March 2016, the policy has also left thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers stranded in Greece in shocking conditions and has eroded the right to seek asylum in Europe.
Unlike a situation in which humanitarians meet refugees in the relative safety of camps at the end of their flight, Greece is just one stop on a long journey northward, where first responders have rescued people from drowning, watched dead bodies float onto shore, and embraced those celebrating a successful entry into Europe. The range of emotions is extreme, and then stories of horrific violence, hardship, and for many, disappointment follow.
As of November 19, more than 850,000 refugees and migrants arrived by sea into Europe this year, and more than 80 percent of them — around 735,000 — through Greece. While the majority are Syrian, there are also asylum seekers from many countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, and Morocco. In addition to war, people are fleeing poverty, indignities, and persecution. Images of dead bodies washing ashore shocked the world. But the persistently poor assumption that the European Union was capable of a coherent, humane, and well-resourced response resulted in delay upon delay by the usual international humanitarian actors.
Even after four years of field missions with Refugees International, I had never seen anything like it. Around midday, we were driving high along the hills of the northern coast of the Greek island Lesvos, with the Turkish mainland in the foreground. As we descended closer the shoreline, our interpreter pointed out little black specs, tinged with orange, that were dotting the sea. “Look over there! The boats are coming. The orange is from the life jackets.”
I've just arrived in Greece to assess the situation for newly arriving refugees on the country’s outer islands. In a global context of increasingly harsh rhetoric that conflates refugees with security threats, we plan to gather first-hand stories from Syrian’s fleeing the ongoing and devastating war in Syria that has displaced a staggering 12 million people.