I met Ahmed and Fatima at the beginning of December. He and his wife are from Aleppo and this summer eventually got their asylum in Greece. In October 2021 new government legislation kicked in which left Ahmed and Fatima with no income and no housing. The government insists that refugees who gain asylum must ‘stand on their own feet’ within 30 days of being successful. Staying with friends, they live mainly on pot noodles and with eight packets for less than 2 euros they can eat for 2-3 days. Fatima talks of her friend who can no longer buy baby food and gets by mixing biscuits into diluted milk instead.
Tens of thousands of refugees in Greece have been hit by a succession of measures which have plunged them deeper into acute poverty. The monthly payments paid to asylum seekers by UNHCR were taken over by the Greek state from the beginning of October. Over 30,000 refugees have received no money for food and survival since then. Although a Kenyan friend told me that it seems that some payments will be made soon although how much they will receive is as yet unknown. We wait.
The following statement was signed by 27 NGOs working with refugees in Greece and sets out the main dimensions of the plight of thousands of already vulnerable people:
“For nearly two months, up to 60 per cent of current residents of the Greek refugee camps on the mainland have not had access to sufficient food. Following the implementation in October 2021 of a law passed last year, the Greek Government stopped providing services to those whose asylum applications have been accepted. One in four residents in these facilities are women and two in five are children…. In addition, approximately 34,000 asylum seekers have gone for two months without cash assistance that had previously enabled them to buy food, clothing and other essential items. ….In response to calls by NGOs to urgently address the situation, the government made public assurances that distributions would resume by the end of October. One month later, the problem remains unresolved and its devastating impact on asylum seekers grows by the day.
…….Refugees and asylum seekers, who were already economically marginalised, are resorting to begging and other negative coping mechanisms to survive. “Among those affected are rejected asylum seekers who cannot access accommodation or healthcare and have no right to work. This includes many Afghan and Syrian refugees whose applications were rejected on the basis that Turkey is a safe country, despite the fact Turkey is not accepting any returns from Greece” said Ana Liz Chiban of Fenix – Humanitarian Legal Aid. Some asylum seekers who live outside the camps as beneficiaries of the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program are particularly vulnerable. They have also been affected by the interruption in cash provision but, unlike people in the camps, do not receive prepared food distributions. Without even this alternative, they have been left completely dependent on local social services and organisations to receive food, where those are available. (https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2021/11/29/ngos-raise-alarm-at-growing-hunger-amongst-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-in-greece)
As always the principal burden of survival rests on the shoulders of refugees. Nothing from the state but hurt. In addition, again as always, hundreds of locally based initiatives engage in food support systems illustrating yet again the humanity of the people in contrast to the cruelties of the system. For the refugees themselves their friendships and families are important to their survival with remittances playing a crucial role.
“A system cannot fail those whom it was never designed to protect.” (WEB DuBois)
This week in Samos Town I had a few hours with Yasser. He is from northern Syria and has his asylum now in Greece. For the past three months he has been working as a translator in the Camp on Kos island and was making a brief visit to Samos where he spent many years. As usual, I was raging on about the problems confronting so many refugees especially the food problems now. How I asked do we understand and confront such endless cruelties? For the great majority of asylum seekers both in Greece and in many other European countries their experiences as they seek their papers is physically and psychologically destructive of their well being. [I cannot emphasise enough that the great majority of asylum seekers are tortured by their experiences; endless waiting for months and even years for decisions that will affect your entire life yet never getting any indication when a decision will be made: wait wait.]
Yet Greece is facing imminent pressures as its population declines and ages (Greece now has the highest proportion of older people within the EU), there are continual yearly outflows of young Greeks seeking work and a life; birth rates drop year on year in part fueled by widespread poverty. Yet the Greek state shows no interest in the welfare of refugees and gives no sense that these mainly young people could make an important contribution to Greek society. It seems an extraordinary stance which is more than simple neglect as the asylum process here deliberately weakens and damages the refugees. Just one single example: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) is a chronic condition effecting thousands of refugees in Greece. Yet in 2019 the government decided to remove PSTD as a ground for being considered a vulnerable asylum seeker and entitled to additional support. From whatever perspective we assess this decision the conclusion is the same: cruel.
Yasser’s response to my outpourings was telling. He had learnt much from his time in the camp in Kos. Everything he saw and experienced told him the same story. “The Greek government simply does not care for the refugees; they don’t see us as humans”. He said he wasn’t naive when he went to Kos. He too had bad experiences of the asylum system. What working in Kos taught him was how not caring and respecting refugees informed every task both in terms of what was offered and how it was offered. He was told time and again by his managers how crucial it was for the refugees to feel uncomfortable so that they would tell their friends and families not to follow them. Deterrence was all. This is the reason he was given as to why they were deliberately overcrowding the accommodation units pushing 8 to 10 people into cabins designed for 6 even though there were plenty of empty cabins in the camp. He said such examples abounded. Simple solutions to make life better were always ignored. “Maybe I should have expected this when my employment contract forbade me from talking to any refugee outside of my work” But what “really made me sad was to see how so many of those working with refugees seem to have lost or are loosing their humanity. This is bad.”
Nevertheless, Yasser’s close friend, also from Syria now with his asylum papers and living in Belgium told us when he joined our conversation, that he and many of his ‘refugee’ friends in Antwerp would love to live in Greece if there was any chance of finding a decent job. In Belgium he has found a good and well paid job but his daily routine of work, eat, sleep work left no room for much else. It was he said a much more regulated society without the spaces you find in Greece for a coffee with friends. Then there is the weather…… There is no single or simple answer as to why so many refugees coming into Europe through Greece have such positive feelings for a place where they encounter so much hurt. That many are helped by simple solidarities from the locals is clearly a factor and there is much in daily life here which is similar to their own home countries especially in the Middle East including the climate. And although I hear many refugees express surprise that a country and a region (Europe) which claims some special relationship with human civilisation can act with such disregard to their well being, you will also hear them say that these governments are not so different from what they have left behind. Its not just that nasty states are a reality you can rarely escape but you don’t judge a people or their country simply on the grounds of the behaviour of governments and its state agencies.
Covid has pushed refugees from the headlines of the Greek mainstream media for the moment. The huge reduction in arrivals to the frontier islands in 2021 has also contributed to this shift and has allowed the government to remove thousands of refugees to the mainland. Needless to say the Greek government has claimed that the reductions are the result of their effective border policies including the border wall in Evros and extensive sea patrols. The role of systematic push backs at both Evros and around the sea of the frontier islands is never acknowledged by the authorities. Those refugees now arriving in Samos talk of making between 10 and 15 attempts to cross from Turkey due to push backs at sea either by Frontex, Greek and Turkish coastguards.
Samos now has around 500 refugees in its new camp compared with 5,000 a year ago. Similar reductions have taken place on Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros. Some locals are happy about these developments but there are a significant number who now bemoan their absence and the loss of vitality to the social environment as so many young people and children are no longer on the streets. And there are countless small businesses, especially grocery stores which are facing severe pressures as their customers left. In the sixteen years I have lived and met refugees on Samos there are clear positive changes at least in terms of the deeper relationships which have developed between locals and refugees. There are countless interactions which naturally flow from living together in the same place. On an island such as Samos where poverty and poor public services affect so many there has been a growing understanding that refugees and local Greeks have much in common. Of course racism still works to undermine these solidarities but it is not so stark or bitter as a decade earlier. Now at least we see pro refugee graffiti on the island!
Sadly it is not possible to say the same for the Greek state or the EU which like 16 years ago still insists that deterrence must be maintained at all costs with total disregard for the welfare of the refugees. Every opportunity however small is seized upon which makes their lives more stressful such as the changes in housing and income support; or suddenly announcing in June this year that refugees from six countries should be deported back to Turkey on the grounds that Turkey is a safe country for refugees from Muslim majority societies to make their asylum applications to Europe. Sheer nonsense and with Turkey having accepted no returning refuges from Greece since March, the main consequence has been a piling on of pressure on those affected.
Aaden is Somalian, one of the nationalities listed for return to Turkey. Employed by an NGO he works mainly with Somalian refugees in Athens. Aaden came to Samos in 2018 and he still has not got his asylum here. For him the last six months have been the worst. His case is now judged under the new legislation with its assumption of deportation. 6 months have passed since his first interview which is to assess the safety of Turkey for him. As yet he has heard nothing.Every day he is working with Somalian refugees the great majority of whom have now been told that they will be deported. For the past six months his daily work has been dominated by fear both for himself and his fellow Somalians.
Many in this position no longer wait to attend the first interview but take to the road to get out of Greece. Hundreds have left. For those who stay in Greece many are fearful of arrest should they leave the places where they live as they have had their asylum ID removed immediately when they were rejected. If the police catch them with no ID they are arrested in most cases are moved to special deportation facilities often inside the camps. They are closed so as on Samos, they are not allowed out. And given that Turkey is not taking them back there is no knowing how long they will be kept. Simultaneously, we are hearing of constant push backs on the Evros border with Turkey. Aaden is regularly hearing from Somalians he has worked with who have been plucked off the streets and pushed onto buses and taken to the Evros border where they are loaded onto small rubber dinghies and pushed over to Turkey.
The Greek government seeks out any opportunity which can be used to frighten and harass refugees. Its actions during Covid are just more examples of this characteristic. Nothing was done to improve the living conditions of refugees in the various camps. Overcrowding made social distancing impossible; lack of and unsatisfactory water supplies (and often no hot water at all) made nonsense of the hygiene directives. There has been no systematic data gathering of Covid’s impact on refugees or even the extent of the infections and nothing on health outcomes of those infected. But none of this stopped the government from forcing camps into quarantine even where there were no reported cases. Over the past year numerous camps have locked their refugees in places of great risk. (See end note). And when not in quarantine they have faced extraordinary harassment from the police, who during periods of national lockdown were stopping refugees and fining them for little or nothing at a disproportionate rate with total impunity.
I don’t think I was alone in thinking that the physical and psychological damage done to refugees would make them especially vulnerable to the virus. Most of their accommodation especially in the camps make it impossible to maintain social distancing. Basic hygiene was almost impossible to achieve when water and sewage systems failed or were non existent. The same is true for medical resources in the camps. Yet on Samos the virus has not been as deadly for the refugees as many of us feared. Undoubtedly there are many factors involved, not the least being the general youth of the refugee population, but the resilience of the refugees in the face of Covid demands further investigation. On Samos it was the refugees themselves who took action not the authorities. A wide range of initiatives were taken by refugees to protect themselves, including the making of face masks, distributing soap and hand cleansers and much direct work with children and young people helping them to understand what they could do to protect themselves, their families and friends. As ever, it was the refugees who were at the forefront of protecting themselves and did so with much joy, laughter and play something state agencies never do. There is so much we can learn from them.
“The more the people understand, the more watchful they become, and the more they come to realize that finally everything depends on them and their salvation lies in their own cohesion, in the true understanding of their interests, and in knowing who their enemies are.”
(Franz Fanon: Wretched of the Earth)
The Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on refugees and asylum seekers in Greece by Elias Kondilis et al (Eclinical Medicine July 1, 2021; https://www.thelancet.com/journals/eclinm/article/PIIS2589-5370(21)00238-8/fulltext#seccesectitle0013).
There is very little published on refugees and Covid in Greece. But this research paper is an exception setting out very clearly the challenge of Covid to refugees who have an infection rate three and a half to four times higher than the Greek population. But as the authors highlight the lack of reliable data and little effort to resolve the deficiencies means almost certainly that it under-reports the problems. They make many telling observations: “Although Greece was swift to impose early nationwide public health restrictions, the lockdown measures and mass quarantining were applied more stringently and for longer periods of time to refugees and asylum seekers in [the camps and reception sites]. The government declared these targeted measures to be in the public interest to ‘“limit the spread of COVID-19 in areas of overcrowding…”, despite no positive COVID-19 cases in the [camps]until mid-August. Similarly, one mainland reception site was put into preventative quarantine despite no detected positive cases of COVID-19. These extreme lockdown extensions contravened WHO and ECDC guidelines and restricted people’s movement in such conditions with no likelihood of being able to respect basic COVID-19 preventative measures. Our data suggest that these restrictive policies may have contributed to their increased infection risk for COVID-19.” …… “Despite calls for inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the COVID-19 response from multi-laterals such as WHO, UNHCR, ECDC and IOM, and academic organizations such as Lancet Migration, Greek authorities have consistently failed to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into national prevention and response plans and disease surveillance systems, and no coherent medical response plans have been put in place in any of the island [camps]. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the impact of poor living conditions was already driving a health crisis on the Greek islands and healthcare access for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece had been a continual challenge since 2015. After nine months of the pandemic, the Greek authorities have not established an effective and comprehensive testing and contact tracing system for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, despite having a functioning system for the general population. It is our view that the inadequate testing and the absence of contact tracing in refugee and asylum seeker reception facilities has led to an underestimation of the true incidence rate amongst the refugee and asylum seeker populations. Greek authorities face serious challenges in collecting and presenting timely and comprehensive data on the development of the epidemic in the country, and the lack of data on clinical outcomes in refugees and asylum seekers specifically in Greece (specifically hospitalizations and deaths) needs urgently rectifying, though this is a reported issue in several European countries at the current time.”