London, UK, March 18, 2020 — Four years since the EU-Turkey deal came into force, the short-sightedness of Europe’s reliance on third countries to manage migration is evident. The emergency unfolding on the Greek islands and at the Greek-Turkish border is testimony to Europe’s flawed response to addressing forced migration.
Greece is now at a critical breaking point. Following Turkey’s decision to open its borders earlier this month, the IRC teams have witnessed the escalation of an already severe humanitarian situation. This latest development, which saw thousands of people arriving at Greece’s land borders and on the Aegean islands, has dramatically worsened the reality facing those seeking protection. It has also fuelled tensions with local Greek communities, resulting in violent attacks targeting aid workers and asylum seekers.
The restrictions put in place as a consequence of the EU-Turkey agreement have led to severe overcrowding on the islands, stretching all services and facilities far beyond capacity. There is limited access to the basics for survival and dignity, including sanitation and healthcare. Thousands of people are forced to live in tents with no electricity, surrounded by garbage. The horrifying statistics from IRC's mental health programming on the Greek islands tell a story of their own: 43% of our clients have contemplated suicide, despite having reached the place that they hoped would finally represent safety.
Imogen Sudbery, IRC Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“To begin to address the humanitarian crisis in Greece, European leaders must immediately relocate the most vulnerable people trapped on the islands. We welcome the recent decision of at least seven EU Member States to evacuate 1,600 unaccompanied minors. But this represents just a fraction of real needs on the ground, as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, the elderly and families with children are still left in limbo, facing an uncertain future. Safe relocation of the most vulnerable is all the more crucial to protect health and lives in light of the Europe-wide developments related to the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Secondly, the suspension of asylum procedures, brutal pushbacks at the borders and possible forced returns, violate fundamental rights, international and EU laws. The IRC calls for an immediate resumption of asylum applications for people seeking protection in Greece. To support the Greek government, the EU should immediately extend its asylum operations by deploying sufficient numbers of trained professionals to ensure that all claims are fairly processed. The EU should also ensure that all the necessary protection measures related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have been taken, in accordance with World Health Organisation guidelines.“
“With the new Pact on Migration and Asylum on the horizon, the EU must offer a sustainable and humane alternative to the EU-Turkey agreement that puts people, rather than borders, at the very heart of its policies.”
“At a minimum, this must include a fair and predictable system for sharing responsibility for asylum claims and the ambition to scale up EU resettlement places to 250,000 by 2025 via a permanent Union Resettlement Framework.”
“Tougher border measures will not stop people from seeking safety in Europe. As we have seen in Greece, prioritising restrictive measures, detention and return, without strengthening asylum systems and scaling up safe and legal routes, promises nothing but human suffering.”
The IRC in Greece
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has worked with refugees, host communities and the Greek state since June 2015, when we established operations on Lesvos. Since then, the IRC has expanded its programming across mainland Greece and provided support and protection to the refugee and asylum seeking population hosted mainly in campsites. Our services have included mental health and psychosocial support, shelter, sanitation, child protection, women’s safe spaces and “safe zones” for unaccompanied children.
The IRC provides mental health services on the islands of Chios, Samos and Lesvos. Since January 2018, of the 773 people that the IRC mental health teams have assisted, 43% reported that they have considered suicide, while one in four of them admitted that they have already made an attempt to end their lives. Survivors of violence, torture or war trauma are caught in limbo and now, more than ever, unsure what future awaits them, living in the shadow of daily clashes and even greater fear of possible forced return.
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.