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Greece must reform its failed asylum policies now

‘Greek authorities never wanted to acknowledge that the refugee situation required a sustained response.’

A man holds a child as refugees and migrants wait to board a bus following last month’s fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece.
A man holds a child as refugees and migrants wait to board a bus following last month’s fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece. (Alkis Konstantinidis/REUTERS)

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As European countries negotiate a new Pact on Asylum and Migration, “no more Morias” has become a rallying cry: The scorched camp is a palpable symbol of Greek and EU policy failures. The Pact aims to improve “solidarity” and better distribute responsibility for asylum seekers among EU states. But that in itself is not a solution to the humanitarian crises and human rights violations occurring at and within the EU’s borders.

For there truly to be no more Morias, the EU as a whole must recommit to its fundamental values. But Greece cannot wait for an agreement to fulfill the obligations it already has to protect those seeking safety.

This means ending illegal pushbacks and other abuses at the country’s borders – abuses that the Greek government denies are taking place and is failing to investigate – and ensuring access to fair asylum procedures. It also means ending the neglect of refugees whose statuses have already been recognised.

To do this, Greece must increase funding and capacity for refugee integration. In March, Greece cut the eligibility period for ESTIA – an EU-funded and UN refugee agency-administered emergency housing and cash assistance programme – from six months to 30 days. The decision left thousands of people facing homelessness and destitution in the midst of a global pandemic.

To prevent further damage, the Greek government must restore ESTIA’s six-month eligibility period. It must also bolster HELIOS, another EU-funded programme implemented by the UN’s migration agency, IOM. The programme subsidises rent for independent housing for up to 12 months. But because of discrimination, language barriers, and other obstacles that make it difficult for refugees to find leases and qualify for assistance, it falls short. A new pilot within HELIOS to provide refugees with two months’ accommodation is promising. But much more is needed.

The Greek government must also end the hostile operating environment it has created for NGOs. New policies have tightened regulations on NGOs working with asylum seekers and migrants. Billed as an effort to improve transparency around NGO operations, the rules instead suppress independent monitoring of government activities and stigmatise NGOs.

Greece emerged from the pandemic’s first wave relatively unscathed. But emergency measures could not offset a years-long pattern of bad policy.

In July, the Council of Europe’s expert council issued a critical opinion that the new rules violate EU law. But the damage was already done. In June, 22 of the 40 organisations working in refugee camps had to suspend their operations. It is inhumane and counterproductive to cripple groups providing essential support, especially during a pandemic. Yet, the government issued another directive in September that only exacerbated these harmful policies.

The cumulative result of these policies is a woefully inadequate support system for asylum seekers and refugees on the Greek mainland. This means that the housing and integration support for people who need to be transferred from Lesvos to the mainland in the aftermath of the Moria fire simply doesn’t exist. Instead, 20 to 30 asylum seekers and refugees who were previously transferred from the island are returning every day to Lesvos because of the dire situation they encountered when they left.

Greece emerged from the pandemic’s first wave relatively unscathed. But emergency measures could not offset a years-long pattern of bad policy. Wary of a public backlash, Greek authorities never wanted to acknowledge that the refugee situation required a sustained response – they saw it instead as a temporary challenge to be contained on the islands.

The fires that burned Moria to the ground could have been prevented. But with thousands of people still suffering appalling conditions in overcrowded camps, it was inevitable the virus would spread. The EU and other member states were happy to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations and deplorable conditions in Greece so long as the number of people crossing their borders remained low.

The pandemic’s humanitarian and economic toll will likely drive more asylum seekers to the EU, and tensions with Turkey could again flare at the borders. The solidarity measures proposed in the New Pact are unlikely to relieve pressure on frontline states like Greece.

Greece certainly needs other EU countries to step up and do a better job sharing responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers.

But regardless of what happens with the New Pact, Greece must immediately change course to begin respecting its international obligations and acting in accordance with European values. To deal humanely and effectively with the current, manufactured crisis – not to mention future movements of asylum seekers and refugees – Greece and the EU have no other choice.

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