Heba Shehadeh | Saleh Malas | Zainab Masri | Qutaiba al-Sheikh
The sticks burned their bare backs, after the Greek border guards stripped them of their belongings and clothes, and beat them… Testimonies and photos are coming from the Turkish-Greek borders, where tens of thousands of migrants gathered in an attempt to cross towards the dreamland.
Thousands left a life of hardship behind in Turkey, and before that their countries they left, seeking refuge in Europe, only to find fortifications, fighters, and fights that they were not prepared to face. They were confronted by conditions that uprooted them from their houses, which forced them to search for an alternative non-besieged homeland.
The Syrians are not the majority among them, but they are a part and a cause in Turkish and European movement and arrest decisions, driven by political positions, security concerns and military movements, that govern their fate and the fate of their country.
However, all that migrants have faced on the Turkish-Greek borders does not necessarily mean that they will cross. The Greek authorities are still holding them behind the border fence adjacent to the Turkish Edirne Governorate, making them stuck between two sides until international positions change.
In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the refugee crisis on the Turkish-Greek land borders, the contexts and backgrounds associated with the Turkish-European agreements, and the resulting policies related to the matter, and discusses Syrians’ motives to leave Turkey towards Greece, and the extent of the legality of the Greek behavior towards them.
The Greek side is closed, and the Turkish side is open
Refugees are subject to political options
On 27 February, Turkey announced that it would not stop refugees trying to cross its borders to Europe, closed since 2016, and Greece responded with mobilization and fortification of the borders in return.
The Turkish decision came after hundreds of thousands of Syrians went to its southern borders to escape the military operations of the regime forces and its allies, which host the most significant number of Syrian refugees around the world, by about 3.7 million people.
It is a decision with which Turkey has repeatedly threatened Europe over the past months, which witnessed its military movement in northeastern Syria first and then in the northwest. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started those threats in early September 2019, demanding support for his plans to deal with refugees and establish a “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish borders to resettle them and pay off Europe’s remaining financial obligations to support the refugees.
Under the Turkish decision, about 1,200 people arrived until the morning of 2 March, in the eastern Aegean islands (Lesbos, Chios, and Samos).
Migrant groups comprise Syrian, Afghan, Iranian, Sudanese, and other nationalities, including women, children, and entire families, who reach land borders in “dire” conditions, according to the UNHCR.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has monitored the gathering of no less than 13,000 people on the official borders between Pazarkole (on the Turkish side), Ibsala (on the Greek side), and other unofficial crossings.
Greece has confronted the recent waves of refugees with tear gas, rubber bullets, and barbed wires. At the same time, it stopped accepting new asylum applications for a month and announced its deportation of all who arrive at it illegally without examining their applications.
The refugees’ tamper by Turkey and Europe have sparked the anger of humanitarian and human rights organizations that have pointed out that the actions of the two sides violate the refugee agreement signed in 1951, European and international laws, and moral obligations towards people fleeing violence and poverty in their countries.
The Euro-Turkish interest at the expense of the refugees
Hundreds of thousands of people have crossed the most dangerous international asylum journey to reach Europe since the 1970s, after the imposition of entry visas on previously exempted people, especially workers from Turkey and North Africa, following the increase of unemployment levels in European countries after the 1973 oil crisis.
However, the largest refugee waves have been associated with the Syrian conflict, which resulted in the enormous refugee numbers around the world since 2014, during which Europe witnessed the arrival of more than one million asylum seekers to its southern shores during 2015, most of whom were Syrians.
On 18 March 2016, European Union and Turkish officials reached an agreement to move refugees away from European territories, under which Turkey obtained a set of concessions.
Terms of the 2016 Turkish-European Agreement
– Turkey restores all asylum seekers illegally arriving in Greece; that is, closing smuggling routes across the Aegean.
– For every asylum seeker returned to Turkey, Europe will receive another Syrian from the Turkish camps, which was supposed to be implemented with the closure of smuggling routes.
– The European Union provided six billion Euros to help the Syrian refugees in Turkey, who numbered 2.7 million people.
– Facilitating the Turkish people’s obtention of entry visas to European Union countries and pushing forward Turkey’s acceptance file to become one of its member states.
Before the agreement: ” the refugees are welcome”… After it: “Let’s raise the shield.”
The results of the Syrian war aroused international sympathy after the Syrian activists documented the bombardment, siege, and starvation of civilians before the eyes of the world, which took no action before Russia and China’s use of the veto against any Security Council projects taking action against the Syrian regime.
Thousands of Europeans went to the Mediterranean shores and to train stations carrying clothes, toys, food and broad banners that read “Welcome to the refugees,” expressing their sympathy and support for the victims of the “greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century,” as the UN put it.
While Sweden’s policy in dealing with refugees was the most attractive to Syrians in the beginning, a German tweet turned their path.
An internal memorandum showing that Syrians are excluded from specific provisions related to the “Dublin Regulation” was leaked from the German immigration agency. A tweet has made Germany the first choice for immigrants.
It was adopted by the European Union in 2003, to determine the member state responsible for studying asylum applications. Often, these countries are the first countries of entry. But, it may refer to the country that has provided an entry visa to a person who decided to apply for asylum after arrival. The treaty allows member states to receive asylum requests from each other. However, it does not include the quota mechanism for asylum seekers after their acceptance, which means a small number of countries would be responsible for handling asylum applications.
The tweet, published on 25 August 2015, by the German immigration agency’s account via Twitter, stated that “Dublin’s procedures for Syrian citizens are no longer enforced.”
One day after the tweet, tens of thousands of people left Hungary. They left their passport at the border, heading for Germany. After welcoming, feelings of fear, hesitation, and panic have emerged as European attention has been turning towards demographic and security “risks.
Germany, Sweden, and other countries imposed some border restrictions that violated the law of free movement between the countries of the Union agreed upon since 1995, while Hungary, Slovenia, and Macedonia have closed their borders.
EU countries accelerated negotiations with Turkey until an agreement was concluded at the beginning of 2016, stipulating the closure of its southern borders. During that year, 5,096 people died on the borders, after starting the implementation of the agreement.
Giving up responsibility
The European Union states suspended their government rescue measures in the Mediterranean at the end of 2014. NGOs were forced to fill the void but were quickly attacked by investigation or trial, according to a study by the ReSOMA research institute.
Since the beginning of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, the study indicated that the judicial decisions against those who help immigrants have been escalated. One million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe in one year, although the number of arrivals in 2018 decreased by about 90%.
Since 2015, Greece received 1.6 billion Euros of financial aid from the European Union to bear the burden of welcoming refugees. Yet, the repercussions of implementing the European agreement with Turkey have forced it to seek help from its European neighbors.
While the agreement has caused a decrease in the number of refugees arriving on Greek shores, the transfer of refugees from the islands has not been permitted before deciding on their asylum applications.
With the arrival of more than 30,000 asylum seekers from the European Union from Greece and Italy between 2016 and 2018, there’s been a disagreement on the repartition of the number of refugees.
Greece announced its plans to accelerate the process of reconsidering asylum applications and returning rejected refugees. However, the shortage of its staff and the increasing number of arrivals, in the middle of 2019, have increased the pressure.
Greece… European “shield” against asylum
By the end of February and since the opening of the Turkish borders, the Greek government has used the “defense” approach, and European leaders supported it. On 3 March, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described Greece as a “shield.” It pledged to provide Greece with the financial support of 700 million Euros, besides seven coast guard ships, two helicopters, a plane, and other mechanisms, in addition to providing 100 European border guards.
Germany tried to clarify its position on refugees this time, with a new tweet by Foreign Minister Horst Seehofer on his Twitter account, on 3 March: “We need to keep the order on the external borders of the European Union. We will support Greece with all our strength in this regard. The borders of Europe are not open to refugees from Turkey, and this applies to our German borders as well.”
Why do refugees want to leave Turkey?
The image of his future and his family in Turkey is absent in his mind. Turkey’s decision to open its borders to refugees to go to Europe represents a new future for him. He will leave his wife and his four children in the Turkish capital, Ankara, his place of residence for four and a half years, heading towards the Turkish-Greek border.
Riad, 35, from Ar-Raqqa Governorate, has been waiting for ten days at the “Pazarkule” crossing, on the Turkish side of the border, Hoping for a Greek or European move to open the door and allow refugees to cross into the European Union.
Riad is a single young man in his family among five female sisters. He took refuge with his family in Turkey after refusing to fight in Syria. He said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the increasing “racism” practiced by the Turks, after the killing of their soldiers in Idlib, “despite the sympathy of the Syrians with them,” urges him to think about going to Europe.
Also, the unclear and very ambiguous political and economic scenes in Turkey are among the reasons. Riad is worried about the possibility of the opposition parties to rise to power in Turkey, which, in his view, would “threaten the lives of Syrians.”
Security and legal concerns increased after the Turkish decisions taken last year. In June 2019, the Turkish authorities began the deportation of refugees without official papers to temporary shelters. It also deported Syrians living in Istanbul and who hold temporary protection cards (Kimlik) issued from a second province to the provinces from which they obtained their papers.
On its official website, the Directorate General of the Turkish Immigration Department estimates that the total number of “violating” refugees in Turkey for the year 2020 has reached 38,017. Their numbers decreased by 91% from last year, as they reached a total number of 454,662 refugees, including 55,236 Syrians.
While thousands were waiting with Riad on the Greek-Turkish border, the young Abed Houry chose to return to Istanbul, Turkey, after spending 14 hours at the border. During this period, he spoke with a Greek police officer, who explained to him that opening the border was “impossible.” Abed lived in the cold, inhaled gas, and experienced camping where he was naked. He also witnessed targeting refugees with teargas.
According to what he said to Enab Baladi, Abed’s motivations to go to the borders in the hope of reaching Europe is searching for stability and a better place to study without thinking about the financial pressures and the increasing wave of racism, after spending three years in Turkey. Even though the idea of immigration is still present in his mind, he is looking for other “legal” ways to go.
Abed, 21, advises in a post he wrote on his page on “Facebook” people who are still thinking of going to the border not to go so as not to lose “their time, money and health,” as he believes that Greece will not open its borders.
Despite the tips published by activists and refugees who reached the border and witnessed the events taking place there, refugees continue to arrive, as the number of departures from the Turkish lands to the Greek borders reached 142,175 people, according to a tweet by the Turkish Minister of Interior, Süleyman Hasan Soylu, through his official Twitter account on 6 March 2020.
Turkish media spotlight the Syrians presence more than others. However, the migrants are not only Syrians, due to the high numbers in Turkey, where 3 million and 587,266 Syrian refugees reside under temporary protection (the majority of them do not receive any aid). They occupy third place in numbers, after Iraqis and Turkmenistan, of foreigners residing in Turkey under a residence permit, with a total of 117,579 Syrians, according to the Directorate’s statistics for 2019.
Syrians rank sixth in terms of their residence according to family residence permits, as the number for 2019 reached 2,913 Syrians, and the number of those who obtained short-term tourist stays is 101,742.
8,400 Syrians reside according to work permits, while 4,133 Syrian students reside in Turkey according to the student residence.
“Detained” inside Greece…
Syrians’ fate depends on European bureaucracy
“They give you a tent and cover and tell you to go out, to see a bad scene, dust, rubbish, and an intolerable situation. I don’t know how to explain it. Even displacement inside Syria is easier than here.”
Abu Fadi, who preferred to remain anonymous, was surprised by what he found in Greece, after taking a trip that almost was about to kill him and his wife at sea, where he witnessed “death” before reaching Chios Island.
He left Turkey after the “deportation” crisis last summer, hoping to have a better life, but the situation of the Greek camps was “worse” than he could endure. After four months, Abu Fadi began to lose hope, and he left the “Vial” camp, risking agitating the authorities.
The government of Greece has faced criticism from human rights and humanitarian organizations, in the case of its “horrific,” “miserable,” “inhuman,” and “hell-like” camps, which include 36,000 in facilities designed to accommodate only 54,000 people, according to UNHCR.
Syrian refugees suffer from poor health care, lack of services, slow asylum procedures, and severe conditions, in the Aegean camps established by Greece to receive arrivals by sea from Turkey. The camps are overcrowded in a way that every 300 people share one toilet on Samos Island, and every 506 people have a bath in Moria Camp.
The laws of the Greek government made these conditions more complicated, and they stipulate that the asylum cases should be stopped if the asylum seeker is considered uncooperative with the authorities, as he does simple things like changing his place within the camp.
Abu Fadi told Enab Baladi that he had to pay $ 4,000 to get to Greece, where every refugee receives $ 90 a month, while an asylum seeker needs at least $ 100 more to live. “If no one sends you money from outside of Greece, you will neither be able to eat nor to drink,” he added.
Meanwhile, the government prohibits refugees from working on its islands, which have no factories or job opportunities available, while relying on tourism as a source of income.
Abu Fadi is afraid that the Greek government will reject his asylum application, as he is one of the 90,000 demands studied by Greece. He expressed that rejection would be a “disaster” for him and his wife after the suffering they have been through.
The first interview is held with the Greek authorities once the refugee arrives on the islands. According to the new Greek law, which was passed in October 2019, police and military personnel conduct interviews with asylum seekers after Greek officials were conducting them.
Through this law, it is more difficult to resume applications and object to rejection, after the government prevented UNHCR staff from participating in the reassessment, and allowed detention of rejected asylum seekers until 18 months.
In the first and second interviews, general information about the person is taken. His information is checked in a third interview, which is crucial in the issue of admission, focusing on the reason for leaving Turkey. But most of the Syrian asylum requests are rejected, and the reason, according to Abu Fadi, “is that you came from a safe country.”
It is different for other Syrians who are stuck on the Greek border. They are still hoping to reach Greece, to embark on a journey similar to Abu Fadi, who may one day reach Europe.
Closed borders and “illegal” security measures
What is Greece’s basis in preventing the entry of refugees?
The Greek government took tight security measures at the border. It also intended to put a floating wall extending 2,7 kilometers, with a height of 1,10 meters, to make it difficult for asylum seekers to reach its lands and beaches, in conjunction with the intensification of centers and towers monitoring the land borders with Turkey, and planting more barbed wire on them, according to the Greek Ministry of Defense.
These security measures were taken two days after the outbreak of clashes between hundreds of migrants and Greek security forces on the border, as Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced his decision to prevent Syrian refugees from crossing the Turkish-Greek border.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called on the Greek government to remain calm and curb the tensions on the Turkish border with the European Union.
In a statement released on 2 March, the UNHCR stressed that the most critical point today is that the Greek government should abstain from using excessive force or disproportionate measures that would increase the suffering of the most vulnerable refugees.
The UNHCR affirmed that all countries have the right, under international law, to control their borders and manage irregular movements, provided that these countries have regulations to deal with asylum applications in an organized manner.
The state’s action to protect its borders should not negate in any way the internationally recognized human right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries, which falls within the principle of non-refoulment stipulated by the European Union’s law.
Prevention of entry and suspension of asylum applications
On 1 March, Greece refused to consider new asylum applications for a month, as small refugee groups managed to reach its territory, across the Aegean Sea and the border strip leading into the country.
Regarding the refusal to consider asylum applications, lawyer and human rights activist Ghazouan Kronfol said in an interview with Enab Baladi that this decision is illegal and contradicts the provisions of the Greek constitution. Therefore, the Greek government must grant the right of asylum to citizens of other countries who seek to cross their lands to reach other European countries.
Kronfol justified the illegality of this decision by explaining that Greece has signed the European agreements related to refugee affairs and protection. These accords are more potent than the Greek law; that is, the Greek legislative and executive authorities are not entitled to legislate and take any decision that violates the provisions of the international agreements binding on Greece, as the Greek authorities have willingly signed the conventions.
All sides are negligent
Greece, which is considered as the first gateway for immigrants to Europe, has witnessed a mass influx in 2015 and 2016, until an agreement was reached between Turkey and the European Union on the readmission of persons residing without authorization in March 2016.
The European-Turkish readmission agreement imposes obligations on the two parties. It requires that Greece repatriate refugees arriving in its territory illegally, and in return, Greece and European countries are obliged to receive the same number of refugees returning to Turkey, via legal means; i.e., the refugees can fly to the countries that agree to accept them in the European continent if all the necessary factors are available to accommodate them.
According to Kronfol, Europe and Turkey have not adhered to this agreement, as the agreement conditions have been applied to only two batches of refugees in small numbers since it was reached.
Procedures lack a legal basis
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Greek government has not established any legal basis for suspending the admission of asylum applications, as reported on the UNHCR website.
The Greek government used Article 3/78 of the treaty on the Functioning of the European Union against refugees.
This article permits interim measures to be taken by the European Council, on the proposal of the UNHCR and in consultation with the European Parliament, in case one or several member states face an emergency.
The emergency can be a sudden flux of citizens from third world countries. However, according to UNHCR, people who enter illegally into the territory of an EU member state should not be punished if they turn themselves to the authorities seeking asylum.
Some refugee camps have become more like a prison, due to the Greek government’s instructions to prevent the exit of the refugees from the camps. According to Kronfol, the Greek authorities are treating the refugees as if they were under house arrest, which constitutes a crime of restricting an individual’s freedom of movement, in a clear breach of international humanitarian law.
Kronfol stressed the importance of the judiciary’s role in handling the issue, as the person affected by these security measures can resort to the European Court of Human Rights to cancel such decisions, and enjoy the right to access medical care, which is not available in the camps nowadays, in addition to the shortage of food. Thus, these shelters camps are almost like the Nazi concentration camps, as Kronfol puts it.
Will refugees cross the border?
Official statements and the actions of the Greek authorities indicate that there is no intention to open the borders, despite the illegality of this procedure. According to the refugees’ testimonies and their repeatedly failing attempts to cross the border, the authorities will not allow their entry to Greek territory.
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on Facebook, in which the page’s followers were asked about their expectations regarding the refugees’ ability to enter Greece. Opinions were divided and tended to be sided with the worst scenario.
56 percent of the 4,100 respondents believe that Greece will return the refugees to Turkey, while 44 percent disagree with this possibility.
Other respondents answered from a legal point of view, saying that Greece should open the borders and receive the refugees in coordination with the European Union, as they are supposed to be distributed to several countries.
According to Kronfol, the cumbersome task of establishing safe places to lodge the refugees, including camps and shelters should not be assigned to the Greek government only, as the other European countries are supposed to help Greece, which is also a member state of the European Union, and receive batches of the refugees located currently on Greek territory.
Implementing this strategy would give the stranded refugees a chance to realize their dream, without staying for too long in Greece, while returning to Turkey would force them to take a step back.
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