The Price of European Cynicism and the Absence of Accountability
PHOTO CREDIT: STRATIS BALASKAS/EPA
Greece is a country in crisis: economic, social, political and now climatic. 2017 has kicked off in my homeland with temperatures of minus 15 degrees, up to three feet of snow and the collapse of infrastructure. My own mother, who lives on the idyllic island of Corfu has had her water supply cut off as a result of the snow, and the metro in Athens has opened its doors to the homeless and to stray animals to offer them sanctuary from the biting cold.
But what of the country’s 66,000 refugees?
Nowhere is this latest crisis more strongly felt than in Greece’s refugee camps. Their plight haunts me not simply as someone who has worked in development for over 15 years, nor as a concerned Greek citizen, but as a human being who can only imagine the hardships they endure daily.
The UNHCR have reported to me that:
"Preparations for winter have been affected by bottlenecks in coordination and the fact that some of the government-run sites that were supposed to have closed, are still open. Gaps are also due to the worrying overcrowding on the islands which puts people needlessly at risk. At every opportunity allowed to us by the Greek authorities, we continue to move people off the islands, and into apartments, hotels or adequate sites on the mainland".
In September 2015, European Union countries pledged to accept 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, over two years. They have failed to absorb even 8% of that figure. Just over 7,450 have been relocated from Greece, and in the region of 2,000 from Italy.
In the meantime, the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), is one of the institutions to have provided financial support. Since April, it has donated €14m to the UNHCR
to replace tents with residential containers on eight sites
to upgrade infrastructure on 15 sites and
to provide 360,000 winter items including blankets and jackets.
The UNHCR has highlighted that it was also required to "transfer refugees and migrants from a few sites to hotels and apartments in order to close those camps for the cold season".
By December 2016:
Approximately half of those living in camps had yet to be transferred to formal housing.
45 camps were still active
15 of these had not been adapted for winter.
Meanwhile, the Greek Government have prohibited those without media permits from taking photographs in the camps. Despite this, ten days ago, one Asylum Service employee released possibly the most insensitive tweet I have ever seen, congratulating the EASO and Greek Asylum services for successfully negotiating the snow to reach their offices, while an unknown number of refugees survived outside heated containers such as these, in summer tents.
Where is the accountability?
Loic Jaeger, Head of Medecin Sans Frontiere’s operations in Greece has spoken for many when he asked;
“What is being done with all this money? Who is checking? Where is the report from the EU or UNHCR assessing what is still to be done? Where is the transparency? There is a discrepancy between what is claimed and the reality.”
In December 2016, the UNHCR released figures highlighting that 24,000 people had been placed in formal housing. A further 19,500 were put in apartments, hotels or with host families throughout the country and an additional 2,600 refugees were provided with prefabricated houses, in 8 camps.
This is great. But what of those who continue to live outside, in freezing temperatures? The UNHCR responded to my question about how many people remained outside by saying that it is "probably somewhere between several hundred and a few thousands" and that the number was decreasing daily.
But if there are, as estimates suggest, in the region of 66,000 refugees in Greece and 46,100 accounted for, where are the 19,900 refugees who have not been accounted for?
What of the Greek Government?
The Greek government is responsible for overseeing the camps. It is however, hampered by a lack of funding for this. EU funds are dispersed to the Greek army and other institutions directly, as well as to the UNHCR and 13 other large international agencies and charities. They are not, as many believe, wholly directed to the migration ministry.
European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud has however blamed the Greek Government saying:
“We can no more dictate policy in Greece than we can in any other member state…the commission is aware that the situation is untenable but we also have to be clear, that ensuring adequate reception conditions in Greece is a responsibility of Greek authorities… We are pursuing a dual strategy of political pressure and financial and technical support to the Greek authorities to improve the situation”.
Meanwhile, Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has responded by blaming local officials.
The UNHCR has urged Greek authorities to move refugees from the islands to the mainland, stating that conditions on the islands remain “very poor”.
But where would refugees be put on the mainland?
In desperation, the Greek navy last week sent one of its vessels to Lesbos to provide temporary shelter to 500 refugees in Moria. This is clearly neither a long term, nor a wide reaching solution.
Simply, the situation is ridiculous. But whose responsibility was the winterization of the camps?
According to the European Commission’s December Financial report, the UNHCR were awarded €62m on 1st April 2016 to prepare refugee camps for winter. Of this however, the UNHCR have received the €14m cited earlier, to prepare a handful of camps.
In response to questions I posed to them, the UNHCR highlighted that it has repeatedly made it clear that some sites cannot, and should not be used for either mid, or long term accommodation. They have also repeatedly warned that some were impossible to prepare for winter and called on all actors to "do their share", namely;
To relocate more asylum-seekers to other European countries ahead of winter
To speed up procedures on the islands to enable the faster transfer of refugees to mainland Greece
To speed up winter preparations and the humanitarian response to the urgent needs of refugees
The UNHCR have said that they have made clear throughout this process, that the situation poses a serious challenge to the Greek authorities and that they can count on the UNHCR's support.
But what of the European Commission themselves, and why are they pointing the finger at a government who are now in their ninth year of punitive austerity measures and economic crisis, rather than working in true partnership with them to identify and implement tangible solutions?
Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley reports that “The EU, UNHCR, major NGOs, the Greek government and the Greek army all use the absence of a clear chain of command to absolve themselves of responsibility for the dysfunctional system.”
The victims of this situation are of course the refugees themselves.
Meanwhile, grassroots NGOs and volunteers who have been punching way above their weight in a bid to plug the aid gap, and ensure that refugees have their most basic needs met, have reported that it is becoming increasingly difficult to operate in Greece. They are no longer allowed to work in camps such as Moria, which they say is now under the management of UNHCR.
The UNHCR dispute this and have stated categorically that they are not managing any camps in Greece but that they work "with and through NGOs and groups of volunteers whose invaluable contribution to easing the plight of people in flight in Greece, has been honoured with UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award 2016".
However it is the very NGOs and volunteer groups who have been honoured, who say they are being excluded. I have received reports that attempts to exclude small NGOs from coordination and planning meetings are now standard. The suggestion from my sources is that pressure is coming from the UNHCR via the EU. I cannot corroborate this. But it is being said.
Clement Perrin, Médecins Sans Frontières’s Head of Mission in Greece has stated “These (refugee) families are paying the price of European cynicism and the reprehensible deal with Turkey,”. He further went on to call on Greek authorities to take emergency measures to provide “dignified living conditions” for refugees.
I add my name to that call.