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Why hostile action towards refugees is not the solution to overflowing camps on the Aegean Islands

Updated: May 21, 2020

The Aegean island refugee camps are almost 600% over capacity. To say they are dangerously overcrowded would be a serious understatement. With over 40,000 people living in five reception centres designed for a total of 6,000, the conditions are unimaginably bad. It goes without saying that coronavirus measures are physically impossible to uphold.

However, this is not a closed system. From April 1st, there were no recorded arrivals on the islands for 35 days. But on May 6th and 11th, two dinghies carrying 51 and 19 people (respectively) landed in the north-west of Lesbos, reminding us that the number of people stuck in the Aegean islands is not a static figure: it will continue to climb, until action is taken by European nations to evacuate the camps.

Undoubtedly, the 35-day lull in arrivals to the islands has its roots in the global coronavirus pandemic. Yet reports from various NGO and local observers suggest there are supplementary reasons for the apparent pause in dinghies landing on Greek shores: the Greek authorities have been performing illegal ‘push-backs’, denying people the right to seek asylum through actions that constitute serious breaches of international human rights law.

Image by Aegean Boat Report

One of the most concerning recent events, which came to light thanks to eye-witness accounts, involved a dinghy full of asylum-seekers arriving safely to shore before being ‘disappeared’ by authorities. In other words, deported illegally. The 14 people who landed on Chios on April 30th were transported back out to sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard, forced into the small rubber dinghy they arrived on, and left to drift. Upon arriving back on Turkish land the following morning, some of the refugees gave statements which confirmed the shocking chain of events. Yet despite the damning evidence, the local police and coast guards denied knowledge of any new arrivals to Chios.

This incident was not unprecedented. A similar case on Samos only two days before was also denied by local authorities, despite video evidence from one of the people onboard the boat of their journey and arrival to Drakaioi, north-west Samos.

Hence it is clear: people are still trying to cross the Aegean to claim asylum in Europe. While there have been only a handful of pushbacks witnessed, I’m almost certain there have been many which went unseen. The coronavirus pandemic, along with rising anti-migrant violence which grew in early 2020 across the Aegean islands, has led to a worrying gap in accurate information on arrivals and attempted journeys, as most watchdog NGOs are out of action. In all likelihood, there have been far more push-backs than reported.

Hostility towards new arrivals extends well beyond their attempts to land. The 130 people who arrived in Lesbos between March 22nd and April 1st experienced a ‘month of uncertainty’ as they were arbitrarily detained for double the recommended quarantine time, without the chance to claim asylum. Forced to stay in thin tents in three unsecured locations (a dirt track, for example), the people were put through emotional torture as their futures were toyed with by unsympathetic authorities. Vulnerable cases such as pregnant women received no attention, and any attempts to help the groups were heavily discouraged by police - even to the point of harassment.

The recent arrivals to north Lesbos will likely face similar treatment: they are to be quarantined in an old IRC structure which is open to the elements and has no facilities. Stage 2, the transit camp previously used to house newly arrived asylum-seekers and migrants in north Lesvos, remains closed according to direction from local authorities.

The blame for this blatant violation of human dignity and rights cannot be placed solely on Greek authorities, however. The weight of the refugee crisis has fallen disproportionately on Greece, especially the inhabitants of the Aegean islands, and European countries must be held responsible for their lack of support and solidarity. Instead of using Greece as a ‘shield’, European governments must recognise it is time to step up and act in true support of Greece and the rights of asylum-seekers and migrants who are stuck there. The situation in the Aegean islands will only worsen as more people arrive in search of safety and peace. But the solution cannot be to increase push-backs, illegal deportations and hostility: the camps must be evacuated as a matter of urgency.

Image by Mare Liberum


About the author: Tigs is from Devon, UK, studying Human, Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. She has volunteered twice in the past year with Lighthouse Relief, an emergency response NGO in north Lesbos. She strongly believes in people’s right to safety and dignity at all stages in their journey - from landing to undergoing the intense asylum process in the camps. Tigs is also the Cambridge focal point for Europe Must Act - Cambridge.

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