Hundreds of thousands of individuals attempt to enter the European Union illegally each year, many choosing to make the treacherous five kilometre journey across the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece. Patras, Greece. 06/10/2010
Hundreds of thousands of individuals attempt to enter the European Union illegally each year, many choosing to make the treacherous five kilometre journey across the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece. For those that survive the journey, the future is unclear.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has described the asylum situation in Greece as "a humanitarian crisis", and according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) the country is said to process and recognise less than one percent of asylum cases claimed. Individuals are instead commonly classed as 'illegal immigrants' under Greek law, which means that they are liable to both detention and deportation from the country. The UK Home Office put the figure of illegal Afghan migrants in the EU at over 50,000 in 2009, and there are likely thousands more unknown to the authorities. Frontex, the EU border agency stated that last year 106,200 illegal immigrants were intercepted at EU borders, with "Greece remaining the principal entry point" for many. In the same statement, Frontex also mentioned that the number of illegal immigrants attempting to enter the European Union's borders was down 33% from the previous year, 2008, but the demographics of individuals is changing. The number of Afghans caught attempting to illegally enter the EU in the same year more than doubled to 18,000 according to international media sources.
If caught by police, coastguard or the military, asylum seekers are held in a prison or detention centre for twenty-five days, after which they are given a piece of paper which tells them that they have thirty days to leave Greece or face further imprisonment or forced deportation. The document is only in Greek (a language that almost none of the individuals can understand), and the truth is often obscured by individuals who claim to be from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, or Somalia, or under the age of eighteen, when in reality these facts are not true. The hope of many is that their cases will be prioritised if they claim to be a 'child', or from a country which is currently engaged in armed conflict. Algerians, Moroccans, Iranians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi's are a few of the many nationalities that are present in Greece, but through fear of deportation many claim other nationalities, and without any documentation it is near impossible for Greek authorities to prove otherwise. The UNHCR are urging EU member states to stop forced deportations to Greece, until there is evidence of a fairer asylum system in place in the country. Regardless of the warnings of a humanitarian crisis from Amnesty International and the UNHCR, many European governments including the the UK continue to deport failed asylum seekers and refugees back to Greece.
An issue of much greater concern is the figure of unaccompanied child migrants entering Greece illegally, the majority of which do not apply for asylum in the country, or have any contact with the authorities unless caught when trying to enter at either land or sea crossings. Children are vulnerable to be exploited by human traffickers, drug smugglers, and the sex industry. Due to their clandestine behaviour, the children are not provided with any medical, social or psychological care, they sleep rough and eat from donations or bins. Children that are caught and who's asylum claims are processed are put into open detention centres, although recent budget cuts mean that the amount of under eighteens held is having to be reduced, whilst those already held in detention have limited access to electricity, social workers and lawyers. Outside the town of Mytilini, the capital of the Greek Island of Lesvos, in the village of Ayaisos, far from the view of the thousands of tourists that visit the destination, children are held in the 'Villa Azadi' detention centre. Currently there are twenty-six boys, all from Afghanistan, aged from nine to eighteen living in the complex. The boys have access to a doctor and a lawyer, but not to education, which is one of the reasons many of them decided to leave their country and start a new life in Europe. Noyan, an 18 year old being held in the centre said that he left his home and made the long, dangerous to Europe for education, but he said that he "didn't believe that this country, Greece, was part of the European Union when I saw how they were treating people at the border". Noyan's family left Afghanistan and fled to Pakistan for political reasons, from where he left for Europe. He obtained several injuries from his journey, including a damaged kneecap after being beaten by Iranian authorities when they caught him and several others crossing the country without documents. Now Noyan fills his time with teaching English to the other children, painting, and playing football, he's ashamed to contact his family, and feels guilty that he's not achieved his dream of starting University. His mother and father are still unsure of his whereabouts and health.
In the Greek port city of Patras on an island three hours south west from Athens, masses of male migrants and asylum seekers try their luck everyday to board a ferry to Italy. The majority of the men are from Afghanistan, Algeria, Sudan and Somalia, and the communities often segregate themselves from each other. Afghans have claimed a patch of land in a forested park on the coast, a few kilometres from the port entrance as well as a train yard directly opposite the cargo port. Predominantly Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans live around a lighthouse at the other end of the harbour and a park in the centre of the city, whilst Sudanese and Somalis inhabit an abandoned train station and it's carriages close by.
Determining the exact number of migrants passing through Greece is impossible, as many are never caught by the authorities, and therefore not recorded. Human Rights Watch claimed that over one thousand unaccompanied child migrants entered Greece in 2008, and the UNHCR puts the current figure of people under their concern at over fifty-thousand. There are very few NGO's that are focused on helping undocumented people in Greece, although one of the more prominent being Ecumenical Program for Refugees, who are overwhelmed with the amount of people asking for assistance, and who's work is unfortunately limited due to financial restrictions.
Immigration is far from a Greek problem; other European counties with Mediterranean coastline, such as Spain and Italy, also being burdened by a sharp increase in the number of people entering their territories illegally each day. Frontex, the company in charge of securing Europe's outer-lying borders, recently closed the notoriously crowded detention centre of Pagani, on the island of Lesvos, after protests by a human rights group called 'No Borders' raised the profile of conditions to international outcry. The centre is currently being 'refurbished', and due to open again in 2011. In the meantime a new detention centre for people caught at sea has opened on the island of Samos, south from Lesvos, three kilometres away from the Turkish City of Assos where many migrants attempt to enter the EU. Greek fishermen in both Assos and Ayvalik told me that it's not uncommon for them to discover human bones when collecting their lobster and crab cages from the sea bed. An elderly fisherman once found the dead body of an African man in his net one night, which he found deeply upsetting.
At present the humanitarian situation for undocumented migrants in Greece is unmanageable, both by the Greek authorities, and the NGO's that face financial and staffing restrictions. Although the Greek government does receive money from the UNHCR to help them assist in caring for refugees, in reality the money never makes it to the hands of the refugees, in terms of food aid, shelter or hard cash, and many speculate that the Greek authorities are increasing the official figures of undocumented migrants and refugees in order to obtain more money from the UNHCR.
People risk their lives to come to Europe, in search of a better life, increased opportunity, safety, a life without fear, and the chance to start afresh. They may arrive illegally, without documents or official identities, but the European Union, which Greece is a member of, has a legal responsibility to protect these people under the Dublin II Regulation. Currently the situation is grim and there is a sense of hopelessness amongst the thousands sleeping rough each night in Athens, Thessaloniki and other major towns cities of Greece. Arrested individuals are added to a Europe-wide database, their fingerprints taken and put together with a photograph, which means that if they are caught in another country within the European Union, they will most likely be returned to Greece - and thus this situation continues, and will continue until the Greek authorities are forced to change their approach to asylum by, and with the assistance of the wider European community.
If the situation fails to change, the humanitarian situation in Greece will continue to deteriorate, especially as Europe is forecast for another long, cold winter.
*Latest update - 26th October 2010; Armed guards are to be sent to the Greek border with Turkey, on the frontier of Europe's south eastern borders, according to the Guardian today. The guards will compromise of a multinational force from all over the EU, and will attempt to stem the large areas of unprotected borders.
The Guardian also stated today, 26th October 2010, that eight out of 10 illegal immigrants arrested in Europe this year entered via the Turkish / Greek border and attempted to travel onward to other EU member states. With this figure so high, it's unsurprising that nine out of ten arrests on migrants in the EU have taken place in Greece this year.
Some 25 arrested Iranian asylum seekers are said to be on hunger strike in Greek detention centres, some having sown up their mouths in protest over the failure of the Greek government to consider their asylum requests.
Greece is one of the last countries in the EU to be seen as an easy 'gateway' into Europe by asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants alike, with porous, unprotected borders, and an economic situation where the government is struggling even to fund border patrol services. Other southern European nations such as Italy, Malta, and Spain have all received assistance from the EU to strengthen their borders, and Greece has finally now asked for the same treatment.
With the figure of illegal migrants entering the EU via Greece said to have already quadrupled to 34,000, only time will tell if tougher border measures will impose a fair asylum system, and detention conditions for the hundreds arriving each day.