Natasha Arnpriester L’16
Reception conditions for individuals who fled to Greece in search of safety and a chance of a better life are characterized by widespread suffering, substandard accommodations, and exposure to extreme weather conditions, sexual and physical violence and hate-motived attacks. These conditions have been called a “crisis” and an “emergency” by UNHCR and the European Union, and have contributed to the development of severe mental and physical health conditions for migrants, and in some cases, death.
A historic number of refugees began arriving in Greece in June 2015, staying only temporarily, usually less than a week, before exiting through the northern border following the Balkan route to other EU countries, namely Germany. As hundreds of thousands of individuals traveled through Greece, it became clear that those arriving had little interest in applying for asylum in the country. However, mounting pressure by the EU on Greece to stem the flow of individuals entering further into Europe, required Greece to establish an asylum system adequate for refugees, including providing living conditions suitable for long-term stays in the country. As such, Greece needed a system that could properly process new arrivals, identify those requesting protection and return those who did not qualify — yet, Greece did not have such a system in place.
The EU’s response was two-fold: close Greece’s northern border to curtail the flow of upward migration and send more funds to Greece to deal with the situation. In response to EU pressure and policies, including an agreement between the EU and Turkey, Greece enacted a problematic policy of indiscriminately detaining arrivals in closed centers on the Aegean islands (i.e. “hotspots”) until detainees could be identified and processed.
With the northern border closed, Greece was forced to house an ever-expanding number of people, as boats filled with refugees continued to arrive daily. From accommodations in remote villages to abandoned industrial sites, a string of refugee camps cropped up haphazardly across Greece, resulting in accommodations that force individuals to live without adequate shelter, food, services, or security. Without a proper asylum procedure in place, the hotspot centers, which look and act more like prisons, complete with barbed wire and fences, have become grossly overcrowded, some at triple capacity, due to significant processing backlogs. This overcrowding has exacerbated already squalid and dangerous conditions.
While one might assume that Greece is doing its best, as the country is suffering from a financial crisis, including crippling debt and burdensome austerity measures, the reality is much different. When one considers the fact that the EU has allocated well over €1 billion to Greece to help improve its asylum situation, Greece’s lack of ability, lack of will, or lack of both to create the semblance of humane conditions for those entering its borders is inexcusable. This is made even more disturbing when one learns that this considerable amount has been augmented by additional funding from non-EU countries and private donors, in addition to a wealth of goods and volunteers. With the significant resources made available to Greece and a worldwide outpouring of support, why has Greece failed to establish reception conditions that meet the most basic of standards that respect dignity and human rights? The answer is unclear, complex, and in desperate need of further inquiry.
Known reasons for the current situation include: a lack of interest on the part of the Greek government in accessing these funds; tremendous waste, with an EU official estimating that up to $70 per $100 spent has been wasted; both a lack of oversight and purposeful removal of oversight mechanisms, as the Greek parliament passed amendments that stripped auditing requirements for refugee-related contracts; and a lack of transparency, with regard to the implementation of EU funds, which frustrates efforts to determine how funds are used or to make the use of funds more efficient.
One example that highlights a number of these issues is the resignation of Greece’s General Secretary for Reception over Greece’s handling of the refugee situation. He cited an incident whereby an NGO submitted a €2.5 million housing proposal, which the government turned down favoring its own proposal priced at nearly six times as much (with hundreds of thousands earmarked for construction firms with ties to government officials).
In the aftermath of several deaths of individuals on account of the inhumane conditions in Greek refugee camps, Solidarity Now submitted a petition to the European Parliament in March 2017, requesting that Parliament investigate the connection between substandard conditions and deficiencies of funding implementation by Greece. While generously providing funds for refugees’ reception conditions is a respectable endeavor, throwing money at the situation does not absolve the Union from its duty to ensure that those funds are being implemented in a manner that upholds human rights and the EU’s own principles. The European Parliament is well-aware that conditions in Greece fall far short of acceptable human rights standards, however only time will tell if it is interested in taking meaningful action to ensure proper standards are attained for those fleeing already horrific and inhumane circumstances.
Natasha Arnpriester was a Post-Graduate Fellow at Human Rights First, where she focused on refugee advocacy. Natasha spent several months working in Greece with Solidarity Now, a Greek NGO that provides assistance to migrant populations. She was the principal author and researcher of a petition submitted to the European Parliament requesting investigation into, and a hearing on, the connection between the mismanagement of EU funding and the shameful reception conditions refugees are subjected to in Greece. The European Parliament accepted the petition in 2018.
This piece originally appears in the 2017 Global Affairs Review.