martedì 28 luglio 2015

These are refugees, not migrants, arriving in their thousands on Greek shores

The Guardian
As Europe turns its back, the compassionate crisis response of local Greek volunteers, despite harsh austerity, puts the international community to shame
As I stood in the middle of the squalid Kara Tepe transit camp on Lesbos, I was struck by the utter perverseness of the refugee drama unfolding on this Greek island.

I was supporting a flash-mob of local volunteers and tourists – supported by local officials – to clean the camp, which is now a temporary home for 3,000 refugees. Litter was everywhere – and posing a health risk. The selflessness and dedication of the local volunteers, who have been responding to the crisis virtually unaided for several years, is awe-inspiring.

As I picked up the trash under a searing sun, four questions came to my mind, the answers to which should make us all uncomfortable.

First, why is the crisis repeatedly referred to by the media and by officials in European capitals as a “migrant” crisis? Here, in Greece, nothing could be further from the truth.

Greece grapples with massive migrant influx as Syria conflict exacerbates crisis

According to the most recent figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of the more than 77,000 arrivals in Greece since the beginning of the year, 85% are refugees.

More than 60% of these are fleeing the conflict in Syria, with others escaping continued violence in Afghanistan. Likewise, the majority of people arriving nearby in Italy are fleeing armed conflict in Somalia or conscription in Eritrea.

Even among those who are not refugees, many arriving on Europe’s shores are vulnerable for other reasons. Some are unaccompanied children, or victims of sexual trafficking, or have been tortured and traumatised as they made their way across the Sahara to Africa’s Mediterranean coast before eventually reaching Europe. Refugees and other vulnerable people deserve the protection and assistance to which they are entitled under international law.

Second, this crisis was not unexpected. For some time, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and others have warned that countries neighbouring conflict areas are reaching their maximum capacity to absorb any more refugees.

Without legal alternative routes for refugees to enter other European countries, people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere have taken matters into their own hands, risking their lives – often on flimsy rubber dinghies across dangerous stretches of the Aegean and Mediterranean – to seek the sanctuary of Europe.

With more people displaced by conflict globally than ever before– 59.5 million – Europe has to recognise that this problem is not going away, and that it needs to respond meaningfully to provide help.

Third, why has much of the world looked away from the crisis in the Mediterranean? The IRC is built to respond to emergencies in some of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries. That we have had to deploy an emergency response team to Europe to make sure refugees receive clean water and have access to toilets, rather than defecate in the open, is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the region.

For far, far too long, local Greek officials and volunteers have had to shoulder this burden, and at a time when they have had to endure paralysing austerity measures and the most recent financial crisis. Despite these hardships, the compassion and generosity of local groups has put the international community to shame. And, the refugee crisis in Greece is only likely to get worse.

Local officials and aid experts estimate that 200,000 refugees will come to Greece this year. This will undoubtedly overwhelm the primarily local-led relief efforts.

Europe also needs to provide more support to Greece so that it can provide a humane and dignified reception for refugees. When they arrive on Lesbos, refugees are not provided with medical check-ups or other assistance, aside from that provided by community volunteers. Until very recently, refugees often walked 40 miles, often in 32C (90F) heat, from the northern coast where they landed to the Kara Tepe transit camp. This is simply cruel.

Fourth, why have European members states continued the ongoing asylum charade, forcing refugees to further risk their lives by requiring them to furtively travel to their desired asylum destinations?

Europe’s asylum policies mean that a refugee has to apply for asylum in the country where he or she first arrives, which for those coming from Libya and Turkey almost always means Italy or Greece. Desperate to rejoin family members in other European countries or to live where there are real job prospects, many people avoid registration and continue their journeys illegally.

Would it not be more humane to allow these vulnerable groups to seek asylum at European embassies in Athens, or better yet, in European embassies in their home regions? Or at the very least ensure safe passage to their desired onward destinations – often to be reunited with waiting family members?

As it stands, refugees who reach Greece are then forced to travel through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to other destinations in Europe, a route making them vulnerable to human traffickers, gangs and corrupt officials.

Ultimately, at what point do we all conclude that these people have already suffered enough and deserve to be aided in their flight to safety? At the International Rescue Committee, we have already made this decision.

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