LESBOS, Greece — Through a barbed wire fence, 17-year-old Syrian refugee Asma attempted to tell us about her journey to Greece. We didn’t have much time to listen. Greek police officers were breathing down our necks, threatening to arrest us unless we left.
We learned that Asma traveled alone on a tiny rubber boat from Turkey, and broke her arm — still wrapped in a white bandage — when a building collapsed in her hometown of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising. As she started to tell us about her hope for a fresh start in Germany, the policemen issued their final warning before escorting us off Moria camp’s fenced perimeter.
“We’re animals now,” Asma shouted after us. “We’re no longer humans.”
If Turkey is a crowded departure hall to a better life, Greece is now a transit lounge for those who’ve missed their connection. Many will never move onward to northern Europe; others will only move backward. With more than 52,000 refugees and migrants stranded in the country, Greece has become exactly what Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned months ago: a “warehouse of souls.” And the new deal between the European Union and Turkey, intended to stem the refugee flow into Europe, only redirects it.
Under the terms of the deal, most asylum seekers who illegally travel to Greece from Turkey are to be sent back to Turkey. The first returns took place Monday at dawn. For every returnee to Turkey, a Syrian living in a Turkish refugee camp will be legally resettled by plane to EU countries.
As such, a refugee’s rights come down to luck. If Asma had arrived in Greece last month, she’d likely be in Germany by now. If she had arrived three weeks ago, she’d likely be trapped in a makeshift camp on the Greece-Macedonia border — not much of an upgrade, but she’d have more access to the outside world than she does in Lesbos, where more than 3,000 refugees are locked in a former military base. For refugees like her, who arrived after the deal took effect March 21, most will be sent back to Turkey; that is, unless they can individually prove Turkey is “unsafe” for them. Even many Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans — who have special protections under international law and qualify for the European Union’s official “relocation” program — will be returned to Turkey.
In exchange for absorbing the migrants, the EU will give Turkey up to $6.6 billion to help manage the influx of people; allow Turkish citizens to travel visa-free throughout most of Europe; and continue to consider Turkey’s admission to the European Union.
Officials insist the deal isn’t about restricting access to asylum in Europe, but eliminating illegal smuggling routes that sent more than 1 million refugees and migrants to Europe from Turkey over the past year. Indeed, as ferryboats carrying migrants returned to Turkey on Monday, Syrians from Turkish refugee camps were being resettled in Germany and Finland.
But this “one-for-one” deal struck in Brussels — which creates a kind of human carousel — is disconnected from the reality on the ground in Greece. The deal’s byzantine complexities have sowed confusion, fear and anxiety among asylum-seekers and authorities alike. Humanitarian groups such as the United Nations refugee agency, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children have suspended activities on several Greek islands to protest its terms. They argue that the deal turns reception centers for refugees into inhumane, de facto detention facilities.
The deal also paints Turkey as a “safe” country of asylum. But human-rights groups take the opposite stance. Amnesty International says it has evidence Turkey is illegally rounding up and expelling groups of around 100 Syrian men, women and children to Syria on a near-daily basis. And just hours after the EU-Turkey deal took effect last month, Turkey forcibly sent back some 30 Afghan asylum-seekers to Afghanistan.
“In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia, in a statement Friday. “Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.”
For Greece’s part, the deal demands enormous logistical efforts by a country hobbled by six years of financial crisis.
On Friday, Greece’s parliament passed a bill aimed at streamlining the asylum process so that new applications, including appeals, will be decided within two weeks. Large-scale returns of Syrian refugees to Turkey could begin later this month. But there are signs of system failure before it’s even begun. According to the UN refugee agency, only three officers from the Greek Asylum Service are operating in the Moria camp on Lesbos to deal with more than 2,860 asylum applications.
Asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands will now be subject to an “inadmissibility check” before Greek authorities consider their asylum claims, according to Jean-Pierre Schembri, a spokesman for the European Asylum Support Office, an EU agency that helps member-states implement asylum procedures. Those who can’t prove Turkey is unsafe for them will be returned. Criteria for just what “unsafe” means have yet to be determined. Still, the added hurdle sets an unfairly high bar for asylum-seekers, the majority of whom are Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war.
The whole process could drag on indefinitely.
Additionally, as ferries returning 202 migrants to Turkey set sail from Lesbos and Chios on Monday, 228 new refugees arrived on the Greek islands. The human carousel continues.
Even the more than 46,000 refugees stuck on the Greek mainland — who are not subject to returns under the new deal — are languishing without answers of their own.
This complicated reshuffling of people does nothing to ameliorate the worst humanitarian crisis of our time — it only exacerbates it. Tone-deaf, dehumanizing decisions made in Brussels make dangerous escape routes even more popular.
As journalists on the ground, we have too often become the first point of contact for refugees confused by the new deal. But we rarely have the information they need.
“How did we get here?” 32-year-old Rashan asked us last week. The university- educated, Syrian refugee from Aleppo refuses to tell his family and friends back home about the real conditions in Greece. It’s embarrassing, he says, after he risked so much for a modern-day Homeric odyssey.
“All these amazing people, with so much potential,” he said. “How did we end up like this?”
Once again, we didn’t have answers.