The Greek government has been at the forefront of the refugee crisis but has received little aid, and has not been held accountable to a high enough degree, by the European community as a whole. Dominique A. Pineiro

After Turkey announced it would no longer prevent refugees from attempting to cross the border into the EU at the end of February, violence erupted between refugees, locals and NGO workers in the Greek Aegean islands. The sea border and the land border became tension-filled conflict zones. Teargas was fired at refugee families by Greek border police in Evros, while the coast guard near Lesvos attempted to prevent a dinghy from landing by firing bullets into the sea. Standing by such behaviour, the right-wing Greek government took the drastic step of suspending any new asylum applications for a month. This is a serious violation of one of the key principles of international refugee law, and a clear move against human rights on European soil.

Instead of condemning the Greek government’s stance and offering genuine support to help deal with the situation, EU politicians and leaders have defended their actions. After a token flyover visit of the Greek-Turkish border, the EU Commission president von der Leyen thanked Greece for acting as a ’shield’ for Europe. Such a statement reinforces the damaging image of refugees as invaders and the framing of the Greek-Turkish border as a battle zone. In reality, it is a desperate no-man’s land in which people are fighting for their right to safety and life.

“Britain should not be exempt from this duty due to its recent departure from the EU.”

Von der Leyen and other EU politicians have been quick to reassure Greece they are not alone in shouldering the ever-heavier burden of the refugee crisis, promising them 700 million euros in financial aid. This is merely an empty gesture of solidarity. The funding provides for increased border support but does nothing to demonstrate Europe is willing to take on the challenge of refugee resettlement.

Another attempt at EU problem-solving has seen them offering €2000 to asylum-seekers in Greek camps to ‘go home’. Such a policy reflects the overriding European attitude to the refugee crisis: out of sight, out of mind. True solidarity will only be shown when European states begin to work towards a viable and effective allocation mechanism. It is the only way forward which will enable respect for universal human rights to be restored in Europe.

The Aegean islands, and their populations, are at breaking point. They cannot be expected to continue to bear the weight of this crisis while Europe turns a blind eye. Since 2016, when the EU-Turkey deal was struck, the islands have become de facto detention centres as asylum-seekers are forced to wait to go through ‘processing’ before they are either granted asylum - or deported back to Turkey.

“People, not borders, must be at the heart of their future policies.”

In camps like Moria on Lesvos, over 20,000 refugees are living in shocking, inhumane conditions with facilities designed to hold less than 3,000 people. Locals on the island, who have shown generosity, kindness and compassion over five years of crisis, cannot endure the situation much longer. Over the past two weeks, NGO workers and journalists have been beaten up by local vigilante groups; community centres and camps have been burnt down, and impromptu road blocks have been installed to try to prevent refugees from reaching the capital of the island, Mytilini.

Whilst such violence is deplorable, it does not represent the views of most people living in the Aegean islands, who continue to show compassion and denounce such action. Neither does it demonstrate overall sentiment in Greece. Multiple marches in Athens over the past two weeks have been attended by thousands of people who stand in solidarity with refugees, and against borders. It seems that an interesting double standard is emerging: where we throw accusations at those who have demonstrated more humanity than most European leaders seem capable of.


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Instead of continuing to pledge empty gestures of support to Greece, European leaders must come out against their decision to suspend the right to asylum, and must accept the long-overdue challenge of decongesting the Aegean islands and resettling refugees. Britain should not be exempt from this duty due to its recent departure from the EU. This is not a new situation, but a tragic tipping point in a five-year long crisis, hence Britain should assume equal responsibility. Access to European markets? Yes please. Sharing responsibility for a humanitarian crisis in Greece? Apparently not so attractive. The luxury of picking and choosing our involvements with EU affairs cannot be so arbitrary.

European governments – including Britain – must take responsibility and act if they wish to retain any claim to uphold and respect human rights. People, not borders, must be at the heart of their future policies. Solutions can only revolve around shared responsibilities and solidarity with Greece, Turkey, and the millions of displaced people affected. The situation is becoming increasingly urgent due to the potential for Covid-19 to spread untamed through the refugee camps, where social distancing is impossible and regular hand-washing something people can only dream of.

Click here to sign the petition asking Europe to act now for the immediate decongestion of the Aegean islands and to begin to correct five years of negligent policy making.

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