By Jovana Mastilovic
Lesvos (Greece) July 2017
More than one million people, mostly originating from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe in 2015 to seek asylum. The majority of these people crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece with over half a million people arriving on the Greek island, Lesvos. In response, the European Commission published an European Agenda on Migration, which enforced ‘hotspot’ facilities at the external borders of the EU; there are five in Greece—on the islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos and Samos, and four in Italy in Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Taranto and Trapani. These centers are reserved spaces where the initial reception, identification and registration of all asylum seekers now arriving to Europe occur.
In July 2017, I visited the Moria Identification and Reception Center on Lesvos, which is the largest ‘hotspot’ facility on Lesvos, where according to the Head of the Regional Asylum Office, approximately 3000 of the 3800 asylum seekers on the island resided at the time. Moria does not appear to be a welcoming place. Despite the sign at the entrance of the center, which reads “[i]ci vous êtes en sécurité” (you are safe here), the security of refugees within the center is disputable.
Moria is a former military base surrounded by barbed wire fences, security personnel and gated spaces. Refugees inside the center have compared it to a jail, and various organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have reported on the deteriorating mental health of those inside through incidents of self-harm, including attempted suicide, and rising anxiety, depression and aggression. Deaths inside the center have made headlines since its establishment as Greece’s first ‘hotspot’ center in 2015. There are certain sections in Moria where people are placed depending on whether they are being considered for international protection, deportation (Section B), or other procedures. While I was on Lesvos, asylum seekers set fires inside the center in protest to deportation to Turkey and riot police quickly arrived to regain control within the center.
There has been a lack of media attention on the ‘European migration crisis’, since the implementation of the European Union (EU)–Turkey deal in March 2016, which drastically decreased the number of people arriving from Turkey to Europe. The reason is that Turkey has been encouraged to ‘take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration opening from Turkey to the EU’. Despite this, boats continue to arrive daily on the Greek islands from Turkey, full of men, women and children seeking international protection in Europe.
Although Turkey is a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, it maintains the geographical limitation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This means that Turkey does not grant full refugee status to non-Europeans. In 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded 1.7 million Syrians residing in Turkey. There was no sign of the conflict in Syria ending, and the number of people arriving to seek international protection continued to increase, so Turkey implemented a ‘temporary protection’ regime for Syrians and Stateless Palestinians from Syria. According to the most recent figures, Turkey now hosts over 3.4 million refugees. Beneficiaries of ‘temporary protection’ continue to live their lives in uncertainty, waiting to be considered for resettlement in another country, or waiting for the violence in Syria to end, as they are not accepted as permanent residents in Turkey. Many people put their lives in the hands of people smugglers and risk everything on unworthy sea vessels just to reach European soil to lodge their asylum claim. Once they arrive in Greece, however, they wait in uncertainty once again in the overcrowded ‘hotspot’ facilities, along with the other 60,000 people in the country waiting for their asylum outcome, sometimes in prison-like conditions.
Also in July this year, most of the European funding provided directly for NGOs ended. The European Commission now supports the Greek government in managing all aspects of asylum through designated asylum, migration and integration funds (AMIF) and internal security funds (ISF). There are many organizations whose functioning has been severely impacted by this shift. A few organizations and individuals who provide around-the-clock emergency support to refugees and were of great help to me and my research while I was on Lesvos, are Lighthouse Relief, Lesvos Solidarity and the Kempson family.