March 30, 2016
At every EU migration summit in recent months, border security has trumped the safety and wellbeing of people on the move. This has been causing human misery and suffering for the tens of thousands of women, men and children now stranded in Greece and the Western Balkans. Our Advocacy & Policy Lead in Greece, Renata Rendón, reports from Athens on the harrowing situation, and warns about the escalating human cost of ever harsher border policies.
In the middle of Athens lies Victoria Square, a public park that has become a gathering place for people unable to continue their flight from violent conflict and hardship due to recent border restrictions. Many of these people are from Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa, but there are also increasingly more Syrians and Iraqis who have been turned away at the borders of Greece’s northern neighbors.
Already in February, several European countries closed their borders to some or even all asylum-seekers, but since EU leaders declared a shutdown of the “Western Balkans route”, the number of those stranded in Greece has ballooned. Since the beginning of 2016, an average of around 1,700 people have reached the Greek shores every single day – according to UNHCR over 45,000 people are now stuck in the country, where the reception capacity is stretched to the limit.
Squalor in makeshift camps
Victoria Square is only one of many public squares in Athens that are used as makeshift camps by those caught up in the turmoil caused by the haphazard border policies implemented recently. When I checked in with a few of the new arrivals last week the situation had clearly worsened compared to February.
The lack of toilets engulfed everything in the smell of urine, there was no proper shelter, and I saw mothers putting their babies to sleep on cardboard mats out in the open. Only a few days earlier, two desperate Afghan men tried to hang themselves in the square.
The night before my visit, more than 300 people had stayed in this spot, many covered only by flimsy emergency blankets, sleeping on the cold concrete ground. In daylight, the area turned back into a bustling square, but uncertainty and helplessness remained.
One father from Afghanistan told us that going back was out of the question for them, even though several European countries had closed their borders to Afghans. “Would you return if you were me?”, he asked and added, “We have gone through hell and we will continue no matter what.”
Thousands left out in the cold
For months, Oxfam has now been urging EU political elites to make sure the human rights and dignity of those on the move are not put on the line by border policies. But following the de facto shutdown of the “Western Balkans route”, last week’s EU-Turkey summit only introduced the possibility of more severe measures and collective push-backs that ignore the right to seek asylum.
All the while, ways to find sanctuary in the European Union are still not sufficient, which means vulnerable people like the Afghan family of five are stuck in limbo – many without access to sanitation, shelter or adequate food.
In Athens, all transit and day centers, public shelters, and even NGO-provided hotel rooms for those most at risk, are overcrowded. As the entire country can only provide around 30,000 safe places, tens of thousands are left out in the cold. In the city’s port area alone volunteers are overwhelmed by over 3000 people in urgent need of basic services.
The Greek government is desperately trying to find more accommodation, but there simply don’t seem to be enough resources to ensure the safety and wellbeing of so many people. By now, the government has had to resort to bringing in the military to build transit centres and provide food. Right in front of our eyes a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the European Union.
Political haggling hits already vulnerable people
For me, today’s meeting of EU leaders is a critical moment to finally put things right and prioritise human dignity instead of border security. If the meeting brings any more restrictions on people’s ability to seek safety, the drama on the ground in Greece could intensify.
Further border closures and push-backs could see thousands more falling through the gaps, pushing them to continue their journey underground. Once in the hands of smugglers, these already vulnerable people would be even further out of the reach of help from governments and NGOs, putting them at great risk of abuse, exploitation, enslavement and sexual violence.
For my husband and me Greece is home, and it is heart-breaking to see this kind of tragedy unfold at our doorstep as a result of political games being played. It is especially infuriating because the suffering could be so easily avoided if European politicians took seriously the human cost of their decisions. The only way to prevent a further escalation of the current human plight is for leaders to pull together for a collective solution that isn’t motivated by security concerns but by a real commitment to human rights and to creating safe and legal routes.
Human dimension of crisis must be addressed now
Unlike our political leaders, young and old Greeks are already helping side-by-side with supporters from all over Europe to alleviate the hardship experienced by the people stranded in Greece. Despite the difficult economic situation in the country many locals are showing an extraordinary level of compassion, volunteering to help wherever they can.
I saw an elderly woman out and about in Athens, looking after families and young men traveling alone, giving them a friendly smile and bringing them bowls of hot soup. She and her fellow helpers have really stepped up to face the human dimension of this crisis and European leaders must finally follow their example.