May 14, 2015 Published at Enthemata Avgi translated http://www.analyzegreece.gr

Unless legal options and routes are provided for refugees, the vicious circe will go on

Interview with Ariana Vassilaki (United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees)

Let me start with a question regarding the role of the UNHCR in relation to the situtation in the borders.
Although unusual in European countries, it’s been 4,5 years that the UNHCR has had constant presence at border locations in Greece, with representatives being stationed in the country’s main entry points. We are trying to cover all the entry points, which now extend from Orestiada and Samothraki in the north to the islands of Symi and Kastelorizo in the south, and meet the arriving refugees and migrants.

Our initial aim is to support refugees in two ways. First, to inform them about the Greek and European legal frameworks, their rights and their obligations. We are doing this with the help of interpreters reached through the METAdrasi NGO. Second, we are trying to respond to their essential human needs. We offer them basic necessities, we try to help families reunite, to find out if there are any unaccompanied underage children. The next stage is then to help the authorities to fulfill the administrative procedures more fully, complying with all the guarantees that we consider necessary.

Last week you were on the islands of Lesvos and Chios.
Yes, Lesvos and Chios are respectively the first and third more heavily affected entry points for refugees and migrants today. Kos is the second one, while last year it was Samos. This year the number of people arriving has increased, but we had anticipated it. In summer 2014 we said we would be expecting an increase in the refugee flow, as the situation in their countries is getting worse, especially due to the war in Syria. About 2 million people have fled to Turkey, and are now living under very difficult circumstances, despite all the efforts that the Turkish state has made to accommodate and protect them. Many among them attempt to travel to Europe. There are many reasons for this. The main one is that they do not expect to go back to Syria. Every year that the war goes on, they lose hope and expectation of going back there. Additionally, some of them have other family members in European countries, while others have lived and worked in Europe before. In short, these people are looking for a stable situation, where they could start their lives over again.

Therefore, pressure has increased, but as already mentioned we anticipated so. Already in 2014, month by month, we observed a rising tendency, except for the last months of the year due to the bad weather that impeded them from crossing the Aegean Sea. In fact, the number of migrants and refugees that reached Greece in 2014 had quadrupled if compared to 2013. This is not a new phenomenon for Greece: in 2008, about 30.000 people reached Greece by sea. Of course it’s even worse today that the crisis is so close, geographically speaking.

Entry & Exit Points to/from Greee. For an interactive version of the map, click here

So the difference is not so much in the numbers.
Indeed. Let’s not forget that migrant flows were high during the period 2007-2008, and again during the years 2010-2011 through the river Evros, when this crossing was still accessible. What has changed today is the profile of those coming. In those years, they were refugees and migrants coming from a very wide range of countries. Today this is changed. Since 2014, the vast majority, maybe more than 85%, are people coming from the war zones. According to our estimation, based on our direct contact with them upon arrival, in the entry points, during 2014 and 2015 about 60-70% came from Syria (either Syrians or Palestinians living in Syria), 20-30% came from Afghanistan, and 5-10% came from Somalia and Eritrea; that is, they all came from countries that are in deep crisis.

And what about the European reaction?
Already last year the UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees raised with the EU both the necessity of protecting life at sea , as well as the issue of what happens to refugees after they reach Europe. Because, beyond rescuing them, we have to figure out what to do with these people. Refugees cannot be halted from moving on, neither in Greece, nor anywhere else; no one can stop human nature from reaching a given point or place in pursuit of safety.

For instance, migrants and refugees, once they reach Italy, they try to leave for Switzerland and other northern countries. They try the same from Greece’s northern borders: to move onwards through Albania and FYROM. And, in order to do this, they go through situations that are beyond the human imagination. What a refugee has to endure today, either in order to reunite with her/his family or just to find a safe place, is tragic – and I literally mean this. I am not referring only to the economic aspect and the amounts they need to pay to leave through illegal crossings. I mostly refer to the hardship, the danger, the illtreatment, the arrests and detention these people suffer. To give you another example: today in the region of Kilkis in northern Greece, in the towns of Polykastro and Idomeni situated near the Greek-Albanian borders, people live under really tragic circumstances – as it was the case, few years ago, in Igoumenitsa and Patra. They are trapped there, either trying to leave Greece, or after being sent back to Greece – legally or not- by the neighboring countries.

How can we put an end to this vicious circle?
In UNHCR’s interventions to the EU, we focused on three major points. First, the need to provide refugees with legal options even while they are still in the transit countries (e.g. in Turkey), that is before they attempt to reach the EU Mediterranean countries, so that they don’t go through this dangerous voyage. This can be done, for example, by strengthening resettlement programs, or by granting entry visas on humanitarian grounds, or by enhancing the possibility for the reunification of families. Second, the need to reinforce search and rescue actions in the Mediterranean . Third, the need to agree on a plan for the distribution of the refugees within the EU as well as to open up the possibility of reviewing asylum seekers’ requests within the framework of the Dublin Regulation. That is, even if refugees first land in Italy, Greece, Malta, etc., an agreement can be drawn among the EU countries so that a percentage of these people could legally leave or relocate to Europe, without having to go through the illegal and dangerous crossing to other European countries.

To sum up, is the migrants and refugees issue an economic one, a political one, an issue of policy?
It is all of this combined. Unless the factors that make people flee their homes, like wars and severe inequality, are addressed, we cannot hope for a radical change that would deal with the refugee issue and prevent all these tragedies from happening. Of course we need to take immediate action. Under the current circumstances at a global scale, we cannot expect that refugee and migrant flow will halt.

Let me give you an example. The issue of human trafficking is very serious, as it takes place under atrocious conditions, and we definitely need to take action against traffickers. Yet, as long as there are no legal routes and options, traffickers and illegal networks remain the only choice available to these people. They actually depend on these illegal networks. And as traffickers know that they are their only choice, they become more and more ruthless, taking advantage of the situation and suffering of these people. It is a vicious circle that cannot by dealt with by simply eradicating these networks, as others will spring. Unless legal options and routes are provided for refugees, this vicious circle will go on.

Ariana Vassilaki is a Senior Protection Associate at UNHCR Greece.
Translated by:N/A
The original text was first published on:Enthemata” Avgis, 26.4.2015


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