Friday 25 May 2018

From limbo, on the edge of Europe

Experts warn that the European Union-backed plan for Greece to start sending migrants back to Turkey is unlikely to end the crisis

ROAD TO NOWHERE: Migrants block the highway near the town of Polykastro to press for the opening of the Greek-Macedonian border last week, after thousands of them were stranded by the Balkan border blockade. Waves of asylum seekers are stuck in Greece, after Balkan states sealed their borders. Photo: Kilic Bulent/Getty
ROAD TO NOWHERE: Migrants block the highway near the town of Polykastro to press for the opening of the Greek-Macedonian border last week, after thousands of them were stranded by the Balkan border blockade. Waves of asylum seekers are stuck in Greece, after Balkan states sealed their borders. Photo: Kilic Bulent/Getty

Zia Weise

When the kiosk outside the camp opened its shutters, Rashad from Damascus whistled and waved a five-euro note through the fence.

"A sandwich, please," he called. "There isn't enough food here. Some of us haven't eaten in days."

Soon a small crowd had gathered and the vendor rushed back and forth, squeezing sandwiches and juice through a hole in the wire.

Rashad and his family arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos just days after the EU struck a deal to send migrants back to Turkey, aiming to cut off the route across the Aegean. The plans, which have been heavily criticised by aid groups, will begin tomorrow. But they represent an enormous gamble and have yet to deter more refugees from arriving - or destroy the smugglers' lucrative business.

Hundreds continue to land daily on Greece's easternmost islands, while border closures have helped the smuggling trade flourish on the mainland.

Most refugees and migrants detained on Lesbos were oblivious to the conditions awaiting them before they crossed the narrow strait from Turkey. The island's detention centre, Moria, is already well over capacity: designed for 2,000 people, it struggles to provide for 2,500 occupants.

"There isn't enough for everyone," said Rashad, hungrily gulping down his sandwich. "There's no hot water, the toilets are filthy." He left Turkey because he was unable to pay for his daughters' education, he added.

Adnan Hussein, a Syrian student with a bullet wound on his stomach, said he had not eaten in two days. "The line for food is so long, the last few hundred don't get to eat," he said. "And half the people have to sleep outside."

Refugees in Moria hold a daily protest against the deteriorating conditions. So far, it has remained peaceful, but officials and aid workers fear unrest is only a matter of time. Last Thursday, several migrants were injured in riots on the islands of Chios and Samos.

"The influx hasn't stopped, but the outflow has. There is a potential for this to become unmanageable," said Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament visiting Moria.

On Friday, the Greek parliament voted to begin sending back migrants, but whether the agreement to return them to Turkey is practicable remains uncertain. Greece still lacks the staff to quickly process thousands of asylum applications; this coming week, only people who have not applied for asylum in Greece will be returned to Turkey. Out of 2,500 registered refugees in the Moria camp, 1,950 have applied.

Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for Greece's refugee crisis committee, confirmed that returns would start tomorrow, but he added that not all details were clear. "We will see if it works or not. But we are confident it will."

Even if the returns from the islands begin as planned, Greece still hosts some 50,000 refugees and migrants stranded on its mainland.

Legal routes to resettlement are limited and aid workers on Lesbos said the already slow European relocation programme had come to a halt amid confusion over the new rules.

With the Macedonian border and the route across the Balkans closed, many refugees have begun to look for other options, fuelling a boom in smuggling in Athens and the border town of Idomeni, where more than 10,000 migrants are stranded.

Smugglers are reported to offer trips to Germany starting at €1,500 or to Scandinavia for €2,500. Ships to Italy are priced at around €1,000.

Refugees' Facebook groups abound with suggestions and advertisements for new routes. Smugglers are offering direct trips with large "ghost ships" from Turkey to Italy - a route that was shut by Turkish coastguards last year.

"Until legal options for refugees are established, a crackdown on smugglers will have a limited effect," said Boris Cheshirkov, an official for the UN High Commission on Refugees based on Lesbos. "Smugglers are a criminal enterprise and therefore flexible. As some routes close, others open." Heaven Crawley, a professor of migration at Coventry University, said: "The problem with this deal is that it just won't work. The migrants will keep coming, the push factors are too strong.…All Europe will have achieved is the loss of the moral high ground."

On Lesbos, few knew of the planned returns to Turkey. Others had heard rumours, but believed their smuggler's tale that the deal was a fiction invented by Europe to deter them from coming. "Even if I knew it would be like this, I would still have come As long as I'm far away from that country of mine," said Jonathan, who fled from Eritrea to Uganda three years ago.

After receiving threats in Uganda he flew to Turkey with his wife and boarded a dinghy to Lesbos four days ago.

Turkey is currently negotiating with Eritrea and other countries, including Afghanistan, to send back failed asylum seekers, raising fears of "refoulement" - returning refugees to places where they are at risk, which is prohibited under international law.

Aid agencies have questioned the legality of the deal, warning that Turkey was not the "safe country" European leaders made it out to be.

On Friday, the United Nations voiced concerns that safeguards ensuring returned migrants' rights had not been put in place. "I don't know what they would do to me if I returned. They made me join the military in 1995. When I tried to leave, they put me in a prison and made me work hard for years," said Jonathan.

"There was no shelter, little food. But honestly," - he gestured at the detention centre's tall fence in front of him - "it looked a bit like this. I escaped prison in my country to another prison in Europe."

Meanwhile in Syria, the land many of them are fleeing, it appears that the partial ceasefire is unravelling.

Yesterday fierce fighting between government forces and opposition fighters, including members of the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, erupted outside the country's second largest city of Aleppo and other parts in the country's north.

At least 25 pro-government and 16 opposition fighters died in the clashes south of Aleppo, where the Nusra Front and rebel militias captured a village overlooking a major highway.

The fighting was the most serious in the area since the ceasefire, engineered by the US and Russia, took effect on February 27. The violence in the north, along with heavy government airstrikes that killed more than 30 civilians near Damascus this week, threatened to completely dissolve the truce, which had sharply reduced overall violence across the war-ravaged country.

The rebel advances also risk drawing Russia back into the conflict after it shored up the government's position through a fierce bombing campaign that wound down nearly three weeks ago. The opposition's advances threaten to reverse some of the gains made by the government during the Russian campaign.

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