One Year Stranded & What’s Changed? An Update to the October 2016 Joint NGO Policy Brief on the Situation for Displaced Persons in Greece [EN/EL]

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It is one year since the introduction of Europe’s flawed migration policies to close borders along the Western Balkan route and return migrants and refugees to Turkey, leaving thousands stranded in Greece. This update provides an overview of the current situation in Greece, and sets out what eight national and international responding agencies see as the most urgent issues to address and the major concerns with Europe’s response to this crisis.

To start with, there remains the need for a coherent European Union (EU)-wide approach that shares responsibility in managing migration while upholding international obligations and protecting human rights. To date, actions taken by European countries point toward the contrary. The EU-Turkey Statement and the subsequent Joint Action Plan1 for its implementation are examples of policies that are eroding rights enshrined in the Refugee Convention, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of people seeking protection, and exposing them to an array of new rights abuses. It is alarming that this may become the model for future responses to children, women and men seeking international protection in Europe. EU leaders, the Greek Government and donors must commit to supporting a principled approach to managing migration based on the Refugee Convention and international human rights law.

To improve and adapt the response to this protracted situation, while upholding international human rights law, all stakeholders must work together to address persistent issues in two main areas of concern:

(1) Safe, humane reception conditions, long-term accommodation, and access to essential services; and
(2) Access to due process in seeking international protection, legal aid, and accurate, up-to-date and reliable information.

The continued need for improved, appropriate accommodation & services, as well as integration

The Greek Government estimates more than 62,000 people fleeing conflict, crisis and poverty are stranded in Greece, with 48,000 on the mainland and 14,400 on the islands.2 Roughly 2,100 are unaccompanied or separated children (UASC), of whom more than 1,000 are on a waiting list for safe shelter, including 178 children in island reception and identification facilities and 16 in police protective custody (detention).

Sites vary throughout the country in their suitability to provide short-term, safe accommodation and critically needed services, yet nowhere is this more pronounced than between the mainland and islands. Since October 2016, island accommodation capacity has increased from 7,450 to 9,014. This nevertheless falls short for a population consistently above 14,400. Some sites remain dangerously overcrowded, substandard, and people continue to live in tents.4 With support from humanitarian agencies, significant progress was made by the Greek authorities in late 2016 to move people out of some of the most dangerous mainland sites and to ensure that all sites were heated and could shelter residents from the winter; however, similar efforts to improve conditions in all island sites have yet to be made, despite repeated calls for action, including from the local authorities.

Positively, the Greek Government has made efforts to transfer those most vulnerable and those eligible for family reunification to the mainland, enabling some decongestion of the islands. According to safeguards in Greek Law, such cases are exempt from accelerated border procedures. The European Commission’s Joint Action Plan recommends amending Greek law to eliminate this exemption, which may remove the possibility of transferring such cases to the mainland in the future.

All indications suggest that tens of thousands of people will remain in Greece for months more to complete their asylum, family reunification or relocation procedures. Meanwhile, almost half of those stranded will ultimately seek asylum and stay in Greece, making it critical that all stakeholders support a transition to urban integration. Humanitarian agencies still await official plans outlining the government’s long-term vision for the response and the transition from encampment to more appropriate, long-term accommodation, services and integration following the Ministry of Migration Policy’s recent announcement that almost all sites will be closed by the end of 2017. To the increasing frustration of those now in Greece for a year, little to no integration measures have been implemented to date. The best practical means for social and economic integration, adapted to men’s, women’s and children’s unique needs have yet to be proposed. Many camps are in remote areas, far from urban centres, reducing the possibilities of interaction with and integration into local communities. For people accommodated in urban areas, accessing basic services can still remain challenging, often leading to isolation. Additionally, no provisions are in place to accommodate people once they receive refugee status. While some integration measures have been provisioned in the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund Multiannual Programme overseen by DG Home, the Greek authorities have yet to make use of these funds.

Despite the growing need, clear gaps and challenges remain in the provision of health care, specialized services for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), mental health and psychosocial support, and there remains a severe gap in services for more complex conditions. This is mainly due to the impact of the economic crisis on Greek hospitals and social services, as well as the lack of interpreters and cultural mediators. Additionally, many of the UASC currently living outside of formal shelters are without a guardian to ensure their access to needed services and support. This remains a critical gap for this most vulnerable group.

Positively, there has been some progress in rolling out educational services and reception classes for refugee children in the Greek public schools on the mainland. Unfortunately, similar opportunities have yet to be extended to those aged 15 to 18, for youth above 18, and for children on the islands.

Over the last six months, safety and security for migrants and refugees has also not improved. There have been several deaths, reports of sexual assaults and child abuse within reception sites, and migrants and refugeesattacked with Molotov cocktails and boulders thrown by Greeks affiliated with far right groups. Factors contributing to this deteriorating situation include: restrictions of people’s freedom of movement and the use of detention; lack of appropriate and timely police involvement when an incident occurs; a perceived sense of impunity; substandard living conditions, particularly on the islands, with insufficient protection safeguards (e.g., sanitation facilities without adequate lighting or locks); lack of procedural safeguards and identification and referral mechanisms for vulnerable groups; lack of mental health services; increased frustration caused by the lengthy asylum processes; and insufficient cross-cultural communication (e.g., lack of trained interpreters and cultural mediators).

While Greek Law 4375/2016 sets out that applicants for international protection have access to the labour market, obstacles remain in obtaining necessary documentation for employment, and few opportunities are available on account of Greece’s depleted economy. Thus, people continue to rely on distributions of food, non-food items and financial assistance to meet their basic needs, perpetuating a parallel system for service delivery, impeding integration prospects, and increasing the risk of exploitation.