At the height of recent irregular migration to Europe in 2015, Greece was a transit country and gateway into the European Union (EU). Most asylum seekers and migrants moved onward from the Greek Aegean islands to other parts of Europe. With increases in the flow of asylum seekers from Turkey to Greece and the closure of other European borders, however, Greece has transformed from a short stopover for asylum seekers to a host country for large numbers of refugees.
The country has consistently demonstrated that it is ill equipped to handle this role. The Greek government continues to implement a “containment” policy that forces incoming asylum seekers to remain on the islands until they go through their asylum procedures. While there, they lack adequate access to essential services and often even the most rudimentary accommodations.
These conditions create enormous protection risks for asylum seekers, especially for women, girls, and unaccompanied children (UAC). Women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and UAC are at risk of being trafficked and exposed to other forms of exploitation, yet there are not enough trained law enforcement officers at the reception centers to ensure the security of these vulnerable groups.
Furthermore, there is a severe shortage of social service providers, such as doctors, psychologists, and social workers, as well as interpreters. The situation for asylum seekers on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, and Samos is particularly stark. Massive overcrowding, deteriorating conditions, and a backlog of asylum cases endanger asylum seekers’ well-being and safety.
The enormous number of UAC in Greece—both on the islands and mainland Greece—who lack adequate protection is especially alarming. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the Greek government announced a new policy, “No Child Alone,” in November 2019. Although not yet enforced, the policy commits the Greek government to providing safe accommodation and access to social services for UAC. In tandem with its “Guardianship law,” the new policy provides that the government will hire enough staff to act as legal guardians for all UAC.
Although this policy is an important step in the right direction, the Greek government has otherwise largely failed to make a meaningful effort to improve poor conditions for asylum seekers who have stayed on the islands for years. If the government hopes that such conditions will deter new refugees and asylum seekers, it is mistaken.
The factors that drive people to flee their countries in the first place have not diminished— indeed, many of them are growing more acute. The security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, millions of Syrians are unable to return home, and conflict and persecution persist in parts of Africa and elsewhere. With no resolution of these root causes in sight, and so few legal pathways available for refugees to access the EU, irregular migration to Europe will continue.
Greece needs to be better prepared for these arrivals. Although the EU has already allocated more than €2 billion to help Greece improve its capacity to manage this migration challenge, the funds have not resulted in meaningful improvements in the conditions that greet those seeking refuge. Greece still lacks the capacity to receive asylum seekers, care for them, adjudicate their claims, and then integrate those who qualify. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which have a valuable role to play in this response, have stepped in to try to fill some of the gaps. Coordination needs to improve, however, and the Greek government should not rely on civil society to do the work for which it is responsible.
The EU must also take greater responsibility for asylum seekers searching for safety in Europe, many of whom arrive in Greece. It is especially important that the EU act in solidarity with Greece to assist the most at-risk groups of asylum seekers. Substantial numbers of UAC in Greece have close family members in other EU countries. However, the family reunification process is cumbersome, resulting in needless family separation and additional strain on Greek social systems.
The challenges Greece faces in receiving large numbers of asylum seekers are real, but most of them can be overcome with increased capacity and political will. The Greek government and the EU have an obligation to receive asylum seekers and hear their claims for international protection. Even the EU’s own directive considers seeking asylum to be a “fundamental right.” While in the asylum process, all applicants should be afforded safety and the ability to meet their basic needs according to humanitarian standards. However, on the Greek islands that currently is not the case. The conditions are so abhorrent that vulnerable groups, such as women, girls, and UAC, often find that the situation for them is even less safe than the conflicts they fled. This situation is unacceptable and undermines the very principle of asylum.