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The humanitarian caste system?

By Imogen Wall

Syrians are everyone’s new favourite refugees. But the growing perception that they receive preferential treatment from governments, volunteers and aid agencies is undermining humanitarian principles and causing serious problems for responders in Lesvos and beyond. Imogen Wall reports.

In the Kara Tepe processing centre in Lesvos, where Syrian refugees are registered after clambering off boats from Turkey, new arrivals are met by the smiling faces of International Rescue Committee staff and bottles of water. Young girls and boys have their faces painted by Save the Children, while their parents wait in well-organised lines for registration at UN refugee agency (UNHCR) booths. At the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) daily clinic in Kara Tepe, patients wait on neatly arranged wooden benches. For those who need to stay, there are brand new UNHCR transitional shelters and sturdy tents erected in tidy rows on freshly gravelled ground under the shade of olive trees.

But just a kilometre down the road is a different and far darker world. The Moria immigration centre is a prison-like building with high barbed-wire fences and forbidding gates, now surrounded by a filthy ad hoc camp. Outside, entire families cram into makeshift shelters consisting of tarpaulins tied to the wire fence. Hundreds more sit in the hot sun. The food stalls have no customers: no one has money. The atmosphere is tense: police in full riot gear tramp past on their way to the office at the top of the settlement. Here, hundreds of people wait for hours in an unmoving queue outside the wire gates to apply for papers. “This is terrible,” ActionAid’s director for Greece, Gerasimos Kouvaras, visiting on an assessment mission, told IRIN. “This place can’t even provide the basics.”

The difference? Kara Tepe is for Syrians only. Everyone else must go to Moria.

“We call it the humanitarian caste system,” said one international NGO volunteer, who did not want to be named. “We see it in donations. We see it in volunteer interest. And we see it from the governments.”

The story of the two camps on Lesvos is a lesson in the creeping pro-Syrian favouritism that is now being felt throughout the European response to the refugee crisis. Moria, initially the island’s only processing centre, was overrun in the summer when arrivals hit 4,000 a day. The Greek authorities designated Kara Tepe as a temporary processing site for Syrians, who made up the bulk of the arrivals. Aid staff told IRIN that initially Kara Tepe was also filthy and overrun. But once the crisis, and specifically the plight of the Syrian refugees, became global news in the summer, more aid agencies began arriving and focussed largely on helping the Syrians. Moria, meanwhile, continued to grow but received nothing like the attention or the support.

The contrast is feeding the increasingly widespread belief among migrants that when it comes to asylum seekers in Europe, there is now one rule for Syrians and another for everyone else.

From governments - in the UK and Australia, for example - announcing increased quotas specifically for Syrians, to the focus on Syrians among public advocacy and volunteer efforts, the perception is growing that being Syrian is a short cut to asylum approval, public sympathy and more comprehensive levels of support.

In Greece, this discrimination isn’t implicit: it’s overt government policy. Those arriving from Syria are automatically given papers entitling them to stay in the country for six months. For other nationalities, it is only a month. “The view of the Greek authorities is that Syrians are considered to be prima facie refugees because of the war, so they should be entitled to international protection, whereas the others have a higher chance of being economic migrants,” said Djamal Zamoun, UNHCR team leader in Lesvos.

Aid agencies distance themselves from government policy. But they deal with the consequences of this emerging two-tier system every day. From a burgeoning trade in Syrian passports to fights between different nationalities, the distinction is impacting the relief effort in multiple ways.

At Kara Tepe, organisations have seen a surge in asylum seekers claiming to be Syrian. Some present fake or stolen passports – Syrian passports are for sale in Turkey for around $1,000 each. Others just say their papers are lost. “We had a woman this morning who we are sure is from Lebanon, but she is still insisting she is Syrian,” sighed an official with the European border agency Frontex who asked to remain anonymous.

The Frontex official said those claiming Syrian nationality not only believe they will get asylum more easily but also that European countries will give them additional support once they get there. One common rumour is that Syrian refugees are guaranteed housing. So great is the perceived benefit of being Syrian that the processing team at Kara Tepe has even seen nationals from Ghana and Somalia attempt to claim Syrian ancestry.

In response, Frontex – in Greece to assist the government in identifying the new arrivals – has had to develop an ad hoc system to establish nationality. Those who claim to be Syrian can expect a series of questions, from being asked to name their mobile phone service provider to being presented with pictures of locations and celebrities from their claimed hometowns and being asked to identify them. Native Arabic speakers, including Syrians, are on hand to identify accents.

“Everyone gets papers,” said the Frontex official. “This isn’t immigration. It’s not an asylum ruling. We just want to know the correct nationality. We can’t let people in as Syrians if they are not Syrians.”

Unsurprisingly, the appropriation of their nationality is now starting to grate on Syrians. “The story of Syria is our story, ” said 31-year-old Mohammed, newly arrived from Damascus, with some force. “We have lost so much, and now people are trying to steal this from us too. It’s not their experience, their country. It’s ours.”

And being Syrian is not always positive. Syrians are routinely charged hundreds of dollars more for the crossing from Turkey than other nationalities: the smugglers aware that they tend to have better access to funds. In Mytilini, the main port and capital of Lesvos, taxis and hotels – those that accept migrants as customers – also reportedly charge Syrians more.

But for non-Syrians, the perception that their suffering is somehow less significant is also deeply problematic. Afghans and Iraqis have endured persecution and conflict too, and in some cases have fled the same enemy (so-called Islamic State or ISIS). From a humanitarian perspective, they are if anything more vulnerable than many Syrians: more likely to be lacking in resources, less likely to be educated or to speak a European language. “We have suffered too, ” said one newly arrived Afghan refugee. “We came on the same boats. Why should it be different for us?”

Divisions have sometimes spilt over into violence. “There have been clashes and tensions between nationalities especially between Syrians and Afghans,” said Zamoun.

The UN refugee agency’s team leader was clear that de facto discrimination in favour of Syrians was not acceptable. “UNHCR does not share this view that it is acceptable to prioritise one group,” he said. “Unless proven that they are not genuine refugees, they should all be given the same treatment.”

But aid agency staff shift uncomfortably when asked about the contrast, and insist that plans to improve Moria are in the works. They are aware of the comparison, and the dereliction of humanitarian principles it represents. “We have to emphasise support for the most vulnerable,” said Kouvaras, as he surveyed Moria. “That’s why we are here.”

Fine words. But if aid agencies are to avoid reinforcing a system of active discrimination that is causing deepening problems every day, they need to become actions, fast.