Refugees Suffer and Europe Falters
The sprawling makeshift Idomeni refugee camp now risks becoming a permanent shantytown after the recent closure of the Balkan migrant route through Europe. The Idomeni refugee camp, lying on the Macedonian-Greek border, is home to fourteen thousand refugees from war torn Syria and Libya who face squalor conditions, food shortages, disease, and little options of what to do next. Idomeni, a small town on the Macedonian-Greek border, contains roughly half of all migrants attempting to use Greece as a transition state to more affluent nations in the North of Europe. The 2,000 capacity limit refugee camp originally served as a waiting station for refugees with the hope of passing through the border into Macedonia. With the recent closure of the Balkan route, the Idomeni refugee camp is now becoming a bottleneck of refugees as it becomes severely overpopulated with little funding for proper shelter. However, rather than improving the conditions of refugees within Europe, the EU has opted to discourage those escaping war from fleeing to the West. The recent implementation of the EU-Turkey refugee deal attempts to do this by converting refugee camps, such as Idomeni, into bona fide detention facilities as newly arrived refugees face deportation back to Turkey. The EU-Turkey deal is has made it clear that Europe would rather send asylum seekers back into the fire rather than extend a helping hand. Idomeni is an unfortunate embodiment of the EU’s priorities.
The creation of Idomeni and closure of the Balkan route by Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia, and croatia illustrates the divide within Europe over the solution to the refugee crisis. Chancellor Merkel of Germany slammed the recent closure stating “Sure, it brings us less refugees [...] but it brings Greece more, and that’s not sustainable.” The chancellor then went to underscore the importance of finding a European solution. In other words, a solution in which all countries of the European Union participate, rather attempting to slow the flow of refugees through unilateral action. Balkan countries are still standing by their decision to close their borders. They claim that the closure have slowed the flow of refugees from Greece into the rest of Europe and that a consistent stop will discourage more refugees from entering Europe through Greece. Regardless of the truth to this Greece is still left with over 36,000 refugees hoping for asylum and little resources to properly care for and process them.
Despite this it appears that many asylum seekers will be taking up residence in Greece. Why is it that Greece has been so hard hit by the refugee crisis? The answer is a combination of Greece’s geographic location, the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Regulation. First, Greece is located across the Aegean Sea from Turkey and is one of the first European Union countries in close proximity to Turkey that provides direct land access to other EU countries such as Germany. This makes Greece an ideal entry point into the EU for refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war through Turkey. Second, the Schengen Agreement abolished internal borders within the EU, allowing for ease of travel for all once granted entrance. The Schengen agreement then created an external border of countries that lie on the edge of the EU, such as Greece. As a country that lies along this external border, Greece faces greater strain than other members in processing refugees as they are checked in Greece before entering the EU. Third, the European Union’s common law concerning asylum seekers, the Dublin Regulation, devotes the duty of asylum application processing and relocation to the refugee’s country of entry. Under the Dublin Regulation if a refugee moved on to another EU country, the government of the country can file a transfer request to the country of entry. This places the majority burden on all EU border countries in regards to the refugee crisis, but Greece most of all.
The EU attempted a so called “European solution” for the refugee crisis as mentioned by Chancellor Merkel with a recent deal between the European Union and Turkey. This agreement attempts to ease the disproportionate strain on Greece. Largely endorsed by European leaders as well as the prime minister of Turkey, the deal attempts to “smash the business model of people-smugglers.” However, it has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for arresting refugees and turning refugee processing “hotspots” into detention centers. In short, the proposed deal states that all future refugees entering Greece through the Aegean Sea after departing Turkey will be deported back to Turkey. For every refugee sent back to Turkey, another will be relocated in Europe from Turkey. Furthermore, the European Union will double the 3.3 million euros already pledged to increase the quality of Turkey’s refugee camps, renew talks concerning Turkey joining the EU, and release visa requirements of Turkish citizens. This deal has divided Europe with some hailing it as the solution to Europe’s refugee crisis and others slamming it for turning a blind eye from Turkey’s border closure to thousands of refugees escaping war torn Syria. On top of this the legality of this potential “solution” in Europe’s refugee crisis has been called into question. Critics who question the legality of the EU-Turkey refugee deal point out that Turkey not only has a large number of refugees without adequate facilities to house them, but also has not fully accepted the Geneva Convention. As such, this deal may break European and international law concerning that all asylum applications must be properly considered and cannot be sent back to any country without necessary protections for them. Due to the question of legality regarding the deal and the subsequent detention of refugees the office of the UNHCR has withdrawn much of its support for facilities in Greece that registered and assisted entering refugees, refusing to participate in the unlawful arrest of people escaping war. Despite all its flaws, this potential deal is seriously seen by the EU as a solution to the refugee problem in Greece and Europe as a whole. However, with the recent Balkan route closure and the stranded 36,000 refugees within Greece this couldn’t be farther from the truth. European leaders should be focused on improving the current humanitarian conditions of refugees within Greece, rather than condemning them to a figurative and literal limbo before deporting them back to where they risked so much to escape.
The Idomeni refugee camp is unfortunately an excellent example of the consequences of Europe placing a higher priority on denying safe haven to refugees rather than properly housing and protecting them. Jim Yardley of the New York Times visited Idomeni the day of the Macedonia border closure and describes an outrageous scene. Women and children sleep in mud, sewage flows from portable toilets, and illness spreads from person to person. Pictures from Quartz also depicts the Idomeni refugee camp as hopeless situation for an unfathomable number of men, women, and children. Seemingly endless rows of tents cover a ground littered with trash as people sit with hope that they will be allowed to move on from Idomeni into the rest of Europe. In an attempt to make Idomeni at all visible to Europe, two refugees lit themselves ablaze in a recent protest to illustrate their desperation. Europe cannot call the refugee crisis solved by the EU-Turkey deal with such cries for help emanating from Idomeni and other camps.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently concluded that refugees who were recently prevented from crossing into Macedonia from Northern Greece are at an increased risk of humanitarian problems. The IRC found that refugees at the Idomeni camp faces water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities pushed past their limits, a despairingly large amount of trash with no sanity location for it, a short supply of feminine and general hygiene products, as well as limited heating. Limited heating is of a particular concern as refugees resort to lighting their own fires, often in close proximity of tents which presents a very large fire hazard. The increasingly permanent refugee camp also lacks the proper number of actors to protect women, children and the elderly from those who seek to take advantage of the most vulnerable in humanitarian crises. Women lacks safe spaces to seek solace from abuse and the camp has limited sufficient lighting which makes it even more dangerous for the vulnerable. Idomeni is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis and becoming worse. Europe must act and provide funding to care for the refugees within Greece, rather than cutting them off and shouldering them onto another country that is equally ill prepared to house them.
The EU’s focus on preventing more refugees from entering Europe combined with the recent Balkan route closure has created a situation in which Greece is becoming a hellish nightmare for asylum seekers. The EU-Turkey refugee deal is an attempt at a “European solution,” to the refugee crisis, but it prioritizes ending the flow of refugees into Europe through inhumane and illegal methods, rather than improving the conditions of asylum seekers suffering in Greece. It’s clear the EU has the resources to properly care for refugees already within Europe, as evidenced by the money given to Turkey. However, the European Union lacks the will to extend a helping hand in the name of humanity, preferring instead to give that job to somebody else. Whether the recent refugee deal does end the flow of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe will remain to be seen. Regardless, it overlooks the thousands who already risked it all to escape war and violence present in Idomeni and other camps within Greece. If the refugee crisis is to be truly solved we cannot ignore those who have found themselves at the mercy of our care.