The latest developments at a local and international level to address the refugee crisis in a successful way have triggered many concerns in those who are actively involved with the issue and also in civil society.

Refugees and migrants travelling through irregular channels and unsafe passages lead to tragic results. Greece has been the main gateway to Europe for the last two years and has welcomed at least 102,547 people this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Furthermore, January proved to be the month with most deaths in the Aegean Sea -from the beginning of the refugee flows until today- according to the statement by Peter Bougkaert of Human Rights Watch[1].

This data is confirmed by the UNHCR, adding that 35% of these deaths were children while Doctors without Borders (MSF), who have been offering humanitarian aid to the islands since May 2015, speak of 320 deaths since the beginning of the year until today[2].

A few days after this record death announcement, the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, declared[3] that the military alliance accepts the proposal of Germany, Turkey and Greece to start operations in the Aegean Sea in order to tackle human trafficking and irregular immigration at sea while the European Council met on the 18th and 19th of February, with objectives such as: the rapid stemming of flows, the protection of external borders, reduction of illegal trafficking and safeguarding the Schengen area[4].

At the same time in Greece, the Ministry of Defence is undertaking specific tasks to complete reception centres including hotspots by placing five coordinators, mobile kitchens and providing the Sindo and Schisto military camps in order to facilitate hosting procedures on the mainland (so called relocation centres). The Ministry of Citizen Protection is fast tracking the hiring of personnel for these five reception centres in order for the refugee identification process to be completed on the spot.

All these activities are being carried out under threats by European Union officials of Greece’s expulsion from the Schengen Treaty for two years; an ultimatum to the Greek government to build the necessary hotspots and comply with European recommendations for stricter border controls within three months in order to avoid breaching the Treaty. At the same time, the EU has concluded a bilateral agreement with Turkey (at the end of 2015) for 3 billion EUR with a view to stopping the flow of refugees towards Europe; the implementation of which will become clear after the scheduled meeting between Mr. Tusk, the President of the European Council and Mr. Davutoglu Turkish PM on the 7th of March.

“The UNHCR stands alongside the Greek government with both logistical support and financial aid while already helping with resettlement procedures,” declared the UN High Commissioner, Mr. Grandi, in his interview yesterday in the context of a two-day visit to Greece. Commenting on NATO’s operational involvement in the Aegean, he said that there is a scheduled meeting with the NATO Secretary General in Brussels on Thursday the 25th of February in which he would ask that “any undertaking by the Alliance be made with respect to international and Union Treaties regarding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.”

In a question posed by the “Campaign for Asylum” representative on whether Turkey is a safe third country, Mr. Grandi answered: “Right now the important thing is not whether Turkey is a safe third country or not, since it already carries the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees on its territory. The important thing is for the EU to assume its responsibilities which are disproportionately attributed at the current phase between Europe and Lebanon, for example.”

The “Campaign for Asylum”, an association consisting of organizations and collectives also organized a press conference delivering a nine page text[5] documenting legally its concern for:

  • The infringement of the principle of non-refoulement as Turkey will prevent refugees from reaching Greek/European territory in order to ask protection; Turkey has undertaken the responsibility (by the bilateral agreement with the EU) to both close land borders and to supervise sea borders.
  • The possible classification of Turkey as a safe third country and subsequent return of asylum seekers and refugees from Europe to Turkey, which is contrary to international and Union law.

At the political level, the association interprets the EU’s decisions as an effort to shift from the European Union to third countries any asylum claims and processes as well as the recognition system. The association also expresses concerns regarding whether the military operations by NATO and Frontex which are intensifying in the Aegean will respect the rights guaranteed to asylum seekers and also will not be a cause for new deaths or increasing the risk (and therefore the price) of traffickers’ activity.

The Hellenic Union for Human Rights (EEDA) in its own press conference noted that we are not in a refugee crisis but a reception crisis. EEDA links the increased flow, even though we are in winter, with the European leaders’ meeting during the autumn in Malta in which it was basically announced that the borders will be closed; therefore people rushed to enter.

The EEDA, as outlined in its multi-page report[6] asked for a “feasible approach” as follows:

  • It called on the Greek government to ensure the best procedures to work with the only institutional law that exists at the moment, which is nothing more than the relocation process of asylum seekers and refugees. A coordinated effort is needed by local communities in order for Greece to meet in the best way the number of people that Greece has promised to relocate and the conditions necessary to preserve the international protection framework for refugees and asylum seekers to which they are entitled,
  • It declared that the safety of humans should be the sole ground for securing borders,
  • It called for an immediate end of sending back refugees indicating that the NATO operation does not substantially cancel them, while on the contrary an international synergy would manage both to create safe passages for refugees and cancelling in practice the existence of traffickers

The EEDA also expressed serious concerns about refugees’ fundamental rights under the Army’s jurisdiction commenting on the unexpected assignment to the Greek Army for the organization and logistics of hot spots along the borders and accommodation centres on the mainland and especially by military, and not civilian, administration and coordination.

In general, different sides tried to connect the management of the refugee flow to sovereignty in the Aegean and to NATO and Frontex interventions, actions that seem to lead to “militarization” instead of dealing with the humanist or political dimension of the influx.

On the other hand there are so many people helping as we speak in saving and taking care of the people on the islands. At the same time international and local public opinion sees with sorrow the daily news talking about the loss of human life. “It was stated very clearly, as the representative of the campaign for asylum said, that the minutes of the European Council don’t talk at all about how to avoid deaths or how to create safe passage for people trying to flee war”.

As long as there are no legal and safe passages for refugees and migrants, Europe will remain an inhospitable place as people’s safety is sacrificed for border security.