Greece has been faced with an ongoing refugee crisis for the past five years. In 2015 and early 2016, over 1 million refugees arrived in Greece, and although the amount has dropped recently due to the EU-Turkey deal, it is still a continuing problem. In 2020 alone, over 13,000 refugees and migrants have entered Greece seeking aid.
The root of this dilemma stems from multiple policies the European Union (EU) has set in place. One example is the Dublin System which was established in 2015 and placed the duty of sorting through asylum claims directly onto the country of arrival. For instance, if a refugee from Syria were to enter Europe through Spain, the Spanish government would be responsible for that asylum claim. However, most refugees and migrants only come into Europe through a handful of member states such as Italy and Greece. Thus, a small amount of member states in the EU are taking on a heavy burden of all asylum claims.
In addition, the EU-Turkey deal, decided in March of 2016, states that all irregular migrants not found to be in need of asylum will be sent back to Turkey. However, Greece’s Asylum Appeals Committees declared that Turkey’s handling of the refugees was ineffective and unacceptable. Turkey’s asylum system was just created in 2014 and still needs to be better established, making the Turkish government’s handling of the thousands of asylum applications slow and faulty. Furthermore, Turkish authorities have been unable to provide adequate shelter for refugees, and often send asylum seekers back to countries that have been known to be unsafe, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Due to Greece’s numerous complaints, refugees were not sent back to Turkey. Instead, all refugees had to have their applications approved by the Greek government, putting a high amount of pressure on the country. However, in June 2016, new Greek asylum appeals committees declared that Turkey was once again safe for migrants despite the opposing ruling only a few months prior, causing controversy over the legitimacy of the decision. In 2019, there were 77,287 new asylum applicants awaiting approval and 87,461 total applications pending at the end of that year. These statistics prove that migrants sometimes had to wait over a year to have their applications approved by the country.
Additionally, many refugees are unable to get their case heard and have to endure many months in inhumane refugee camps that “can have a detrimental impact on mental well-being,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These refugee camps are often overcrowded, riddled with violence and insecurity, and are considered inappropriate for long-term living conditions. Many migrants came to Greece to escape violence in the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. A multitude of refugees also suffer trauma from war and bloodshed, and desperately need psychological help that surpass the minimal treatment the Greek government has supplied them with. Since the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, around 16,000 migrants still remain on Greek islands, waiting for their applications to be reviewed.
The Greek Council for Refugees handles the asylum process, of which there are three major parts. Pre-registration with the Greek Asylum Service gives temporary legal status and international protection to refugees for up to a year. This process will speed up the reunification of families and requests for relocation, however, it is not required for an asylum seeker if they want to get their case approved.
Next, asylum seekers must fully register. If a refugee decided to pre-register beforehand, they already received the date and place of their registration appointment and simply have to show up on time. If a refugee did not pre-register, they must declare asylum through the Reception and Identification Service Authorities and/or the police, which will ensure that their claim is referred to the Asylum Office who will set a date for their registration appointment.
Finally, asylum applicants must have a personal interview with an Asylum Service Officer. This in-person interview will occur without the refugee’s family members (unless deemed necessary by the interviewer) and under conditions that guarantee confidentiality. Each interview requires a report that includes the main reasons the applicant needs international protection and either an audio file or transcript of the interview. In 2019, the average length of time between the pre-registration and registration was 44 days, including another 276 days until the personal interview was held. This adds up to approximately ten months of waiting for an application to be approved or denied.
Meanwhile the infamous COVID-19 pandemic puts added strain on the Greek government, especially regarding migrant camps. In March, 2020, Greece put a nationwide lockdown in place, which confined migrants to their campsites, forcing them to stay in an environment where they cannot access proper healthcare and basic services. Due to the overcrowded camps they reside in, refugees are at high risk of contracting the virus. In the Kara Tepe refugee camp alone, 240 people tested positive for COVID-19, while the total number of infected refugees in Greece is expected to be much higher because of limited testing. In response, the International Organization for Migration (ION) has helped build new shelters on the mainland so that camps can stay under their maximum capacity and help delay the spread of the virus.
A recent fire on Sept. 8, 2020, devastated the Moria refugee camp, one of the largest in Europe, and showcased the potential danger of living in Greece’s camps. At the time, the camp was at more than four times its maximum capacity, which is a common occurrence at these jam-packed temporary living areas. As an aftermath of the fire, 13,000 refugees left the camp, as most of it was destroyed, including over 4,000 children, with 408 of them being unaccompanied. This led the Greek authorities to accommodate several temporary shelters on the island of Lesvos. Migrants must be tested for COVID-19 before they may enter a protection site, particularly because just days before the fire, 35 people in the Moria Camp had tested positive.
Despite this urgent need to better their camps and send proper psychological and physical help to the migrants in need, Greece simply does not have the resources to support the thousands of refugees who need their help. For the past two decades, the member state has been experiencing a frightening economic crisis that escalated in 2009, from which they are still trying to recover from. The public debt was raised to over 180% of their GDP in 2018, a current all-time maximum, and the unemployment rate in 2020 is about 15.47%, the highest out of all EU states.
Currently, Greece must find a solution for the incoming refugees and boost their economy at the same time. This is a challenging task, which is why the other EU member states often provide aid for migrants as well. The Greek government has requested the need for humanitarian relief items such as blankets, food, fresh water, first aid, and a solution for emergency shelter. They have also asked for psychological support and services to help bring refugee families together.
In spite of the overall complications the refugee crisis has brought to Greece, the situation is improving. In 2019, the UNHCR said that conditions in some camps have improved since 2015-2016. For example, in 2019, the number of Independent Appeals Committees increased from 12 to 20, speeding up the application process for asylum seekers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has halted most progress, and for now, the refugee crisis in Greece is still in urgent need of attention and aid.
Through Teen Lenses: How Do You Think Greece Should Handle The Influx In Refugees?
“I think the best thing for Greece to do is to provide refugees with stable jobs so that they can support themselves and their families, and to help them connect with people that already live in Greece who are willing to help them with things they may need, like education.”
Bella Bargman, 15, Sophomore at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“A solution for refugees would be providing more jobs for them that do not require much experience or education. Ambassadors could also be provided to help the refugees become more familiar with the area.”
Jasmine Duan, 15, Sophomore at Poolesville High School, Poolesville, Maryland
“I think Greece should take in as many refugees as possible if they can afford it. By accepting as many refugees as they can, it builds up a positive reputation for the country.”
Grace Zhang, 15, Sophomore at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland