New wave of asylum seekers arriving in Greece: Does the government really care about migrant people?

Written by Alejandra Mateo.

The 14th of June was the day that the Greek government changed its migration policies and procedures, at least for the following months. The inflection point, which became internationally known and subject of multiple criticisms, was the tragic sinking of the overcrowded fishing vessel in Ionian waters in June 2022. It was the deadliest refugee shipwreck off Greece this year, resulting in the death of 78 people. The victims from the ship Messenia, which sailed from Libya to reach the Italian coast, were mainly men coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, who had left their countries of origin to find a safe place to live far from violence, poverty and persecution. 

In the wake of this tragedy, the EU Commission Chief Ursula Von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel blamed criminal networks and local mafias who illegally take vulnerable people from countries in conflict to Europe under very dangerous conditions. Even though smuggling of migrants places vulnerable people in extremely dangerous and even sometimes fatal situations, the main problem, according to Save the Children,  still lies in the amount of difficulties migrants face when they want to enter Europe legally and safely. Additionally, this NGO pointed out that the tragedy could have been avoided as authorities from many member states of the EU were informed about the danger the ship was in a couple hours before it overturned. Despite being informed, no authority took charge of the situation and people didn’t receive any kind of help.

As a consequence of this negligence on the part of the Greek state and European authorities and the continuous push backs in the Aegean and Ionian waters in the last year, the international pressure on the country has increased considerably. According to a recent data visualization published by UNHCR Portal, 18,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean sea to reach Europe during the first trimester last year and during the whole year 3,231 people lost their lives or went missing in the sea while traveling from the north of Africa to Europe.

Thus, Greece has been in the spotlight of international media, civil society organisations, European citizens, EU states and, most relevant in this case, EU institutions, especially the European Commission, the institution in charge of the European funds given to countries for immigration management. In fact, the EU Commission itself has been facing heavy pressure from international organisations in the aim of making the institution adopt policies aimed at respecting human rights in the EU borders. 

According to the Geneva Convention, when someone enters Greek territory and seeks asylum, the Greek authorities have to respect this request. Despite the fact that this obligation is recognised by international law, migrant people keep losing their lives in the ocean as they are usually ignored by the Mediterranean states who should protect them. Indeed, the tragedy has intensified the critics calling out the racism and discrimination of Greek and Italian authorities and has heated up the debate about which lives matter and which ones don’t. Why were there so many resources aimed to save the explorers of the Titan but few efforts were given, in the same month, to save migrant people in the Mediterranean?

Now that FRONTEX left after internal investigations, they cannot push back so many people, and thus they can’t control the number of refugees that enter the country.

Alexis Gkatsis, OCC Greece coordinator.

The first political response to criticism from the European countries was the automatic stop of the pushbacks and the temporary suspension of FRONTEX’s (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) activities. As stated by OCC Greece main coordinator Alexis Gkatsis, “now that FRONTEX left after internal investigations, they cannot push back so many people and thus they can’t control the number of refugees that enter the country”. For Greece, as one of the main host countries in Europe where the asylum requests are carried out, this news entails two effects in parallel.

On the one hand, many people who are currently running away from violence and conflict are now able to receive international protection as asylum seekers in Greece instead of being pushed back. On the other hand, many of them are being transferred into refugee camps that are already very crowded. Residents are used to sharing very small containers, but now the arrival of new members has increased  tensions and fights inside the camps due to the lack of space for everyone. According to ACNUR, last year there were more than 31,000 women, men and children living in only five reception centers with a capacity for less than 6,000 people. This is happening, as stated by Gkatsis, because “Greece hasn’t changed any measures to host newcomers properly, instead of upgrading and expanding camps to make them suitable for more residents or investing money in building new camps”. Yet the country receives millions of European funds every year destined to host refugees.

Even my 7 year-old sister doesn’t feel comfortable going to the toilet having so many single men around.

Ahmad, resident of the Nea Kavala refugee camp.

In Nea Kavala, living conditions have worsened considerably in the last month as the camp is not prepared to host more residents. Asylum seekers are now forced to share containers with new people, even families. Ahmad, a resident from Afghanistan, lives in a container with his father, two brothers and sister. He explains that, because of the size of the containers, “many young girls now have to live together with single men who might be drinking or smoking inside the room” and adds that “even my 7 year-old sister doesn’t feel comfortable going to the toilet having so many single men around”. There is no privacy or safety as many families are now sharing their small rooms, bathrooms, kitchens and tiny fridges with strangers. For Ahmad, children’s safety should always be prioritised because of their vulnerable position. Furthermore, not everyone is lucky enough to sleep in a bed alone: Many people must sleep on the floor because there are not enough mattresses for everyone and each room  only has double beds. Ahmad claims that the main issue is simply and unfortunately that residents are not treated as human beings but as numbers so, unfortunately, nobody looks after their wellbeing: “They don’t care if people have a bed or mattress, they just think about how many people can fit in a container”. 

Besides, the stopping of pushbacks in Greece is generally seen by the Greek society and NGOs as a smokescreen to create the illusion that the country is now concerned about refugees’ safety and drive away the strong criticism from the EU and international media. It is very likely that FRONTEX will start working again on the coasts and people will be pushed back to their origin countries as per usual. Alexis Gkatsis declares that the Greek state does not lack resources but they lack a sense of caring from the lives of refugees: “The resources are there but they are often given to the agencies that do push backs instead of the organisations and institutions who support refugees”. There are no long-term solutions or even the willingness to give asylum seekers the chance to live with dignity and integrate in Greek society after they receive international protection. Resources are provided by the European Commission, but the control and monitoring systems must be strict enough to push Greece to invest the EU funds in guaranteeing suitable places for newcomers. Otherwise, Greece can never be a safe country for those who reach the Greek coast, islands or mainland looking for a better future.