Monday, October 31, 2005


As countries become intricately more paranoid in the wake of the war on terror, they have turned to formulating restrictive policies on immigration and the dislocated victims of the terror, asylum-seekers. The Greek example is one such case. US based Assyrian human-rights activist Lidia Kiorkis has recently focused on the plight of the 2,000 Assyrian refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, who as she claims, are living under exceptionally difficult conditions. These conditions are exacerbated, by the depth of goodwill Assyrians historically harbour towards Greece and the disappointment they feel upon their arrival. Of all refugees, they seem to have the highest of expectations of Greece, based on a bond forged through the genocide suffered, along with the Pontians at the hands of the Ottomans and Kurds. One of the world's better known Assyro-Pontians, Thea Halo, author of the book "Not Even My Name" who visited Melbourne in 2003, emphasises the joint suffering as creating an unsunderable bond between our two peoples, while an Assyrian regiment of the British army fought in the defence of Crete in 1941. However, historical ties seem to count for nothing, as Greece struggles to integrate or deal with the mutlitiude of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers it currently plays host to.
Amnesty International has continually accused Greece of neglect towards genuine refugees and asylum seekers. In an annual report, Amnesty condemned the government for the improper manner of processing applications for political asylum and for the unjust deportation of asylum seekers in need of protection. Other international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Minority Rights Group International have repeatedly expressed concern of Greece's treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees.
Under International Law, asylum seekers, many of which may be legitimate refugees or victims of persecution and human rights violations, should have every right of access to Greek land and the asylum procedure regardless of how they entered Greece. According to Athens News, however, Greece has the lowest recognition rate in the EU with a 0.3 percent in 2002 and less than 1% in 2003 while the EU average is 21 percent. It was also noted that Iraqis, many of which are Assyrians, make up the largest group of asylum-seekers in Greece and across Europe.
"When I first visited Greece in 2001," says Lidia Kiorkis, "I was shocked to find a reality completely converse to the idea I had about life in Greece. The idea I had was primarily based on nostalgic stories of Assyrians who had lived there in the early 1980s, filled with images of a youthful and vibrant beach life, beautiful and friendly people, and endless social activities. A lot has changed since then. Today, Assyrian Iraqis are far from the European standard of living. As one refugee put it, "we are living in paradise but as monkeys; what good is it to live in paradise as a monkey?"
Employment is hard to find even in the best of economic times, integration is nearly impossible, repatriation to Iraq is not a viable option, and inadequate counselling about future prospects and their rights as asylum seekers are just a few of the concerns of Assyrian exiles. The situation continues to deteriorate as many are awaiting the closure of the last refugee humanitarian resettlement programs out of Greece, even while 90% of Assyrians in Greece are allegedly without papers and legal protection.
"Those that can afford to study do so without receiving any study certificates upon completion of a course. Lacking ID cards makes them ineligible to receive certificates or degrees for study. I met many young disillusioned Assyrians who had hopes for studying, but whose dreams have been crushed, as they continue awaiting their fates to enter other destination countries year after year with no positive response.
In one incident, Greek police badly beat an Assyrian man, who happened to come upon a police station as his first point of contact, and sent him on a flimsy wooden boat across the Aegean back to his immediate point of origin, Turkey, where he was vulnerable to being deported back to Iraq. Greece and Turkey signed a treaty in 2001 allowing for this practice, a practice that violates international laws of non-refoulement (no forcible return). The ill-treatment by the Greek authorities has many Assyrians thinking of Greece as merely a stepping stone, with most wanting to come to North America or Australia. Many Assyrians view Greece as an interim phase and do not consider integration into Greek society as an option or possibility, due in part to the hostile government position towards Assyrians and refugees in general."
State sovereignty seems to be a challenging concept these days. As the Australian example shows, Immigration laws are subject to change at any time and new restrictions on travel and visa requirements are under the direct control of all states. Kiorkis is quick to acknowledge that the hard-line position she decries may be indicative of a global phenomenon: "Most of the world's democratic states are bound by the rule of international law, and in all fairness, it is not only Greece that is unjustly treating asylum seekers, even though their remarkably low asylum recognition rates speak for themselves. The fact of the issue is that the international human rights regime lacks the power of enforcement. Countries acting in contravention of these laws and norms do not fear reprisal or any repercussions for their actions." Another Assyrian refugee now resident in Melbourne, entered Greece via Turkey in 1994 and remained there for four months. Her story, which reads like a modern day-Odyssey and deserves further treatment, largely corroborates the above, though differing in its conclusions:
"The first time we entered Greece was through Turkish Thrace, in the company of Pakistani people-smugglers. We were caught by soldiers. When they found out we were Assyrian, they apologized and said that they would have to take us away but that next time, if we tried to cross over, they would not stop us. We were taken to a prison in Kavala. At first the police there were curt and terse with us. My father tried to explain to them that we were Christian refugees but one of the police yelled at him to shut up. After a while, one of the officials came and took down our story. He apologized and said that he did not know we were Assyrian refugees. He told us that we would be taken to Thessaloniki and set free. However that did not happen. Some other official came and told us that we would be sent back. They took us to the border and told us to cross over. We were very afraid because we did not know the way. Further, the Turkish police used to beat refugees, rob them of their money and deport them to a certain death in Iraq. We got lost on the border and only found our way to Constantinople with difficulty. We made another two attempts in this way, which failed.
We tried to get to Greece again. Because we have not ever had a country of our own and Greek culture is almost indistinguishable from ours, we always saw Greece as our country and we knew we would be safe there. We got into a boat at Smyrna, along with other refugees. We were supposed to land in Chios but there was a storm. The boat sank near Cos and we were rescued from drowning by the coast guard. The police were very friendly, though they took us in for questioning. After a while we were given accommodation. Everyone on the island was very friendly. Local people would bring us food and clothes and keep us company. They always had a smile for us. When we finally left for Athens, people were crying and showing us pictures of other Assyrian refugees that they had looked after. They took photos of us so that they could remember us.
Wherever we went, we were treated extremely well. The Greeks were very friendly towards us and willing to help. This is in contrast with the situation in Turkey, where everyone was unfriendly and you feared to go out of your house. In Greece, we felt like a weight had been lifted from our shoulders. Finally people were treating us like human beings. Some of the men were able to get odd jobs for cash, though it is true that it was difficult for us to get work. Still this did not bother us, as we wanted to go to America where our relatives were. Instead, we ended up in Australia.
Many members of the Assyrian community in Australia passed through Greece during the aftermath of the Gulf War. We often talk about what a great time we had in Greece. Even though times were tough, we always look upon that time with fondness, not only because we felt like we were in our own homeland but because the Greek people were so kind to us, made us feel welcome and restored our human dignity. We will always be grateful to Greece for that."


First published in NKEE on 31 October 2005