Monday, February 02, 2009


I remember that squalid room, with paint flecks falling disaffectedly from the walls onto the twenty or so slumbering figures covered with blankets, huddled together for warmth on the freezing concrete floor below. One of their number, had come upstairs only moments before, begging me to help him fix the heater, an antiquated nineteen sixties contraption with exposed wiring. His friends, refugees who had smuggled themselves across the Iranian and Iraqi border into Turkey, after a long and arduous march through rivers and mountain passes, were freezing in that Constantinopolitan winter. They needed something to eat and warmth, for at dawn the next day, the Pakistani people smugglers would arrive to escort the bedraggled and exhausted young men from Kesan, across the forested and watery Thracian hinterland, across the border into Greece. After that they were on their own.
One of their number, Bassim, an engineering student, had completed the crossing twice before. “I don’t mind the Greek police,” he explained. “When you get caught they thump you around for a bit and then they put you in a cell and give you something to eat before they expel you. If you get caught on this side, the Turkish police beat you up, give you nothing to eat and take all your money.” I couldn’t fix the heater.
Wandering around Çemberlitaş, the column of Constantine a few days later, I chanced upon two of the young men I had seen in the room that night. One was sporting a black eye, the other a broken nose. They waved at me not to approach them. The crossing had been tried and they had been found wanting. Now, penniless, exhausted and aching, they had returned to base, fearful of being apprehended and deported but equally resolved to find another way to get to Greece and safety, if only they could find a way to pay the people smugglers.
My father in law was penniless by the time he arrived in Greece, in the aftermath of the Gulf War. This was because as the Kurdish people-smugglers proceeded further up the border, they would stop and demand more money, threatening to leave his family stranded. The first of the three times he attempted to cross to Greece, he was apprehended near Kavala, because one of the people smugglers attracted attention by lighting a fire. While being reassured by a police officer that his family would be given the opportunity to claim refugee status, he was screamed at, threatened and ultimately, his family, comprising his wife, young son and sixteen year old daughter were grouped together with about twenty Pakistani males and expelled across the border. The third time, the family embarked on a boat that was to take them to Samos, the Greek island that receives the most illegal refugees, owing to its proximity to Turkey. However, the boat was blown off course in a storm and sank just off Kos, the family being fished out of the water as they were drowning. In Kos, they were interned (though the prison door was left open so that they could occupy themselves by watching the locals come and go down the street and converse with them, before finally being sent to Athens to apply for a visa to come to Australia. My father in law waxes lyrical about the generosity of the local Greeks. He admits however, that no facilities existed to process or house the multitudes of refugees arriving on Greek shores.
The deputy governor of Samos, Mr Stelios Thanos who visited Melbourne recently, agrees that the problem of accommodating asylum seekers, refugees and all those who come under the general and derogatory term: «λαθρομετανάστες», especially in Samos, is one that is increasingly getting out of hand. This is especially so since the United Nations refugee agency has recently advised European Union countries to stop sending asylum seekers to Greece until further notice, a step that amounts to a condemnation of Greece's treatment of people fleeing conflict and persecution.
In particular, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a statement saying that essential procedural safeguards for asylum seekers were not guaranteed in Greece. "They also often lack the most basic entitlements, such as interpreters and legal aid, to ensure that their claims receive adequate scrutiny from the asylum authorities.". As a result, "asylum seekers continue to face undue hardships in having their claims heard and adequately adjudicated."
Indeed, the UN agency and human rights organizations have been concerned for some time about the treatment of refugees in Greece, where migration routes carry both economic migrants and asylum seekers from Iraq and Somalia into the EU. In April last year, the European Commission sued Greece in the European Court of Justice over its asylum processes, and in December, various media outlets detailed abuses of refugee rights in Greece. The UN refugee agency described Greece's recognition rate for refugees as "disturbingly low." The overall protection rate for refugees of all nationalities in 2006 was 1 percent in Greece, compared with 45 percent in Italy and 19 percent in Spain. In Britain the rate was 24 percent and in Sweden, 50 percent, according to agency figures.
The agency also said that reception conditions in Greece continued to fall short of international and European standards. Greece routinely arrests all irregular migrants found on its territory and detains them for three months; last year, the agency urged Greece to close a detention centre on the island of Samos because conditions there were so egregious. For these reasons, the agency advised governments "to refrain from returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation until further notice." The Dublin Regulation is an EU mechanism designed to deter multiple asylum claims by ensuring that such requests are fairly examined in the first EU country the refugee enters.
The Dublin accord, however, puts a disproportionate burden on countries that lie on the EU's external border, like Greece, Italy and Spain. Not only do they have to deal with clandestine migrants crossing their borders, they also have to accept back asylum seekers who have crossed from their territory into neighbouring EU countries.
Deputy Governor Stelios Thanos, considers the agency's criticism of Greece’s handling of refugees biased and one-sided. During his stay in Melbourne, he opined that other EU countries needed to share the burden of tackling irregular migration into the Union. He said that Greece's policy for the past four years had been completely in line with its EU obligations, and stressed the complexities related to its geographical position as the gatekeeper of the EU's southeastern flank.
"This is a very difficult role, no less at this particular time when peace is proving elusive in the Middle East," he said.
Mr Thanos stated that Greece was "in favour of revising the Dublin system so that countries with adequate infrastructure take the lead in the reception and handling of asylum requests," and urged that greater burden sharing be incorporated in the Dublin system. For him, Greece, one of the EU's smallest and poorest nations, should not be saddled with the Union's immigration responsibilities, pointing to disproportionate funding directed to countries other than Greece.
Surprisingly, according to Mr Thanos, in 2007, Greece received just €1.3 million, or $2 million, from the European Refugee Fund, compared with €10.5 million given to France, €8.1 million given to Sweden and €4.8 million to Britain. According to him, this is because at the time that funding was to be allocated, the countries in question wrote elaborate submissions detailing the problems they face in dealing with asylum seekers, something that Greece did not adequately address.
In a measure of the increasing pressure on Greek borders owing to the current situation in the Middle East, Mr Thanos said that Greece had detained 112,364 undocumented migrants in 2007, three times the number it arrested in 2004. Mr Thanos, a kindly man, who in years past was instrumental in assisting Northern Epirots and Albanians fleeing poverty in their homeland to settle in Samos and thus has firsthand knowledge of the primary needs of asylum seekers also points to another problem that deters the effective provision of assistance to those seeking refuge on Greek shores: the extreme centralization of Greek government agencies: “Everyone seems to think that with the oft-cited «αποκέντρωση» (de-centralization), plenty of funds exist in order to address local problems. However, the fact remains that our region is perennially underfunded in all respects and the resources simply do not exist in order to provide adequate care and assistance to refugees. I am forced to go from supermarket to supermarket, from business to business begging for food and clothing for these poor people. Their situation truly is dire.”
Catering for the immediate humanitarian needs of refugees is one thing. Granting them asylum in Greece is quite another. Mr Thanos, with refreshing candour, alluded to the by now bankrupt myth of a homogenous Greek society to explain why refugee status is seldom according in Greece. “It is expected that after a short while, these people will move on. And they do. Their aim is to reach a “European” county or America, where opportunities exist for them to rebuild their lives. What will they do in Greece where opportunities are limited? They are not Greek and Greece really has nothing to offer them, the poor things.”
As Mr Thanos was expounding his difficulties and outlining new and improved strategies to obtain food and shelter for asylum seekers in Samos by mobilizing the local population, I was reminded of another asylum seeker, my grandfather, who arrived in Samos as a boy, fleeing the catastrophe in Asia Minor. Indeed, given that the majority of the population of the island is comprised of descendants of such refugees, it is perhaps fitting as well as heartwarming that they provide succour to other war-afflicted fellow humans, also fleeing the east.
Despite the perennial Greek fear of the outsider at the same time that filoxenia is provided to him, Greece ought seriously to consider the swift granting of refugee status and integration of a section of these beleaguered persons within Greek society. Contrary to common, orientalistic opinion, the societies from which these people derive are eminently venerable, civilized and they have much to teach and give us all. The least they deserve is dignity and respect and that will not be achieved by the rest of supposedly “united Europe” attempting to foist the burden of accommodating refugees upon the shoulders of countries that are the least placed to adequately do so, without providing them with the requisite assistance and funds in order to do so. As Deputy Governor Stelios Thanos scrambles around Samos in search for food to feed his adopted flock, we leave you with Francis Forro’s riposte to an observation by an Australian journalist that Hungarian refugees arriving in Melbourne in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising looked a bit scruffy: “yes, but they will make fine ancestors.”


First published in NKEE on 2 February 2009