VICTORIA WHITE: You try applying for asylum with no internet and no passport

A boy pulls a toy as he and his family leave the makeshift camp. Picture: Yannis Kolesidis/ANA-MPA via AP

Ireland has received just one family and blamed ‘low take up’ on refugees who had not wished to complete the first step of applying for asylum, writes Victoria White.

THIS is not a mistake. Keeping 50,000 people locked in miserable refugee camps in Greece is a decision. It is no accident that grannies and young children will sleep tonight in Athens Harbour in tents stuck under haulage trucks.

It is a warning which says, “Stay where you are, all you Syrians and Afghans and Iranians and Eritreans and Nigerians and Somalians and Gambians. You don’t want to end up sleeping in a tent, now do you?” 1,000 people have died in the past week on the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy. Action to stamp out rogue smugglers on this route has to come from Libya.

But the European Union — and that means us — is in control on the Turkey-Greece route. The deal agreed by the European Commission in March by which Greece returns an illegal Syrian migrant to Turkey and gets another Syrian back is controversial but it has reduced to nearly nothing the number of deaths on that route.

Syrian migrants don’t want to stay in Turkey because their aim is to get to Europe, which ever way they can. They are allowed to work in Turkey, but often for poor wages. The standard of the official camps is relatively good but they don’t seem to be welcomed by the people, and the Syrians don’t seem to like the Turks either — particularly if they are Kurdish, for obvious reasons.

In Greece, by contrast, the official response has been appalling, while the people have, in general, been welcoming. During a week visiting camps in Greece I met many Greek volunteers who are regarded by the migrant community as friends and allies.

They are partly motivated by the horrific circumstances in which their country is holding the refugees. I was told by a UNHCR official, who declined to be named, that “things are going from bad to worse. People are sleeping in tents inside old warehouses with electric wires on the ground and snakes biting them. These are places in which you wouldn’t put animals.” He adds: “The worst thing for them is the complete uncertainty. No-one knows how long they will be there.” Greece is a relatively poor country but worse than that it is a dysfunctional country. I even wonder whether Greece is trying to force the EU to ease the terms of its debt by treating refugees to a real dose of austerity.

Pic: Milos Bicanski/Getty
Pic: Milos Bicanski/Getty

Again and again I heard the refrain from refugees, “Greece is not Europe”. However, Greece is a member of the EU and we should be their partners in this crisis. We can’t shirk our responsibility for a moment longer.

Every moment that these 50,000 people spend not knowing what the future holds destroys a chunk of that future, both for them and for us. Despite the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, by which refugees should enjoy the same rights as citizens, refugees in Greece today do not have access even to the limited services available to Greeks.

They are getting no social welfare and they can’t work legally. Those who work illegally get screwed. I met a Syrian third year medical student earning €15 for a 10-hour day as an agricultural labourer. Syrian refugees budgeted for a trip to northern Europe lasting a month and most of them have been in Greece three or four months. Their money is running out, which means they are getting desperate. Many of them can’t eat the horrible food they are served in the camps and need money to buy their own.

The temperature has started its climb towards 40-plus degrees and many of the refugees are in tents or plastic mobile homes without air-conditioning. I saw four fights between different ethnic groups in my short time there. I saw one boy being bundled into a police car and I was warned against entering another camp for my own safety.

The majority of the refugees, who made this dangerous journey to live in peace, are going to turn again to the smugglers who are still active on the land route. There is a going rate for a European passport.

Those who stay are forming a poor view of Europe. You have to wonder whether the bearded zealots who visit open camps from the UK with car-loads of goodies may not have some recruits to their doctrine of hatred among the young.

Particularly as none of the young are getting an education, a right guaranteed to them under the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Refugee and local volunteers are cobbling together schools in most of the permanent camps, often with no materials. Typically the children are learning English, Greek and Arabic, while art and games are organised by well-meaning volunteers.

You try applying for asylum with no internet and no passport

They are not learning maths or computer skills or science or anything else. How will they ever compete with their European peers? The young adults are getting no education at all and I saw some just lying in bed playing computer games.

Clever young Sara (17), an Afghan with fluent English, has no more access to further education in Europe than she would have under the Taliban. Sara is officially an immigrant, not a refugee, although her father fled Afghanistan with his eight children following serious threats from the Taliban. He has been told his application to stay in Europe will not be processed until the refugees have been cleared, sometime in 2018.

Meanwhile Syrian refugees sit in tents trying to access the Skype account by which they are meant to apply for asylum. No-one has told them that the procedure has suddenly changed to one in which they apply in person. If they don’t have a valid passport – from a country which has been at war for five years – they have no easy way of proving they need asylum and the Syrian regime may charge up to €1,000 for a new one.

You try applying for asylum with no internet and no passport

The asylum application is the first step towards relocation or reunion, neither of which is working. My interpreter Amjad Alfarhouri had opted for Ireland as his first choice for relocation but the only country considering him is France. If they reject him he will be stuck in Greece. The reunion programme is limited to spouses and minors, otherwise families are prohibited from reuniting for five years, so that English teacher Thenna must choose her husband in Germany or her sons, aged 18 and 20.

The March relocation agreement which was meant to resettle 20,000 refugees from Greece and Italy in the EU has so far processed a few hundred. Ireland has received just one family and blamed “low take up” on refugees who had not wished to complete the first step of applying for asylum. Well, you try applying for asylum by Skype when you have no internet and no passport!

These people are being deliberately held at the gates of Europe to serve as a warning to others who might think of coming here that Europe offers no sanctuary from war and we will pay a heavy price for this crime against humanity.

Ireland has received just one family and blamed ‘low take up’ on refugees who had not wished to complete the first step of applying for asylum

READ MORE: Meet Khadija, Theena and Sara. They fled the horrors of war in Syria

READ MORE: Refugees with no idea of what the future holds still offer a warm welcome

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