Aid organisations scale back work in Greece as they react to EU-Turkey deal

UNHCR logo largeThe UNHRC, the United Nations’ refugee agency, is scaling back its assistance to refugees landing on Greek shores. A UNHRC spokesperson explained:

“UNHCR has till now been supporting the authorities in the so-called hotspots on the Greek islands, where refugees and migrants were received, assisted, and registered.

“Under the new provisions, these sites have now become detention facilities. Accordingly, and in line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centres on the islands.”

“ … the EU-Turkey deal is being implemented before the required safeguards are in place in Greece (which) does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.

“UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention. We will continue to assist the Greek authorities to develop an adequate reception capacity.”

An Irish Times article outlines the revised role of UNHCR:

The UNHCR will no longer help Greek authorities transport migrants to the “hotspots”, but will continue to provide urgent assistance to new arrivals at the shoreline and monitor conditions and rights standards at the camps.

The EU-Turkey deal aims to reduce the number of people using smugglers and traffickers to reach Europe. From March 20, any Syrians landing on Greek islands will be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum and or if their claim is rejected. In February, two thousand people a day were arriving from Turkey in Greece During the first half of March, this reduced to fewer than 1,200 each day.

The new “one out, one in” policy mean that for every person sent back to Turkey, the EU will resettle a Syrian already in a Turkish refugee camp.

The Guardian newspaper summarises the logistical challenge in Greece:

Athens and EU authorities will have to build a functioning asylum system in Greece within days. About 4,000 extra staff – judges, case officers, border guards and translators – will need to be sent from across the EU to the Greek islands to ensure claims can be processed at an estimated cost of up to €300m. “Greece is faced by a herculean task, it is the largest challenge the EU has yet faced,” said the European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

UNHCR are not alone in their reaction to the new EU-Turkey deal.

Médecins Sans Frontières french english logo largeMédecins Sans Frontières is ceasing its operations on the island of Lesbos. Working with migrants in the EU’s Moira hotpost since last July, Médecins Sans Frontières’ Ireland director Jane-Anne McKenna explained humanitarian aid organisation’s reasons for withdrawal in an interview with Irish radio’s Newstalk Breakfast show:

“Effectively the reception centre has become a detention centre, last Sunday it became a closed centre. If you go in – there is no way out, no access to legal services, no way of claiming asylum in Greece.

“We cannot be complicit in this system, working in a centre that is containing people with the intention of deporting them without giving them access to seek asylum.

“It is against everything we as an aid agency are supposed to be doing. The €3 billion deal between Turkey and EU is the monetarisation of humanitarian aid. Effectively it is about paying €3 billion in aid to close their borders, it is a completely inappropriate use of humanitarian aid.”

Jane-Anne McKenna highlighted an important distinction between migrants arriving before the deal and afterwards:

“People who arrived since last Sunday are in a completely different category to those who arrived before March 20th. They are effectively being detained before being sent back.”