By Sara Félix
Greece – country, nation, common space for westerners, and, I would say, also easterners. Cradle of the western civilization, where philosophy, democracy and demagogy were exponentiated, created and acclaimed. A lot of what we are and what we know today stems from here. However, bygone centuries, we witness this nation losing its identity, and today Greece lives a crisis, economic, humanitarian and of values.
We need to look at the worldwide changes that have been occurring in the past decades. As it is known, ever since the Syrian War broke out, following the Arab Spring in 2011 thousands of Syrians embarked on a journey that threatens their own lives to reach European soil. Nevertheless, even though the focus has been this particular massive migration at a global scale, this is something that has been occurring from time immemorial. Europe has been the elected place of many, receiving people from Africa, Asia (and some might even consider Eastern Europe, if one is thinking of Western Europe). Yet, ever since the Syrian migration began, with such never before seen proportions, it was shown, and it has been continuously shown, that the European infrastructures and structures do not possess the capacity to receive that amount of people that every day, whom, in despair and in life danger, resorted to the remote European lands to try to achieve, hopefully, a life and place where they are not woken up at dawn by incessant bombs explosions.
Greece and Italy were the elected countries of many for this arrival, given the maritime proximity between Northern Africa and Southern Europe, since a vast majority of these migrants travel by boat, many illegally, where they lose their belongings, documentation and even relatives.
From a legal perspective, a mistake has been made, since these people are commonly referred to as “refugees”, which is not correct. This is because one can only acquire the status of “refugee” after he/she reaches a safe country and requests for asylum. The request is analysed, either in the light of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the respective national Asylum Laws, which in Europe are the result of the transposition of the 2004/83/CE and 2005/85/CE Directives. For example, Looking at the Portuguese Asylum Act, The right of asylum is granted for 5 reasons: “Foreign nationals and stateless persons who are being persecuted or face a serious threat of persecution, as a result of their activities in the State of their nationality or their usual residence in favour of democracy, social and national liberties, peace among peoples, freedom and human rights are guaranteed the right to asylum” (Article 3(1)) and “Foreign nationals or stateless persons who justifiably fear persecution by virtue of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or being part of certain social group and cannot or, due to such a fear, do not wish to return to the State of their nationality or usual residence, are also entitled to be granted asylum” (Article 3(2)).
As I have mentioned, one of the preferred places has been Greece, even before the Syrian migratory flow. However, besides this, the country itself went through a very troubled phase, when in 2008 the economic crisis erupted leading to an unemployment rate of more than 20%, which, in turn, lead to discontentment, unrest and consequently also a social crisis.
It happened that this economic and social crisis coincided with Greece’s most significant migrant crisis, which resulted in unimaginable problems. Right away, those who were afraid of losing their jobs and related to extreme right-wing parties started to threaten and attack asylum seekers, which created conflicts and situations that truly shocked the international community.
Furthermore, and in spite of the enormous effort of the Greek people to try to create minimal sustainable conditions for these people whilst they were retained in the Greek islands, due to the 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement – which foresees that as from 20 March 2016 all irregular migrants that came from Turkish soil into the Greek islands should either request asylum or otherwise they would be returned to Turkey – the situation deteriorated. Each day, more and more requests to the Greek authorities would arrive, and still arrive nowadays, being harder and harder to analyse all of these requests. This created violence waves amongst these populations, who wished to go into Europe and not be stranded in an island.
However, not only was Greece in this dangerous humanitarian crisis, since these people not only did not have conditions to live, in addition to also not being granted freedom and being even threatened by right-wing extremists, but also the country suffered “sanctions” from some Member States in accordance with the Dublin III Regulation.
This Regulation establishes that the first European country in which the person that requests asylum entered in Europe is the one responsible for the request procedure, besides establishing an asylum seeker transfer system. It is predictable that, according to this Regulation, most of the cases were of Greece’s responsibility, since it is one of the “entrance points” to Europe. Therefore, in 2008 many countries suspended their transfers to Greece, which is still today a reality, due to the delay and the conditions offered during the analysis of the request. The M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece case, which reached the European Court of Human Rights, highlights the inefficacy of the Greek system and the meagre conditions in which the asylum seekers are in whilst waiting for the decision. This case and the ever more severe realities led to Greece’s inability of providing the necessary support to asylum seekers being recognized.
The world we currently live in does not chart us an easy path. It is slippery and full of rocks, and the required effort is ever growing, at an individual, but also at a nation-wide scale. It requires not only the country to regulate this humanitarian situation, but also all of Europe to unite, cooperate and work together to allow these asylum seekers to be granted their status of refugees so they can, finally, live safely, in a place far from home, but close to peace.