In Search of Safe Passage

The Psycho-Social Implications of the EU-Turkey Deal on Greek Islands.

by Jacob Warn

At the edges of Europe, there are borders you can cross, borders you cannot cross, and borders you may cross if you so wish, and to which you may or may not return.

If you’re seeking refuge in Europe, the chances are you take the Western, Central or Eastern Mediterranean routes. The first takes you from Morocco into Southern Spain, the Central and most famous, from Libya to Italy, and the Eastern, to the Aegean Islands of Greece.

But the Aegean Islands of Chios, Lesvos, Samos, Kos and Leros have, since a joint statement by the EU and Turkey back in March 2016, become barriers rather than bridges into Europe. As a consequence of that statement – in which Turkey agreed to receive back ‘all new irregular migrants’ crossing into the EU – thousands of refugees have since been stranded in camps that were and are manifestly unsuited to the long-term accommodation of vulnerable persons.

Since March 2016, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments have responded retroactively to a crisis brought about by a political accord that callously imperilled those already in acute states of instability.

This line of islands became de facto prisons for families and displaced persons from countries across the Middle East, Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The establishment of these ‘RICs’ (Reception and Identification Centres) was purportedly aimed at establishing a preliminary screening process for those claiming asylum in Europe. Yet in practice, it resulted in hundreds of refugees being left waiting for over a year to complete the first stage of a lengthy asylum-process. As the situation developed, ashamedly, many of these individuals – having been kept in limbo for months – were finally rejected in their applications and forcibly deported to Turkey.

The bureaucratic and logistical failures of EU member states to respond to an influx of refugees were an affront that was compounded by a large number of human-rights abuses endured by refugees on EU soil during this time. Yet despite this, ‘rejections’ have and continue to be given out to those suffering from severe mental and physical health issues, in many cases brought about during and due to the asylum process itself.

NGOs and human-rights organisations have repeatedly called for immediate changes to a system that simply does not adequately safeguard vulnerable persons. Right across the demographics of unaccompanied minors, families, single men and boys, victims of gender-based violence, of war, torture and social unrest, measures have not been put in place to minimise the impact of the EU-Turkey statement for these communities.

Since before the EU-Turkey statement, NGOs have operated on the Aegean islands, fulfilling a number of services including nutrition, sanitation, education, protection and legal support. Many are working also to provide the psycho-social support that remains necessary if the asylum system consistently fails to deal with asylum applications in a timely and appropriate manner. Services that tend to the welfare of vulnerable persons during these months are essential.

In May 2017, the Greek government made matters worse in a declaration that all NGOs were to suspend their services on the islands in light of a Greek government take-over of services. In what was seen as a money-grab for ECHO money (the EU’s civil protection and humanitarian aid body), the Greek government put at further risk the psycho-social wellbeing of tens of thousands of individuals.

It’s been both uplifting and necessary, however, that in spite of this announcement, non-governmental actors on the Aegean Islands have persisted in their efforts to provide education, legal, medical and psycho-social support. On Chios, we’ve continued to run our Youth Centre and High School for refugee youth between the ages of 12 and 22, working alongside a network of other actors who collectively provide social and educational spaces that reach a large number of those left waiting on the island.

Providing structured, safe spaces that also offer opportunities to develop and learn new skills is a small and insufficient part of building a society that supports rather than hinders asylum-seekers. Whilst it is not enough, it remains hugely important and valued by beneficiaries.

This work is a far cry from the type of ‘crisis response’ of 2016, when newspapers and aid organisations rushed to report on the ‘unfolding European refugee crisis’. What we are seeing now is a shift towards a protracted crisis that does not receive the necessary focus or funding.

You can get informed and get involved in this situation by taking one of the suggested actions, or by getting in touch directly. A few weeks ago, Action for Education marked two years of its Refugee Education Chios project.

You can find out more online, or donate to our ‘Birthday Campaign’ here.

Five Actions You Can Take

  • The Poor Print was founded and continues to pride itself on publishing creative talent from Oriel College. Let’s use it to work towards long-term and ethical reporting of issues around the globe. The Poor Print could, for example, work with Chios Voices, a refugee news initiative, to build awareness around continuing migration issues on the Aegean Islands.
  • As an individual and as a college, you can help raise money to support psycho-social projects run in Greece. This money goes to fill the gaps left by governments, and without it this form of support will quite simply cease to exist.
  • You can volunteer. There remains a genuine and desperate need for volunteers in Greece and on its islands to help and work alongside refugee communities. You can find information here.
  • You can volunteer in the UK. Volunteer remotely, or search for integration projects in your local community. If you want, you can get involved in Action for Education, our UK-based charity.
  • You can nominate us (or another organisation) as an official Charity partner at your university, college, workplace or old school; learn more about our work and work with us to grow and develop our projects.



Further Reading

The Poor Print

The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford, with contributions from members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff. New issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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