By Michael Diedring, ECRE Secretary General
Without exception, the refugees I met in Lesvos were from Syria or Afghanistan. I wonder how many of them were teargassed or clubbed on the Greek-Macedonian border this past Friday and Saturday.
Two weeks ago, I stood in the hot sun in the Kara Tepe temporary camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. I met a young family pleading for a plastic baby bottle as theirs had been broken during the journey and they had no way of feeding their crying child. I saw young people lying in heaps in the shade utterly exhausted by a dangerous journey that ended with a 13 hour walk from the northern end of Lesvos to Kara Tepe. I met the elderly assisted by fellow travelers and spoke with teenagers travelling without apparent adult supervision. I saw a group of men, anxiously crowded around the single power source that charged their mobile telephone (the only way they could inform loved ones they were still alive, and a crucial communications tool necessary for their survival on the remainder of their journey). Without exception, they were from Syria or Afghanistan. I wonder how many of them were teargassed or clubbed on the Greek-Macedonian border this past Friday and Saturday.
I met Emily, a dedicated humanitarian professional with the NGO International Rescue Committee, and her Syrian-born colleague Ahmad helping with the most urgent humanitarian needs, from arranging necessary medicine for a young man highly sensitive to the sun, to helping a Syrian who had given his transit paper to another person he felt needed to travel on sooner, and who now found himself without permission to travel. I met medical professionals from the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), providing professional medical assistance and first aid. I visited the PIKPA camp in another area of the island, run completely by a Greek NGO and local volunteers, in which a small group of the most vulnerable refugees was living. I saw evidence of the citizens’ organisations, local residents and tourists who provided food, diapers, clothing and the like, on a daily basis. There are many stories on social media of volunteers who clean the clogged toilets in these camps, as they are insufficient for the numbers of people who utilise them. The help provided by civil society and “simple people” was inspirational, but also absolutely necessary to ensure the health and well-being of these refugees.
For while I saw many, many people in the camps and representatives of civil society, except for police registering refugees at the port and in the Moria “First Reception” Centre, I saw no officials of the Greek government or European Union during my visit. These temporary camps are run solely by civil society organisations and citizens. On Lesvos, the local authorities have been mostly supportive and helpful, but that has not been the case on all the Greek islands.
Thus, while Europe can truly be a community of values, as evidenced by the actions of civil society organisations, citizens and tourists on Lesvos and throughout Europe, government officials at the European and Member State level must accept their responsibility and act with the solidarity upon which Europe was built to respond quickly to the growing numbers of people reaching our shores. As German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière recently said at a news conference: “It’s a challenge for all of us at state, federal and local levels. We can master this challenge. I don’t think this will overwhelm Germany. We can handle this.”
We need to see Europe as part of the global community and show compassion and leadership when responding to a world in which 60 million have been displaced. What some officials cannot accept is that this global phenomenon is touching Europe. The needs of these large numbers of people fleeing war, violence and persecution will not be solved automatically. In fact, the flows of people will continue for years to come until these conflicts are resolved and persecution ended. As an example, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan continue to host 4 million refugees from Syria, while much, much smaller numbers have made their way to Europe to reunite with family or seek stability and hope in their lives. Further resources at a significant scale will need to be put into place as well as long-term plans and emergency assistance.
How can Europe better respond with responsibility and solidarity?
First, the Greek government needs to take responsibility for the people landing on Greek shores, and Europe needs to act in solidarity to support Greece, its people and refugees with an immediate and substantial increase in emergency support, addressing the humanitarian needs and the need for accurate information and counselling.
Second, the effort to relocate those already in Greece and Italy must be revisited. In light of the dramatic increase in numbers in Greece alone, the decision to voluntarily relocate 32.256 is insufficient. As an initial step, the number for Greece should be increased to at least 70.000 places within a year, and efforts to relocate more from Italy should be intensified. To make relocation successful, the procedure needs to be swift and with a minimum of bureaucracy, while also balancing the best interests and needs of asylum seekers. Substantial integration programmes, with the assistance of civil society, and measures to facilitate access to work must be created in receiving member states.
Third, as part of a longer term solution the European Union needs to open safe and legal channels for refugees to come to Europe so they are not forced to risk their lives or use unscrupulous smugglers for irregular journeys. Safe and legal channels will allow Europe to organise the reception of people in a planned, humane and dignified manner. Resettlement of the vulnerable from countries outside Europe must be dramatically increased in line with current needs. Family reunification must be applied in a full and robust manner while adopting a more flexible approach to the many practical obstacles refugees face in fulfilling administrative requirements. The possibility of utilizing humanitarian visa provisions, including under the EU Visa Code, must be more fully examined. We cannot forget we are responding to the real needs of fellow human beings.
What we do not need is a strengthening of Fortress Europe, an aggressive response such as that seen in Macedonia and Hungary, or a European list of “safe” countries, which might become the height of political disingenuousness.
Europe’s welcome to refugees and asylum seekers is led by civil society and European volunteers. While European leaders hesitate, we work to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, as our European values and laws demand. If European leaders act with responsibility and solidarity, it will allow us to do even more.