- “Warehouse of Souls”:How the EU abandoned Greece
CHIOS, Greece—Ahmed Abdo spends his days in a refugee camp, watching ferryboats come and go from the main port of this Greek island, just 5 miles of the Turkish coast. In July, the 24-year-old Kurd and his family had arrived in a crowded rubber dinghy after a perilous trip across the Aegean Sea. Syria’s civil war had forced them from their home in Aleppo and into Turkey with hundreds of thousands of others. But, unlike earlier refugees who made it to the European Union, they were stuck in Greece’s outlying islands, no longer allowed passage into the rest of Europe.
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One morning in October, Abdo handed me a tattered two-page document. “Can you read me this?” he asked. It was his asylum decision, written mostly in Greek, and Abdo, who’d been halfway through his law degree when war broke out, recognized a word printed in English: “inadmissible.” His two brothers, ages 18 and 22, received the same decision. They all faced possible deportation to Turkey. Yet their parents, 17-year-old sister, and young nieces—in Chios as well—had been granted permission to stay in Europe. “How is Turkey safe for me and unsafe for my family?” Abdo said as I translated his full decision into English. “We are Kurdish. Turkey’s killing its Kurds. It’s dangerous for us all.”
A deal intended to stem the flow of migrants to the EU insists that Greece send refugees like Abdo back to Turkey. Under the terms of this agreement, the EU has promised to give Turkey 6 billion euros over the next two years to accept refugees deported from Greece and improve conditions for migrants on Turkish soil (thereby preventing them from leaving for Greece in the first place). In addition, the EU raised the possibility of giving Turkey’s 80 million citizens the right to visa-free travel. (This became less certain after the attempted coup in July.)
The EU-Turkey pact went into effect on March 20, 2016, and requires Greece to separate arrivals into “before” and “after.” Though the numbers coming into Greece are a fraction of what they once were, recent refugees— mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—face a stricter standard to access relief, and are confined to the Greek islands while the nation’s Asylum Service decides their cases. As set out in the deal, latecomers like Abdo and his brothers must prove that, if deported, they would face mortal danger—not only in their home countries but also in Turkey, which the EU deems a “safe third country.” It makes no difference that Greece—which has a long, tense history with its eastern neighbor—disagrees with that EU designation. Most of these migrants, who risked their lives at sea, are now supposed to be sent back to Turkey, where there’s no guarantee their rights will be protected.
Greece’s underfunded, fledgling Asylum Service had already been struggling to process the tens of thousands of refugees trapped on the Greek mainland, especially after the western Balkan countries sealed their borders this spring. Now, it has the added burden of adjudicating the applications and appeals of some 16,600 migrants located on the islands. At the deal’s outset, the EU promised to send Greece 400 “asylum experts” to support local authorities responsible for deciding cases. By early November, only 52 had arrived. To date, only 721 refugees have actually been deported to Turkey, the majority of them voluntarily. (Though one could argue there’s nothing voluntary about dropping your protection request if you’re living as a captive on Europe’s doorstep.) For Abdo, however, the slow pace of the Greek asylum agency offers temporary grace. When I last spoke with him, he and his brothers were planning to appeal the denials of their claims, during which time they would be confined to the island.
Two years ago, Greece...