When Ibrahim Al Sabe reached Eftalou beach, on the legend-suffused island of Lesbos in Greece, he was soaking wet, but indescribably happy to be alive. The engine of the rubber dinghy, carrying 45 Syrian refugees, had stopped working five times during the four-mile journey. The boat started to fill with water and almost went under. Panic erupted, many children were crying.
“I saw my death in the middle of the sea”, says Al Sabe, who doesn’t swim well.
Five days earlier Al Sabe, 16, had left his hometown Idlib in Syria. Life had become dangerous due to the civil war, and his high school had been closed.
The family sent their eldest son off alone. With four small children, they could not possibly have taken the perilous journey together.
With the help of his iPhone navigator and advice from Facebook groups where Syrian refugees share co-ordinates and experiences from their path to Europe, he made it to Izmir, where he paid $1,200 for the Mediterranean crossing.
I met Al Sabe right after his arrival, after midnight. Our group of volunteers had spotted the boat and directed the arrivals to a nearby bus station, where they could spend the night and were given food, water, dry clothes and sleeping bags. Babies were given nappies and hot water bottles to keep them warm after the rough journey.
In the morning a Médecins Sans Frontières’ bus took the refugees to the registration centre in Mytiline, 70 kilometres away. The volunteers set off to help another boat that had just arrived.
Lesbos, an island of c86,000 inhabitants, is struggling under the heavy weight of refugees. Over 93,000 of the 160,000 refugees that have arrived in Greece in 2015, have travelled through Lesbos. According to the UNHCR, 82% of them are from Syria, 14% from Afghanistan and 3% from Iraq.
Amidst the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis, Greece remains ill-equipped to provide an adequate emergency response or co-ordination.
The Moria reception centre, fitted out for 700, was overcrowded throughout the summer, often with over 1,000 inhabitants inside, and another 1,000 camping outside. Conditions are poor with soiled mattresses and overflowing toilets.
In the Kara Tepe make shift camp, designed for 1,000 but sometimes accommodating as many as 3,500 refugees, the toilet hygiene is equally appalling, and tents are surrounded by dirt-water and litter. Diarrhoea epidemics are commonplace. No doctors were available until late July and on some days the municipality has not been able to provide food.
With their downsized public sector, the Greek authorities cannot handle the administrative processes efficiently, sometimes forcing the refugees to wait for 10 to15 days for the papers that allow them to move legally through Greece.
Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have repeatedly expressed their concern about the humanitarian situation on Lesbos, calling for EU financial and logistical support, more staff in reception units, more police and coast guards, and improved conditions in reception facilities.
In the absence of a co-ordinated emergency response, local volunteers, NGO activists and tourists on Lesbos and other Greek islands are trying to do what governments and international organisations should be doing.
A group of local Greeks called ”The Village of All Together” maintains a refugee camp for asylum seekers waiting for family reunification. An expat-led group in the Molyvos area is alert day and night, spotting new arrivals. Locals and tourists are transporting the refugees; and volunteers are cleaning the camps.
The Greek Minister for Migration, Thassia Christodoulopoulou, recently told the Guardian that without the contributions of NGOs, volunteers, and communities, Greece would not have been able to manage the situation.
The EU’s €474m new funding programme for Greece is expected to alleviate the situation.
The European refugee challenge requires reforming both policy and ideology all over Europe. It necessitates upgrading the capacity for handling the asylum applications, expanding the reception facilities, increasing the capacity for rescue operations and security control, as well as reforming in housing, education and employment policies.
Moreover, it requires acceptance of our responsibility as Europeans to help the people fleeing conflict and persecution, by offering them equal opportunities as members of our societies.
In Greece, the victory of the left wing Syriza in February signalled a shift towards a more welcoming refugee policy. Rather than prioritising immigration as a question of security, its ideology emphasises that refugees are victims of wars and deserve a place in society.
The new government closed down the Amygdaleza detention centre and issued its residents permits to grant them a minimum of 6 months stay in Greece during which their refugee status is to be assessed – recognising that detention should only be exercised in extremely rare situations. It is now improving reception infrastructure in many locations.
The government recently amended the citizenship law, allowing second generation migrants to claim the Greek nationality irrespective of the legal status of their parents. Those staying legally in Greece can now also claim Greek nationality after completing Greek grammar school, or if they graduated from a Greek university and have completed their secondary education.
Moreover, the University of Aegean was recently permitted to enrol Syrian refugees. Not for nothing is Greece the cradle of civilisation.
Most of the refugees on Lesbos are heading for Sweden or Germany. Currently, Sweden receives the highest amount of asylum applications per capita (8.4 per 1,000 inhabitants) while Germany is the most popular in absolute terms (32.4% applications of the EU total).
What Europe needs is a real common asylum policy, that fulfils its obligation to provide international protection, while balancing the burden sharing and reception capacity of the EU countries in a fair way.
We are only now – after a dead toddler was wrenchingly captured on film – seeing progress. the EU is to take 160,000 refugees with Ireland taking 4,000 under the irish Refugee Protection Programme including 600 already committed to under the proposed EU Relocation programme and 520 now being resettled under an existing programme.
Mind you, if Ireland accepted the same number of migrants in proportion to population as Germany, which is taking 800,000 overall and outside the EU’s programmes, the number would be 55,000.
During 2008-2014, the total given refugee status in Ireland was only a third of the EU average (relative to population size). Whereas Ireland accepted only 46 asylum-seekers per 100,000 population, the EU average was 148. Ireland has thus the second-highest rejection rate of asylum-seekers in the EU, after over-stretched Greece.
On Lesbos there are up to 2,000 daily arrivals. The refugee crisis is not a Greek tragedy, and not just a concern for the geographical frontlines. With ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, we can expect more arrivals. Inevitably the EU slogan “united in diversity” no longer only refers to those who share the common European heritage – and that calls for a bigger, bolder and fairer response.
It should include reforming the Dublin Regulation that puts countries in unequal positions in their obligation to examine refugee applications – thus also forcing the refugees on dangerous journeys, in the hands of smugglers, through countries that are not expected to grant them asylum. The death of 71 refugees in an abandoned lorry in Austria is a macabre reminder of the flaws of the European policy.
Finally, the EU must introduce ways of entering its territory safely and legally, so that those in vulnerable position would not have to risk their lives on dangerous sea routes in the first place.
According to the Organisation for Migration, over 2,300 people have died this year crossing the Mediterranean, despite international naval rescue operations such as the respectable efforts of the Irish LÉ Niamh.
There is increasing support for the introduction of humanitarian visas, that would be applied in the embassies of third countries to provide temporary protection on humanitarian grounds, and allow the asylum seekers to take the safe route to Europe, rather than depending on smuggling networks.
Ibrahim Al Sabe made it to Germany one month after his departure from Syria. He travelled through the Balkans using trains and buses until he got to borders, and then crossing them by foot in the dark. He got his passport stolen by bandits in a Serbian forest, and got arrested by the Hungarian police. Finally he was caught by the German police who took him to an asylum centre in Dortmund.
Despite sharing a room with other Syrians, he feels lonely. Parting from family and childhood friends was painful, but there was no way to stay.
“The journey was so difficult, I felt like I fled from death to death. I risked my life to live safely and to complete my studies”.
Surely Europe, with its own war history in mind, can afford to offer him a chance for a better future? •
The meaning of civilisation