Ireland has the power to respond to the refugee crisis in Greece
Nadi, a young Iraqi woman wrings her hands in despair. She has brought her family this far in search of safety and is now waiting to see if they will be relocated to another country in Europe. Her husband, who has difficulty walking unaided due to an injury from a bomb blast, sits in silence beside her as she recalls their journey. They travelled by boat from Turkey to Greece with their three small children and her brother who has an intellectual disability. After several months spent in a refugee camp on the island of Chios Nadi’s family awaits its fate in Athens.
“I want to be relocated to Ireland, the people are so friendly and welcoming there”.
Many families, like Nadi’s, are stranded in Greece waiting to be relocated. During my trip I met numerous refugees wishing for a better life in Ireland and elsewhere. Greece continues to be at the frontline and in recent weeks more and more people have arrived on the Greek islands following the attempted coup in Turkey. Conditions in refugee camps, particularly on the island of Chios, are extremely difficult. The camps are overcrowded, with inadequate sanitation facilities; vast areas of tents and tarpaulin with families waiting in the sweltering, exhausting heat. There are only six showers with no hot water for approximately 1,100 refugees in Souda camp in Chios. Rats and snakes also malinger there. The tension sears the camp as people grow increasingly frustrated. A feeling of abandonment permeates the air. If it were not for the tremendous work of volunteers and NGOs, the situation would be much worse.
At the ‘hotspot’ of Moria on the island of Lesvos (Lesbos) what strikes you is the barbed wire: huge swathes of it around every corner of the camp. Some refugees are housed in steel containers while others are left in plastic tents. A compound enclosed by a chain-link fence and more barbed wire is home to the unaccompanied children on the island when there is no space left for them in the specialised centres. Approximately 1,470 unaccompanied children are detained in this manner throughout Greece. Approximately 95 unaccompanied children were detained in Moria in this manner during my visit.
At the time of writing, due to a fire which destroyed the Moria camp, local Greek authorities have committed to moving all unaccompanied children to the mainland. Existing trauma and mental health issues are exacerbated by these living conditions. No child, no person should live like this. With more than 59,000 refugees, the Greek authorities are doing what they can but are completely overstretched. In comparison Ireland only received 3,276 asylum applications in 2015.
Relocation: An effective response
One act of solidarity the Irish government can make is to support Greece by relocating more refugees here in a swift manner. In September 2015, when the Irish Refugee Protection Programme was established, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald declared that “It is only right that we do all we can as a nation to help… Ireland will offer a welcome safe haven for families and children who have been forced to leave their homes due to war and conflict”. Are we doing all we can to help? Where is that welcome? Although efforts have been made with the resettlement of refugees, our response under the relocation programme has been poor.
So far only 69 people have been relocated from Greece, including only one unaccompanied child. Not one refugee has been relocated from Italy. The Irish government’s response is in stark contrast to other countries such as France, the Netherlands and Portugal which have relocated 1,431, 439 and 307 refugees respectively from Greece alone. Portuguese representatives even went to Greece to advertise Portugal to refugees as a destination under the relocation programme.
When the EU decision to relocate 160,000 refugees in 2015 was made, it was based on the urgency of the situation, solidarity and the need for an exceptional emergency response to alleviate the situation in Greece and Italy. The spirit of the relocation programme was to speedily act to support Greece and Italy. That need for speed has not been picked up in Ireland’s response. In our time spent planning to ensure that facilities are in place for when relocated people arrive here we are failing refugees who are losing hope living in places like Souda camp in Chios. A fast response is essential.
Although operational delays in Greece hampered the start of the relocation programme, that is no longer a factor. The Greek authorities, in collaboration with the European Asylum Support Office and the International Organisation of Migration, are processing relocation cases and the delays are more attributable to other countries not responding to requests quickly enough. Recent pronouncements from Minister Frances Fitzgerald show a commitment to ensure that the relocation programme will become more operationalised here in the coming months. That is to be welcomed, but the urgency of the situation in Greece cannot be emphasised enough. The scale of the humanitarian crisis requires an emergency response.
In contrast to our relocation efforts, Ireland has made significant progress in resettling refugees. So far, 377 refugees have been resettled from the Lebanon with Ireland committing to resettle a total of 520 refugees by the end of this year. The Irish defence forces have also done tremendous work as part of their humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean Sea where they have saved more than 11,500 lives.
As part of our response to the refugee crisis it is also important to remember the 4,300 people who are already here, living in Direct Provision, on average for three years before they receive a decision on their application for refugee status. Nearly 1,000 children currently live in this system which has been widely criticised as being an entirely unsuitable environment for young people. Avoiding a discriminatory two-tiered system for different marginalised groups is essential. Resources also need to be committed to those languishing in Direct Provision in the asylum procedure and refugees transitioning from Direct Provision into local communities.
Equally we need to ensure that their rights are protected and upheld and that they receive the necessary support in the longer term once moving on with their lives here in Ireland.
As we have just recently passed the one-year anniversary of the establishment of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme and following Ireland’s co-chairing of the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants let’s show that as a nation we are doing all we can to help to refugees at this time of the largest global forced displacement in history.
Maria Hennessy is a Legal Officer at the Irish Refugee Council [IRC] Independent Law Centre. She returned from a nine-day visit to Athens and the Islands of Lesvos and Chios in Greece in August. The IRC has set up a fundraising appeal. All names were changed to protect the identities of the people mentioned.