On March 2, 2016, Wasim** tried to reach the Greek islands, the last leg of his journey to Europe to escape the Syrian civil war. The rubber dinghy he was on started sinking: He was forced to swim back to the Turkish coast. When he next tried, he succeeded, clambering onto the shore of the island of Chios, Europe’s border.
But for Wasim, a 24-year-old Syrian Kurd, it was a week too late. A European Union agreement with Turkey had changed the rules for anyone arriving on the Greek islands after midnight on March 19. Fleeing the five-year war in Syria and imprisonment in Turkey for seven days was not enough to allow Wasim to seek asylum in Greece. He was never allowed to explain why he fled Syria. He was told he will be returned to Turkey.
EU leaders are celebrating a year since they carved out the agreement with Turkey that stemmed the flood of refugees seeking to escape war and strife on Europe’s doorstep. But the importance of the agreement goes far beyond the fact that it has contributed to deterring refugees from coming to Greece. At the Norwegian Refugee Council, we fear that the system Europe is putting in place in Greece is slowly stripping people of their right to seek international protection.
Greece took the positive step to enshrine in law some key checks and balances to protect the vulnerable – a victim of torture, a disabled person, an unaccompanied child – so they could have their asylum case heard on the Greek mainland rather than remaining on the islands.
But a European Commission action plan is putting Greece under pressure to change safeguards enshrined in Greek law. NRC, along with other human rights and humanitarian organizations, wrote an open letter to the Greek Parliament this month urging lawmakers to keep that protection for those most in need.
Importantly, this is just another quiet example of how what is happening in Greece is setting precedents that may irrevocably change the 1951 Refugee Convention. Europe is testing things out in Greece.
NRC began in postwar Europe, like so many other nongovernmental humanitarian organizations. Suddenly, however, we find ourselves back in Europe, at the doorstep of one of the wealthiest regions in the world, arguing about how or, alarmingly, why we should protect people who have suffered untold hardship through war and strife.
For example, nationality rather than need has become a criterion for relocation to European countries, regardless of the individual situations that drove people from their homes, families and livelihoods.
The most glaring adoption of the emphasis on nationality or religion rather than need can be seen in US President Donald Trump’s executive ban on refugees from six mostly Muslim countries. That is yet another example of how the wealthy are abdicating their responsibilities.
I work with refugees. Some of them are my colleagues. I can see from the worry etched on their faces the constant and slow erosion of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
In Chios, our organization provides assistance to the Greek government running refugee sites; we provide food and education. The refugees we work with rent apartments; they pay bills and we pay social security contributions. But from one day to the next they don’t know if they will be told to go back to Turkey.
Greeks on the border islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros rightly fear the consequences of decisions taken in Brussels that would mark their homes not as tourist destinations but as open-air holding pens for refugees and migrants.
NRC, like its counterpart organizations, has called for refugees to be moved to the mainland, where conditions are objectively better. It would relieve the islands of the burden of hosting thousands of refugees and migrants. At least those who arrived before March 20, 2016 can be placed in apartments, such as the ones the NRC is providing to refugees in Thessaloniki, with EU funding. That is a process of restoring normality to the lives of thousands of people.
As a nation, the Greeks have aided the refugees landing on their shores with a grace and dignity unmatched by their European peers, possibly because of their own recent history of war and displacement.
It was Europe and its postwar crisis that led to the 1951 convention that protects those displaced by war. Now that convention risks expiring on the doorstep of the same continent that gave birth to it – Europe is in danger of becoming, as NRC’s Secretary-General Jan Egeland has said, the convention’s “burial agent.”
In a few days the EU will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, one of the founding treaties of a European project that has kept countries at peace with one another since the Second World War. It is our hope that as EU leaders meet to celebrate that treaty, they bear in mind the sacrifices and hardship that led to the European project – and protect those who need protection.
* Gianmaria Pinto is the country director for Greece for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian organization working in 30 countries, including Greece.
** Names have been changed to protect identities.