Photo: Giannis Papanikos / FOS PHOTOS

Europe is not doing globally its fair share in the face of the global refugee crisis

We talked with Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, about the current situation in the refugee camps in Greece.


What is the current situation of refugees in Greece?

Amnesty International remains very deeply concerned about the situation of refugees in Greece. I, myself, was in the island of Lesvos and witnessed tremendous degrees of human suffering. Even the most basic of needs in terms of sanitation, food, adequate bathing is still not in place and this is many months being there the situation. However, what is very clear on this is the result of broader flood European policy approaches towards migration. We need to see safe and legal routes, resettlement places, this of course would avoid the situation where you have so many people irregularly arriving in these awful conditions.

How is Europe dealing with the situation, especially after the deal with Turkey?

Amnesty International is very clear about this. There is responsibility on the part of the Greek government. Tents and containers should only be used as the last resort, so there is responsibility on the Greek government to ensure that basic accommodation and needs are met. On the other hand, there is a big burden on the rest of Europe in terms of solidarity. There is a relocation scheme in place , but just over 6% of those promised relocations have happened. This is outrageous, we need to see a concerted effort by all the European states to relocate people out of Greece and to get out of the situation.

With most of the European countries keeping their borders closed and with Greece not being able to ensure basic accommodation needs, who is helping the refugees coming to the country?

I was personally very inspired by some of the amazing people on the ground both in Lesvos and here this morning in Athens. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help those in need. However, it’s very clear that on the broader European level there needs to be more relocation, more resettlement places and a widespread approach to treat these people with the dignity that they so deserve. That is a main message Amnesty International has. Of course, as you will be aware, Amnesty International is deeply critical of the EU-Turkey statement. There are number of reasons for this. First and foremost, let’s put it in context; 95% of Syrian refugees are hosted in just 5 countries. Not one of those countries is an EU member state. Europe is not doing globally its fair share in the face of the global refugee crisis and they are even proposing for the ones that arrived here that they would send them back to Turkey, which in Amnesty International’s view, by no stretch of the imagination, is a safe place for refugees.

At the state level, how is Greece coping with the situation?

As I said, I’ve been very inspired by some of the civil society actions, some of the just local people showing extraordinary kindness and solidarity. However, at the state level unfortunately there are still shortcomings. So we need basic accommodation needs, as I said, tents and containers are the last resort. There are also needs to be proper security measures in the camps to make sure that the rights and protection of refugees and migrants are reached. And simple things, it’s so important for the rights of women and girls for example that there are separate toilet facilities for that. Not even that is happening and that’s of deep concern and the Greek government does have a very serious responsibility to play in that.

Greece has received financial assistance from Europe in order to improve such services. Do you see any results?

It’s very clear that the situation in Greece is complicated. A number of the shortcomings that are happening is very slow asylum procedures, so Amnesty International is calling also on other member states to have quicker family reunification mechanisms. Look at humanitarian Visas of ways to doing it. We are asking, of course, that the Greek asylum authorities also speed up the case, especially take care of those vulnerable groups that we are still seeing in terrible conditions. So I think, although on a broad scale you can see that now a lot more resources have come in, still at this more basic level we are not seeing the results that we need and all those different elements will have to come together to deliver a change for the better.

Which are your recommendations about those points?

Amnesty International is very clear in our recommendations. At the EU level we want to see a shift away from constantly stopping people coming, pushing people back EU-Turkey like agreements, and start just talk about how do we have a rights-based approach, how do we allow people to travel regularly, how can we ensure that there is a fair distribution across Europe, not only left in Greece to take care of people’s rights. On a more practical level there is an emergency situation in terms of the rights of people. What I mean by that is, for many months now some of the people I spoke to, the refugees are in deep distress, they don’t know what’s happening to them, they don’t get basic information, and they are leisurely being forced to sleep in the mud, in tents that are just not fit for human beings frankly. So there has to be a joint immediate effort to leave that bad situation. It is an absolute shame in Europe to see that this is happening 2016. We have such vulnerable people sleeping leisurely in the mud.

What are you bringing back home from your trip in Greece?

As I’ve said, Amnesty International has researched these issues very broadly, but I came here as Head of European Institutions Office because I wanted to very witness for myself and especially talk directly to the right soldiers, to the refugees on the ground that we do our work for. And I have to say I’ve been quite personally touched by what I’ve seen, I think it’s quite shocking that still all these months on. So what I would take back to Brussels is a very strong message and of course my colleagues here in Greece will carry to the Greek government that there has to be an immediate effort to leave this situation, it’s totally unacceptable.


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