September 15, 2015. Together with our team we have visited all the islands affected by the migration and refugee crisis within the last months including Lesbos, Kos, Rhodes, Tilos, Samos and Leros. Due to the situation, I had the chance to visit Lesvos just a couple of days ago as it is the transit point for the refugee flows.
We feel so proud of our support towards these vulnerable populations but extremely frustrated that there are still no safe legal passages.
The situation remains post-apocalyptic in Lesbos; again, thousands of refugees being stranded on the island. It’s a double shock. The scale of the refugee flow and the arrival conditions as, in the absence of a proper transportation service, people were forced to walk 25 miles to the nearest small center of registration.
Urgent that relief is stepped up and all stakeholders acknowledge is that what is missing at the main entry islands of Lesbos and Kos and the exit point at Idomeni border area are the transit centers which we aim to establish with various partners and the support of Open Society Foundations /Open Society Initiative for Europe.
Arrival kits, transport facilities are all desperately needed on Lesbos. People will take their chances in rough seas over the winter with increased loss of life. The prime role of Lesvos as a migration route is largely an accident of geography. Turkey is so close that refugees have to cross as few as six miles of water to reach the island. And nearby Turkish shores are sparsely inhabited, making them ideal places for human traffickers to gather refugees and launch them in flimsy inflatable rafts.
While other Greek islands, like Kos and Chios, are also close to Turkey, the waters around Lesbos are relatively calm, making the crossing easier. And the maritime authorities in Turkey have cracked down on human smuggling farther south, according to Syrian smugglers in Turkey. That crackdown has not been as strict near Lesvos, where arrivals have skyrocketed to more than 50,000 last month alone. For most refugees, who are coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Lesbos is a mere way station on the way to mainland Greece and farther afield in Europe, although the island’s isolation has at times hindered that journey. Earlier this month, a rise in arrivals and slow registrations led to a backup of more than 20,000 migrants on the island, nearly a quarter of its native population. The refugees protested the lack of services, blocking traffic and clashing with the police.
As I visited during the day, the streets were full of refugees speaking a variety of languages, lugging large backpacks and charging their phones for an outrageous fee at impromptu charging stations in cafes. Long lines form outside ferry company offices.
The European Parliament backed plans to relocate 120,000 refugees across member states to ease pressure on Greece (50,400), Hungary (54,000), and Italy (15,600). On a Ministerial level, the disagreement remains with objections from Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the ambiguous position of Poland.
The proposal is for a mandatory relocation weighing each country’s capacity on the basis of GDP (40%), past asylum applications (40%), and the unemployment rate (10%). The countries participating will receive a subsidy of €6,000 per relocated person, including a 50% pre-financing rate to enable national authorities to act very swiftly.
Our advocacy has to grow stronger – refugees are not treated as human beings and children lose their lives at sea or lose their families during the crossings. This is not OPEN Europe; it is now separated not only by borders but by ideals and humane treatment of fellow humans. It is not illegal for someone to cross the border and request asylum.
But what needs to be done to handle this unprecedented situation?
We need to improve reception conditions in the southern Mediterranean, especially in Greece. This will require increasing search and rescue; providing financial and technical support to affected countries; and implementing a coordinated and rapid emergency response mechanism for recurrent refugee flows.
Increase safe, legal passages to and through Europe for refugees. This means expanding use of all possible tools for safe entry into Europe, including resettlement but also mechanisms like family reunification and humanitarian visas. The EU will also need to make it much easier for refugees to move safely from border countries to other member states, reforming or ideally replacing the Dublin System. Introducing air travel and rail service would be life-saving. Finally, the EU needs a comprehensive, common asylum policy with minimum standards of protection.
And most importantly, we have to address the reasons why people are fleeing to Europe. Working alongside other donors, the EU and member states need to greatly increase support for the countries outside Europe hosting the bulk of refugees. They should also commit renewed diplomatic and political muscle to solving conflicts and ending persecution.
This is the last opportunity for member states to show Solidarity or else the EU, already receiving high pressures from Russia and the terrible Ukraine situation, will start to dissolve.