With all eyes on Covid-19, refugee suffering continues in Greece, Turkey and Syria

Posted on Mar 21, 2020

by Kevin Clarke, America’s chief correspondent and the author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press), March 19, 2020

With most global media and political attention fixed on the coronavirus pandemic, other significant humanitarian challenges have fallen out of focus, no matter how grave. Among them is the ongoing refugee dilemma on the Aegean islands of Greece and at the borders of Turkey.

This refugee crisis at the doorstep of Europe is threefold and interrelated—conditions at overcrowded refugee camps in Greece have become desperate, and both island residents and refugee families stranded in the camps have grown frustrated by their living conditions and the lack of progress on permanent relocation. And in an attempt to highlight its own problems maintaining a vast refugee population, Turkey has revived threats to renege on an agreement with the European community and to open its border, allowing refugees through to Europe.

At the same time, since December thousands of Syrian families have been pressing against the closed border with Turkey, desperate to escape the violence being visited on Idlib Province by Russian and Syrian forces. Idlib represents a final territorial holdout in a nearly decade-long resistance to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Now Russian air strikes and incursions by Syrian army and irregular forces have driven noncombatants from ruined homes and villages. As the civil conflict in Syria grinds into its ninth year, many thousands are being dislocated by the latest fighting for a second or third time, having already fled sieges of former rebel strongholds like Aleppo and Homs. According to a situation report from Jesuit Refugee Service, between December 2019 and Feb. 23, 2020, more than 950,000 people have been on the move from the fighting in Idlib—eight out of 10 of whom are women and children.

Added to this volatile mix is rising anxiety over coronavirus in refugee camps, according to humanitarian advocates. With health care capacity “severely lacking in the hotspot camps,” they fear that a Covid-19 outbreak could have disastrous consequences.

Maria Alverti is the director of Caritas-Greece. The Greek government, like many others around the world, recently ordered extreme measures to lock down its own public, closing schools, universities, restaurants, cinemas and sporting activities—“anything that can prevent a big number of people getting together,” Ms. Alverti reported. “The virus is quite high on the agenda now, [but] so far, we have not heard official measures for the camps.

“We are deeply concerned what might happen if the coronavirus spreads in camps like the ones on the islands where thousands of people are packed [together] and severe health issues are already their daily challenge,” she said, describing conditions by email.

Of course, refugees in Greece are not the only groups facing heightened vulnerability to coronavirus. Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, expressed “great concern that the spread of Covid-19 will impact the more than 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world.” She said that refugees and forcibly displaced people are particularly vulnerable to the rapid spread of the disease “and economic and policy implications that happen as a result.”

“Refugees often live in unstable or overcrowded conditions and lack access to health care,” Ms. Rosenhauer said. “Some, like the millions displaced in Iraq and Syria, have potentially already been exposed, while others, like those trying to flee from Venezuela, will be denied the right to seek asylum with border closures.”

In Turkey, where millions of refugees have for years found a safe haven from the fighting in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the refugee population has become one of President Tayyip Erdogan’s favorite political cudgels. His frequent threats to release refugees currently warehoused in Turkey has raised alarms across European capitals even as it has bewildered the refugees themselves caught in this diplomatic and political limbo. Hundreds were recently encouraged to head to the border, even assisted in doing so by Turkish officials. Now humanitarian officials in Greece report that groups of refugees are “stranded” at the border and that clashes between these refugees and Greek police or army forces are a daily phenomenon.

Greek officials report that more than 26,000 people have been blocked from entering Greek territory, and hundreds have been arrested near the Evros River. Advocates for refugees complain they have been blocked from visiting sites where refugees have been attempting to cross over from Turkey, but video of the Greek coast guard forcing back boatloads of refugees with gunfire shocked viewers in Europe. Advocates say Greece’s unilateral decision to suspend asylum claims and the efforts of its security forces to push refugees back from its borders represent refoulement, or the forcible return of refugees, violating international law.

On March 3, Jesuit Refugee Service–Greece joined more than 90 other humanitarian and refugee advocacy organizations in a letter to the European Union and leaders of E.U. member states, calling for immediate action “to decongest the Aegean Islands of [Lesbos], Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros through fair relocation of asylum seekers for the sake of universal human rights and in accordance with E.U. obligations.”

According to the groups, 42,000 asylum seekers now reside on the Greek islands, about seven times their capacity, and residents on the islands and in the refugee camps “are braced for a surge in arrivals” if Turkey does open its borders.

While Western media portray Turkey as something of the heavy in this ongoing refugee brinkmanship, a statement issued by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles points out that Turkey is hosting more refugees than any other country in the world just now—“and more than twice as many as the rest of Europe combined.”

“It is time for the rest of Europe to do its fair share,” E.C.R.E. said.

Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million refugees, E.C.R.E. reports, adding, “not all of them have the intention to reach Europe as they are settled in [Turkey]. Not everyone in the border is Syrian, there are also Afghani and Iraqi [refugees] that are also in need of protection, and the right to apply for asylum must be upheld for everybody.

“The current situation shows the risk of outsourcing protection and relying on Turkey instead of finding collective European responses and fixing European asylum systems.”

Greece, too, these refugee advocates say, has been forced to carry too heavy a burden on behalf of Europe. Total refugee arrivals in Greece were 74,613 in 2019. Over the last two months more than 6,000 additional refugees have arrived. In their letter to E.U. leaders, refugee advocates complained that “five years of neglectful E.U. policy has finally culminated in days of protest, N.G.O.s threatened with violence and mass strikes across the islands.”

A situation report shared by an official from Caritas Internationalis notes, “There is a big change in the atmosphere and public opinion [about] refugees on the islands…. N.G.O.s are also targeted as part of the problem and we are all quite infamous and unwelcomed.” The report states that on the island of Lesbos, more than 25,000 migrants and refugees are “living as always in horrible conditions in the area around the official Moria camp.”

“Refugees are considered as a threat for the communities that have had enough of carrying such a huge burden,” according to the report, which adds that humanitarian workers have been physically and verbally attacked; their cars have been burned, as have spaces set aside for hosting refugees. Racist and aggressive incidents are increasing and “civilians” have been patrolling streets and stopping cars seeking out refugees, humanitarian workers and journalists. Even as the numbers of refugees and threat from coronavirus grows, some humanitarian groups have suspended their activities because of safety concerns in light of these incidents.

In their letter, humanitarian N.G.O.s said, “This ongoing political stalemate between the E.U., Greece and Turkey must be resolved. This game, played by the powerful, is putting innocent human lives at risk. It must stop now.”

According to the statement: “Greece has been left alone to deal with this crisis—and the island communities more than anyone. Today, Europe must act to correct five years of negligent policy-making. It must own up to its chronic shunning of this international burden and recognize that good policy can fix this man-made catastrophe. As the humanitarian situation worsens beyond anyone’s reckoning, it is your responsibility, as E.U. leaders, to ensure decisive and coordinated action to protect human life.”

In addition to their work at the Aegean Island camps, Caritas and Catholic Relief Services have successfully managed programs of social integration for thousands of other refugees in Greece who have been moved out of the camps and set up in transitional living in Greek communities. In January, before the gravity of the coronavirus crisis in Europe became clear, a letter to E.U. officials was sent by Vatican leaders including Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., archbishop of Luxembourg and president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union; Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., undersecretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; and Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, almoner of papal charities.

Citing the success of efforts to integrate refugees, the Vatican leaders called for European states to shoulder their fair share of the refugee burden, alleviating pressure on resource-strapped Greece. Church officials have also called for greater global attention to the source of the refugee crisis, urging protection for noncombatants in Idlib and a negotiated end to the fighting in Syria. Church officials have also joined humanitarian leaders in condemning recent moves by Greece authorities to prevent additional refugee landings from Turkey.

Leaders of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, in a statement titled “Stay calm, stay human,” noted that over 12 million people have been displaced by repression and violence in Syria. “Their lives should be a priority,” E.C.R.E. said. “Only a small percentage will make it to the European Union, which should respond in a calm and humane way, taking on its fair share of responsibility and using the legal and financial measures at its disposal to manage the situation.”