The lunatics running the asylum: Part I

The latest statistics released by the UNHCR put the number of refugees and migrants entering Greece so far this year (as at August 2015) at 124,000. This represents a 750% increase on 2014 numbers, which in turn were a 280% increase over the previous year.

Is this a “migrants” story or a “refugees” story?

Although many of the headlines insist on confusing the two, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of people who have been arriving in Greece are refugees, i.e. people fleeing war and persecution, as opposed people in search of jobs. Unfortunately, this confusion dovetails neatly with political rhetoric in many European countries, where the anti-immigration agenda is on the ascendant. Over 60% of recent arrivals are Syrians, with the second largest groups being Afghan nationals. For better context, this story should feature on the news alongside the latest ISIS beheading clickbait, rather than the Greek bailout negotiations or the latest Nigel Farrage rant.

And while it is true that it is more distressing to see thousands of desperate people arrive by the boatload on your beach resort (aka. “the doorstep of Europe”) we mustn’t forget that Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries neighbouring Syria are already hosting over four million refugees of the conflict there. And both situations put the 3,000 camped at Calais into perspective.

Is it a money issue?

As with many stories on Greece, a lot of the reporting focuses on the local economic crisis. The prevailing narrative is that thousands of desperate people are arriving in a broke country that can’t even feed its own people, and the evil EU isn’t doing enough to help. This is a very emotive simplification.

In fact, money is only part of it. There is money available, and most of it comes from Europe; half a billion Euros in EU funds were made available to Greece this year specifically for tackling the looming refugee influx, but the government hasn’t gone through the process to claim them. This equals Greece’s budget for immigration for the five years 2008-2013, three quarters of which was also provided by the EU and other European countries. Money is only part of the equation, and Europe’s culpability relates more to what happens after the initial reception of the refugees than to why people are camping out in parks and abandoned hotels in Greece.

As with many areas of life in Greece, the main problem is institutional inadequacy. The systems for handling immigration and asylum were misconceived by international institutions and poorly implemented in Greece, while the funds available are inadequately absorbed and largely misdirected. This is a problem that predates the crisis, and pumping more money in won’t necessarily solve it.

So what is the problem with the institutions?

Much of the UN’s reporting on the issue revolves around creating the institutions to manage the officially acknowledged route of asylum for non-economic migrants, and much of the national legislation is designed around this too. However, as the UNHCR and European agencies reluctantly acknowledge, this skirts around the fact that even the majority of refugees (i.e. people fleeing war and persecution rather than people looking for employment) have not historically been keen to apply for asylum in Greece.

Out of the tens of thousands of arrivals in the last few years since new asylum procedures were introduced, well under ten thousand per year filed asylum applications in Greece. In 2014, first reception centres served only 20% of irregular arrivals into the country. Even though the EU’s Dublin II regulations of 2003 stipulate that an asylum application must be registered at the first country of entry into the EU, it was in no-one’s interests in Greece to abide by them. On the one hand, the shambolic and punitive system of asylum applications in Greece has served as a deterrent, but there has also been positive reinforcement for taking the informal route.

This is because historically only a small majority of irregular arrivals in Greece have been refugees, while regular entry procedures from outside the EU would have given Kafka an inferiority complex. In the last Greek census in 2011, immigrants, overwhelmingly from neighbouring Balkan countries, were estimated to make up 9-10% of the total population. These, together with more recent arrivals from Africa and Southeast Asia, were primarily economic migrants, drawn by the demand for labour in agriculture and construction. The pattern established over this period was for new arrivals to enter through an irregular route, and to seek regularisation subsequently. The new arrivals and the hosts shared a mutual interest in maintaining this arrangement. Irregular entrants fed straight into a flourishing grey economy where employers did not have to pay social security contributions or follow regulations and were thus guaranteed cheap and hassle-free labour. While the going was good, this suited most Greeks, whose lifestyle aspirations were buoyed by a steady supply of Albanian bricklayers and Bangladeshi fruit-pickers to do the heavy lifting while they enjoyed their freddos in the shade.

Under duress from European and global conventions, Greek immigration laws went through several stages of reform starting in the 1990s, but, for instance, the laws around asylum were not modernised until 2011, and only began to be implemented in 2013. Only a minority even within civil society in Greece considered this to be a priority, and it became even less so since the beginning of the crisis. In particular, measures aimed at protecting human rights and enabling regularisation have been consistently downgraded in favour of deterrents to entry. For example the majority (85%) of the budget for immigration has been spent on border control, detention and return policies, often applying tactics such as “push-backs” and unnecessary detention that fail basic UN standards.

So, even in better times very few arrivals in Greece chose to apply for asylum, even if they nominally met the criteria. If the aim was to stay in Greece, the risk of getting caught up in the inadequate processing system was too great, compared with the option of operating below radar with the collusion of local interests until a regularisation window became available (there were three separate initiatives since the late 1990s which regularised 900,000 migrants). If the aim was to move on, then it was and is simpler to transit through to a more receptive destination. Irregular arrivals who fail to file an asylum application are de facto committing an offence in Greece and can be detained and deported if caught, but that is still often seen a more expedient alternative to a formal asylum application.

This remains the case even with the more recent arrivals. In 2014, around 9,500 asylum applications were filed in Greece. Of the estimated 124,000 arrivals so far in 2015, only 6,200 had applied for asylum by the end of June 2015. Italy, the other first country of reception for migrants by sea, has a slightly better rate of applicants to arrivals. Compared to this, however, Germany and Sweden received over 280,000 asylum applications between them in 2104 (itself an indication that Dublin II is not being enforced in practice, and other European nations are receiving flows). Lack of access to the application process is an issue, but the European Border agency Frontex and the UNHCR both acknowledge that the main cause is reluctance on the part of the refugees themselves. These refugees in transit fall into a grey area that neither local nor international policy provides for.

Where does this leave us? Since border reception procedures were primarily designed to capture asylum applications, which there was little actual demand for, and there was little political or popular pressure to bring them up to standard, it is not surprising that we find them in the crunch years of 2014 and 2015 in an atrophied and totally inadequate state. The Asylum Service stipulated in the 2013 legislation is only 75% staffed , while fewer than half of regional reception centres have been built, and they not located where they are most needed. At a very basic level, refugees need to register their country of origin so as to avoid being sent back. This basic registration then falls largely to local police stations which naturally lack the know-how, staffing and facilities. Hence the people sleeping in the streets or under canvas.

This is a slow-motion train wreck, which happened while everyone (the Greek and European authorities, the international community) were studiously looking the other way, whistling Bugs Bunny-style. Now that it has happened, they are too busy arguing over who pays to clear the track to call an ambulance.

Most new arrivals want to pass through Greece as quickly as possible, they do not want to spend any time in reception centres on the islands or camped out in parks in central Athens. The ones who have made it this far are the ones who had the financial means to do so. They include skilled middle class  professionals, doctors, engineers and businesspeople, who have cashed in most of their property and life savings to pay traffickers for the journey with their families. They will eventually catch a train to Thessaloniki at their own expense, some might spend a night in a hotel there before crossing the borders on foot to take the “Black Route” through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, then Serbia, then Hungary which has recently started building a border fence to deter entry. Central government is doing very little, local authorities and volunteer organisations are struggling to make conditions liveable for these people during their stay. They are trapped in a typically Greek bureaucratic bottleneck that, ironically, suits the countries on their onward itinerary which are also unprepared or unwilling to deal with them.

And then there is the Greek politics… More of which in a later post…

A sequel is now published: The lunatics running the asylum: Part II

Image: A Syrian woman takes a selfie after arriving on the beach in Kos. Reuters.

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The lunatics running the asylum: Part I

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