This is a speech by Electra Koutra about the refugees and the conditions they are held in Greece. The speech is in Greek but translated and transcribed below.
At the end of September 2010, the UN High Commissionaire for Refugees spoke of the situation in a European country using for the first time ever the term “humanitarian crisis”.
These are cases I’m handling. Afghan refugees, Hazaras, one of the planet’s most suffering ethnicity The conditions in which these people enter Europe and are detained and the living conditions after their detention are considered to be, legally speaking, inhuman and degrading and as such they are forbidden by article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights hereafter referred to as ECHR. Here we can see some families. It is an activist project I’ll tell you about later on.
Let me introduce you to the subject. Europe is an attractive destination for refugees exactly because it guarantees specific rights to them by means of its legislation and international commitments. This practically means that all EU member states provide in their legislation – International, European and member state laws alike- that since a person claims to be a refugee that is, enters an EU country and asks for asylum – we, Europe, are supposed to be a safe ground for refugees- that country is bound to offer the so called “reception conditions” which include providing a shelter, food, clothes access to healthcare and education structures, access to the labour market, interpretation, legal aid.
This is the package that an EU member state is legally bound to offer as reception conditions to any asylum seekers who enter its territory since the very moment they claim to be refugees and ask for asylum regardless of the fate of the claim. In Greece these things fall under legislation as much as under imagination. By no means can this happen here.
To be more specific we have a reception capacity of 900 people 900 beds let's say while the refugees here those who have already applied for asylum, the so called "backlog" are at this very moment about 55,000. And it is estimated that twice as many, i.e. another 100,000 people have entered the country, live among us but have not yet managed to gain access to the asylum procedure that is, they haven’t even managed to apply for asylum and they live next to us in extremely harsh conditions since no right of theirs has come into force – not even “in papers”. So they wait in the row to ask for asylum or, practically, they wait for a chance to escape Greece and seek refuge in another EU country. So, this is how it is.
However, what is oxymoron, and I want to talk to you about it today is that, at this very moment Greece is handling 90% of EU’s refugee flows. Yes, that is actually true. This happens because yes, of course, we are a small, poor country at the EU borders. Before telling you why this is happening I should first mention something that many of you are not aware of: In Greece 99.96% of all asylum claims are rejected. Yes, 99.96%. 99 point then 9 and then 6. A huge divergence from the average rejection rates in the EU countries, right? This practically means that not Greece, but EUROPE has no asylum today given that the critically vast majority of refugees who choose Europe as a land of Refuge are stuck here.
So there is no Asylum in Europe at this very moment. And I am saying this openly. One does not have to be an expert to understand it. 90% of Europe’s asylum seekers are stuck here, where there is no refuge. And then they are refouled, directly or indirectly, to their countries of origin. I won’t go into legal details. So, we have this difficult issue. The question is what we can do about it. Oh, let me first mention that the situation is aggravated by the fact that IF an asylum seeker manages to leave Greece for another European country the Europeans will send them back to us. They put them in special flights and send them back to Greece in order for their asylum claim to be processed by the Greek authorities.
This happens because of a European legislation. I’m saying that because besides the fact that Greece has the EVIDENT responsibility for what is happening there is also a sheer responsibility of the other European countries and there is also a clear responsibility of Europe’s institutions. So, a European Regulation has been voted whose name is "Dublin II" defining which member state is to examine an asylum claim submitted in Europe. And THAT state, according to the Regulation is the EU state that the asylum seeker first entered and, in 90% of the cases that state, is once again Greece because of its geographical position. This is how all these desperate people are stuck in Greece. Hardly any of those wishes to remain in Greece, because it is natural: they would be "pervert" to choose a life under these circumstances.
To introduce you to the solution, I will first tell you a story. The meaning of my presence here is to tell you that when governments don’t do certain things –which they should civilians CAN do them instead. And that’s the concept of my presence here. A couple of months ago – as I mentioned earlier, I’m not saying things the way I had planned to - the Finnish Asylum Agency paid me a visit. They had come to Greece to check out the reception centers and, instead, they found the detention centers we have in their place. They had met with a couple of concerned institutions including the Hellenic Action For Human Rights whose I’m honoured to be the President in their effort to be informed about the condition of the refugees by our legal department – unfortunately it comprises by myself only and I wish there were more of us in it. All 18 people who visited me at my office were visibly shocked by the conditions they came across and the way we treat the refugees. And they did nothing to hide their shock.
Then a strange thing happened: although at my public interventions I am kind of harsh about the crimes that the refugees undergo I unexpectedly felt the need to defend Greece. It was as if I was the accused in an international court of law knowing I was guilty but there existed some very important extenuating circumstances in my support which I had to present and fight for. One of those was the complicity of my very judges.
So at that point, a bit upset as I was with their rebuke for they were talking about our "crimes" I asked them how many refugees enter Finland per year that beautiful, prosperous, well-organised and model country in asylum matters. Their answer was: "No more than 4,500". “Give me a break, guys. That’s as many as we get in 10 days”, I said which was every one to two weeks back then. "And you can see that these people live in conditions that are forbidden by the third article of the ECHR i.e. these so-called inhuman and degrading conditions which we, all EU countries, guarantee that something like that will NOT happen to anyone within our territory OR within our jurisdiction!
While saying that, I followed my own train of thoughts to realize that we can also find a state's jurisdiction in its embassy abroad. I went on to say: "What would you do if I took all those people from the parks where you witnessed them living deprived of everything and brought them to the embassy of Finland?
You are a public agency yourselves and you know what happens -the “crimes” you said are being committed. So, what would you do if I asked you not merely for asylum because you could reply it is not provided by your national legislation but for a humanitarian visa for asylum-related reasons? Why? Because otherwise these people will be exposed to the conditions you condemn. We all do so, much as sometimes there are no means to face a situation. But you can, can’t you? That caused quite a stir. The head of the delegation literally mumbled that nothing like that had ever happened before - but it has asylum requests to embassies, in the army and aboard ships have been applied again - anyway, "it has never happened", he said "and in any case we couldn’t deal with such high numbers".
Of course they couldn’t -and shouldn't- deal with these numbers for no EU country should be left ALONE to deal with these numbers! This is a European matter, it is of common interest and it should be handled as a matter of shared responsibility. As a matter of fact, the Regulation itself speaks about burden sharing and solidarity. The reality is nothing like that the other EU countries return refuges to Greece despite the 700-odd appeals to the European Court for Human Rights for interim measures, that have suspended removals of asylum seekers. Those who had the chance to do so presented their case to the European Court of Human Rights and were not returned to Greece. The Court estimated they would probably be in danger here. Each country is autonomously responsible for refugees not being endangered by their removal. And despite the appeal of Mr. Hammarberg's himself the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights who said: "DO NOT return refugees to Greece" and "Dublin II Regulation should be immediately suspended" until it is finally abolished and we have come up with a way to reasonably handle this phenomenon. Because human rights are blatantly violated in this case.
Nevertheless, other EU member states return refugees to Greece where they certainly know they will suffer such violations. So that was when this activism began the very same afternoon if not 5 minutes after they walked out of my office- i started looking for the legal meaning of "jurisdiction" so as to be certain that this can happen if an embassy is surely within the jurisdiction of the sending state if i can do that thing, take the refugees there.
You see, I'm very close to these people's suffering so I could see a solution there. And, legally speaking, it is a solution. There is a clear legal basis on that the embassy’s territory falls under the administration of the embassy's country. Visa issuing is undoubtedly within its jurisdiction. I am asking them to issue visas for the refugees and protect them by keeping them into the embassy and not letting them back out in the streets of Athens because, as I'm telling them, this would legally equal to returning them to Greece by plane that is, exposing them BACK to the violation which we all have GUARANTEED to prevent.
However, none of that has been accepted. We have been to many embassies. The claims to the embassies are not over yet but we've already had the first written rejection so now we can and will go to the European Court for Human Rights. This time - and that's the interesting part - we are not against just Greece although it is exactly because Greece is violating the ECHR that the other state is also in fundamental rights' violation. So, this time we are against the state of the embassy too thus taking a little step towards honesty and towards assuming our responsibilities. All Europeans. It's not over yet.
Let us see some pictures again These are 24 refugee families typical refugee cases in terms of ethnicity, they belong to one of the most vulnerable ones on the planet. 723 of these families include children and one is an unaccompanied minor who regularly, 2 to 3 times a week gets raped at the park where he lives. These are our children, who we take to the embassies where they are not welcome. To be honest, we did not expect an embassy to officially keep them because that would be a move of diplomatic significance but they could, even off the record, have protected them until announcing the official response. No, they asked them to leave and we already have the negative answer. We are waiting for others too. In every single such rejection we will be turning to Strasbourg's Court and, whatever the outcome this is a situation that may sensitize and may also force people face their responsibilities. At the same time I should say a few more things about these people.
All of them are families that entered the country at the end of last summer passing through the borders at Evros. There The UN Commissioner could not perform its autopsy in detention centers. It was impossible because of the filth. These people are there with their children. They are detained there, some for a few days, others for more. Fortunately, not for too long. The refugees are so many that they can’t keep them. Imagine that many of them are kept in police station yards. I don't know what they'll do with the cold weather. Fundamental human rights are being violated not only for the refugees, but for the police officers too. There is no doctor –officers are in danger too; the refugees are so many and detention conditions are so cruel that at some point they will even be lynched. They use the same unsafe vehicles that the refugees are transferred with.
Anyway the problem is systemic. It’s not only one group that is suffering; Greece is suffering as well. Just imagine those 450 people who enter Athens every day holding a small paper that says: ‘Agios Pandeleimonas’ or ‘Plateia Attikis’ square in Athens, that still has "room" for them. Just imagine them entering a small city flooding in its few streets and squares, without access to asylum. They are like goasts in the Greek state. Imagine them in a small city, sleeping in parks without food, without a job, no rights whatsoever. Just think that only those who entered the country in 2010 equal the population of Volos, the fifth biggest city in Greece. So, these are some of these families very vulnerable they are in danger because they are Hazaras, just because they belong to an ethnicity. It is something that they couldn't change. If we send them back they will get killed for their ethnic origin is very obvious on the features of their face. Here they are near Omonoia Square, waiting for their meal. They're already there early in the morning but they eat around noon if they are lucky enough to get a meal - and that's the only one in the day. They haven't got a place for a shower, they live in the parks and their living conditions are humiliating. I don’t want to depress you. It is positive that something can be done about this. At the same time - and this can be far more dynamic than the embassy activism - which is kind of a "law trick" - but one with a proper basis - and I believe that it will probably have a good "fate'. We have also worked out a project, one to-the-point proposal that could become European legislation. And what does this proposal say? What should be happening to refugees when they enter Greece. Where to go, how to seek asylum and how to be forwarded to other EU countries. Because the issue here is NOT to stop Europe from returning refugees to Greece. Actually, this is the debate in Europe. This is what we are supposed to be striving for. But what does really matter? Those 100 people per month who are sent back? Those 10,000 who are waiting to be returned but haven't been yet?
THAT IS NOT THE ISSUE! The real issue is that it is actually impossible to seek asylum in Greece. Even if an asylum seeker manages to apply Greece cannot guarantee asylum seekers' rights. It is impossible! So other EU member states MUST acknowledge that and decide what they are going to do about it. They must understand that "NO REFUGE IN GREECE" means "NO REFUGE IN EUROPE". They must put the record straight about it all. Laws are not just a show-off. They must be applied. Otherwise, if they wish to they will have to suspend the relative international conventions all of which, though, are related to the "image" of the rule of law and admit: "We do NOT accept refugees in Europe!" instead of saying: "Greece stinks!". "Europe is NOT a land of refuge any more!". We know that it's not, but they should admit it! That's the point. Otherwise, they should assume their responsibilities which is something they can do rather easily.
Political will is needed, of course. As far as political will is concerned and the proposal we have worked out, which is like a draft law concerning what will be happening after the entry of an asylum seeker in the EU and how refuges will be resettled in other EU countries instead of being flown back to Greece. Upon entering Greece, and since they are on EU ground the refugees will be the ones to choose the country to process their claim and the ONLY reason why that country will refuse access to its territory will be their refugees' settlements being overcrowded to the point of threatening the refugees’ rights.
So, this is a new model a different perspective on the situation that could bring about an immediate solution. The interesting part here is how the civil society can be activated and how magic is its meeting with the information society In today's context with the clever social networks and the internet the proposal we have worked out or even just one specialist could have invested time on it saying proudly: "I can solve the problem on my own"."Just on my own." "I will do it! I can!" Even this could turn out to be European legislation a proposal which is called "citizens' initiative and is about drafting a law and addressing it to EU institutions within a matter of just a few hours! It would only take 1,000,000 votes i.e. signatures of citizens residing a competent number of EU member states. You probably realize that, on a European level is a very small number allowing you to validly promote your draft law to the EU institutions and just tell them: "Here it is!" thus forcing them to examine it. So that is happening at the same time as our embassy activism. End of time, isn't it?
I have to finish, so I'd like to tell you that maybe if each one of us was "activated" in this way we would be able to see the European Union in action not only as a monetary union or as something imposed on us but as a Europe of its Citizens a Europe just as what it claims to be a place of security, of peace of Justice even a place of common dreams. I mean, if every single one of us is personally involved and activated one will be able to see common goals being achieved. And I truly believe this!
All the best to you. Thank you!