By Matthias Mertens, AFE Advocacy Coordinator and Campaign Coordinator with Europe Must Act
This past year has been one of crisis upon crisis in the Aegean, each surpassing the previous in the scale of human suffering caused, each painfully demonstrating how fundamentally flawed Europe’s approach towards migration and asylum is.
In March local islanders took to the street to protest the construction of new permanent camps, these turned violent on Samos, Chios and Lesvos. On top of this came the Evros border crisis, to which EU Commission President Ursula von de Leyen declared Greece to be the “Shield of Europe”. This prompted neo-nazis across Europe to descend on the Aegean islands to “defend the borders”. This outburst of violence culminated in arson attacks on an NGO warehouse in Chios and a community centre in Lesvos.
Then the pandemic started. We were not all in it together. Refugees and asylum seekers found themselves cooped up in overcrowded and unsanitary camps with no means whatsoever to social distance or wash their hands. Camp residents were subjected to measures that restricted their freedom of movement and access to services even as the lockdown for Greeks was lifted. As Greece welcomed tourists, its coastguard perpetrated violent and illegal push-backs that left refugees stranded and exposed at sea.
As people found themselves trapped in the camps, tensions grew. This led to multiple and climaxed in the complete destruction of Moria camp in September, in which 13.000 people lost their homes and belongings overnight. The EU Commission and Greek authorities responded by hastily erecting Moria 2.0, exposed to wind and sea on a contaminated former army shooting range. Meanwhile, PIKPA, a community-led camp offering safe and dignified accommodation to vulnerable refugees, was closed down by authorities.
Yet, there is a silver lining to this truly disastrous year. In the face of the systemic violence and human rights abuses, grassroots and refugee-led organisations across the Aegean have significantly boosted their advocacy efforts. We are making our voices heard. We are making known to the world how the rights of refugees are being trampled upon. We are calling on Europe to act in line with its humanitarian values.
Continuing these robust advocacy efforts will be crucial in 2021. The coming year will be decisive for how refugees and asylum seekers are (or aren’t) welcomed in Europe. The EU Commission and Greek authorities are hellbent on establishing permanent closed centres on the Aegean Islands. Such a centre on Lesvos will now be built next to the island’s landfill site, some 8km away from the nearest village.
A very real danger exists that a new system will arise that is equally inhumane but better able to hide from public view behind the walls and barbed wire of closed reception centres.
As this comes to pass, who are we if we remain quiet now?
Our work in the new year is more critical than ever before. Join us in preparing for this future and support our ongoing winter campaign: www.actionforeducation.org/to-the-future.