Europe's refugee crisis: 'Legal pathways are the only alternative'

Issue 
Asylum seekers rescued on Lesbos. Photo by Isabelle Merminod.

“This year has not started easy, and I am not optimistic,” the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos told a press conference on January 25.

He was warning Europe that its worries about security had to be balanced with the Schengen agreement (which allows free movement) and the protection of asylum seekers. He said: “Last year, more than a million people reached Europe's shore looking for protection. More than 30,000 have already arrived by sea in 2016 so far, in only three weeks!”

On the ground, they worry more about the safety of refugees rather than security or the Schengen agreement: “The level of desperation is dramatically high,” says Boris Chesirkov of UNHCR at Lesbos in an interview in December.

Down on the beaches of Lesbos, refugees are more stoic: “No trouble with the police in Turkey.” A young Syrian woman with a ten-day old baby in her arms speaks calmly even though she has just landed on a beach from an over-loaded, Turkish-made inflatable of very doubtful quality.

An Iraqi refugee says: “Three hours to cross — engine problem.”

Around them we saw volunteers rolling out their well-practiced drill. First, those in wetsuits go into the water waving the approaching refugee boat to the beach. They guide the inflatable boat on to avoid capsize.

Other volunteers stand either side of the boat past children and the elderly safely to dry land. Dry clothes and some food and water await, and then to the UNHCR buses waiting on the road to ferry arrivals to the official registration centre. At this point boards in the floor of the inflatable are removed, the outboard unshipped and the boat is cut up for removal.

In 20 minutes it is all over. Another 30 or 40 men, women and children have made it to Europe. Then binoculars come out and volunteers look for the next boat. On average UNHCR say that about 2000 people were arriving each day in December although the number dropped in January.

But it doesn't always work out and people continue to die. In a macabre twist, there are reports of lower prices during rough conditions.

“To give a 50% discount during stormy weather; it is incredible … this year [2015] the number of fatalities and missing in the Mediterranean — that includes the aged — is 3580 people,” said Boris Cheshirkov.

Registration

Although the UNHCR says much has been achieved over the past few months to ensure some basic level of services and systems, Cheshirkov ponted out: “The total capacity of the island is 3000 people. Current arrivals is just over 2000 per day. Weather will play a key role: the worse the weather is, the fewer arrivals.”

There is a spillover informal camp outside the main facility.

Refugees receive a grant of six months stay in Greece for those from a country in civil war like Syria. Afghans receive one month as their country is deemed not to be enmeshed in war.

The two types of permit make no difference at all; the refugees all head straight to the port for the ticket for Athens.

We witnessed a young — very young — Syrian taking the ferry to Athens. Brahim was not even one day old. His dad carried him and tried to help his mother hobbling painfully up the ramp of the ferry amid several thousand other refugees. People eventually found her a wheelchair.

Why was Brahim's family in such a rush? There is still a long way to go and there is always the danger that Europe will shut all its borders within the Schengen area, trapping refugees in Greece.

To politicians in Europe who demand that Turkey force refugees to stay, Nour Ghazal, a young Syrian — who spent a year in Turkey before leaving for Europe — replies: “I don't want to go to Europe. I want to work in Turkey.” He spent a year in Turkey trying to make it.

Speaking fluent Turkish and English, he got work as a cleaner and then as a receptionist. But there was a catch; to get a work permit you need to show you have money in the bank and Syrians cannot open bank accounts in Turkey.

His last job was — like all the others — illegal work with 12-hour days. If the work had been legal, then the boss would “have to pay to the government and they have to pay to me 2500 Turkish lira not 1250”.

In the end, he gave up trying to make it in Turkey and took one of the boats.

Legal pathways needed

Cheshirkov laid out an alternative strategy to the deadly political theatre being played out on the borders of the EU. He says that with the UNHCR policy of increasing legal routes for entry into the EU — in other words making migration easier — refugees will enter legally on humanitarian visas and then seek asylum.

“We will continue to call on the EU to create legal pathways, legal channels into Europe because this is another reason why people are moving using smugglers to come across this perilous sea. They are doing it because they can't get on a plane and join their family members.

“Family reunion needs to be a reality, resettlement quotas need to be expanded, humanitarian admissions need to be present, humanitarian visas need to be given, private sponsorships need to be in place, student visas, low skilled labour visas. All these things need to create a system where refugees are able to safely arrive in Europe.”

He continued: “People are really desperate, they are living in really dire circumstances … and legal pathways are the only alternative to the smugglers.”

Cheshirkov pointed out: “The EU has the resources to manage … the solution is deeper integration on asylum; the EU working together shifting resources where they are needed; processing people quickly, and providing them with real opportunities to become self reliant.”

Captain Amoutzias, the policeman who is the deputy commander for the Moria reception centre was blunt about Greece's attempts to block refugees when we interviewed him in December. “We built a fence in Evros [the river separating Turkey from Greece] and [then] they came through Lesbos…”

He continued: “A lot of people say 'why not the army?' and I say 'They start from Kabul and they come in Turkey. There it is only two hours journey. They will stop? No, they will not stop. They will try. They will die or they will pass. What can you do? Kill them?”

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