When an asylum seeker reaches Greece after spending an onerous period braving some of the harshest conditions the human experience has to offer, they frequently meet consternation. The country they arrive in submits people looking for a better life to an elaborate system that starves them of their rights as asylum seekers under the Geneva Convention. This inevitably devolves into situations that mirror gross human rights violations. These situations exacerbate what many of the people face in their home country: poverty. The Borgen Project spoke to migration specialist Margaux Cachera to better understand the asylum system in Greece and its effect on poverty.
How the Policy Changed
Cachera worked on Leros, a Greek Island in the southern Aegean sea. She worked in conjunction with a hotspot that serves as the first glimpse of Europe for some migrants. She insists the asylum system in Greece has intrinsic ties to Europe’s policy on migration, which is admittedly poor. “There’s the basic issue of European countries not following the rule of law regarding refugees. One of the main principles of international law is nonrefoulement, which they are violating. So they are infringing on a key principle of refugee law. They simply go around it.”
The process of refugee migration in Europe is as follows; every asylum seeker may submit an application for international protection once inside the boundaries of the asylum country. However, on the fringes of Europe, in places like Spain, Italy and Greece, they face more difficult migration problems than northern countries. They have also increasingly looked to tighten immigration laws and border controls. After years of loosely following international law, a 2016 agreement with Turkey changed everything about the asylum system in Greece.
The controversial legislation and agreement with Turkey ensured that refugees and asylum seekers could no longer travel to other European countries. They thus end up in a clogged system that does not want them. Programs to house, feed and integrate asylum seekers have since fallen into disrepair. Cachera contends that in the years since the agreement came into being, the asylum system in Greece has become a divisive political football. “Since then, there has been a shift to a more intense, right-wing government and this agreement has started to be more harshly applied – not that it wasn’t ever applied before – and they [refugees and asylum seekers] are now being put into detention camps at scarier rates.” The asylum system in Greece is now morphing from a process by which people integrate into society to a process by which they experience exclusion or imprisonment.
The Poverty Asylum Seekers Face
If one reaches a Greek island with the hopes of attaining asylum, they immediately face stark reality. Before the 2008 economic crisis in the country, migrants experienced greater employment than natives. The following years proved the opposite, with unemployment rates among refugees dropping at greater rates than natives.
This phenomenon does not apply to asylum seekers, who often cannot obtain employment due to a lack of legal standing in Greece. As a result, they must live in a kind of limbo – unable to be employed and unable to have their case heard. This has created an environment with “no stable electricity or running water, limited food and insufficient space for social distancing.”
Cachera highlights the paradox about the asylum system in Greece – often asylum seekers (those who have not yet received their refugee status) benefit from greater aid than those who have received official status but are soon to lose it if they receive the good news of refugee status. “Asylum seekers don’t face the kind of poverty that refugees do. They have a shelter – which is deplorable but a shelter nonetheless. They have food – daily meals. And a stipend.” It then becomes curious to figure out why the system does not aid in the integration of its new migrants.
Greek’s hostile position to NGOs that help asylum seekers and provide programs that grant emergency housing and cash assistance programs like ESTIA and HELIOS, which “subsidizes rent and independent housing for up to twelve months” for vulnerable refugees, essentially subjugates asylum seekers to unwanted and uncared for wards of the state. It perpetuates a kind of incomplete existence in which not even prisoners remain.
What this Means for the Future
The solution appears to be one of increased funding to systems that aid asylum seekers and refugees. This functions in addition to the restoration of eligibility periods for programs like ESTIA. Such programs provide housing and cash to newly arrived refugees. Greece must realign itself with the principle of nonrefoulement. It must also reconsider its agreement with Turkey, which amounts to a naked attempt to circumvent established rules of the Geneva Convention, the doctrine that employs itself to protect vulnerable asylum seekers.
Of course, poverty has intrinsic ties to the process. Amnesty International recognizes 1.4 million refugees who currently need resettlement out of the more than 70 million people who have experienced forcible displacement due to “conflict, persecution or natural disasters.” Developing countries host about 84% of these people, which does not include Greece. Without a 180 degree turn to restore dignity and material resources to those waiting for refugee status the system is bound for further disrepair.
Human rights advocates and migration specialists like Margaux Cachera often publicize shameful issues to garner attention for gross injustice. Questions about actionable solutions, though, often engender a bevy of good ideas. “How do you make camps better? Should camps exist at all? I guess we’re not trying to discuss revolution here but enabling people to have agency is key. That’s the whole thing…. Camps in the global north are so regimented to a certain extent that they don’t allow for a microeconomy… Personally, I think it’s crucial that people are allowed to cook by and for themselves if they want. Which can spawn local vendors. People then have money to buy food and cook for their families. Some form of normality in that form would create a more positive social impact inside the camps.”
Depending on our aims for humanity, the global community must understand and address the asylum system in Greece. This would not only benefit those inside the walls of refugee camps and hotspots but also impact global poverty.
– Spencer Daniels