Greek hospital workers blockade against austerity! – as thousands of refugees remain stranded in camps

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Hundreds of refugee tents in the Greek port city of Piraeus
Hundreds of refugee tents in the Greek port city of Piraeus

GREEK hospital workers on Monday morning blocked the entrance to the Finance Ministry on Nikis Street near Syntagma Square in an angry protest against austerity, which is cutting the Greek health services to ribbons.

Ties were strung on the black banner. The tie-adorned banner was a dig at Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who briefly donned a tie last week following Greece’s Eurogroup debt deal. The Greek premier had never worn one but had pledged to do so when a ‘solution’ for the country’s debt is found.

Crying out slogans against austerity, the protesters obstructed employees from entering the building. Among other things the health union POEDIN is demanding is the reversal of pay cuts for health workers and permanent status for staff on short-term contracts. 

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees are stranded in camps in Greece. Blogger and journalist Joanna Kakissis, working for non-profit US media outlet NPR, visited the camps herself to report on the humanitarian crisis. She met Rasha al-Ahmed, who said: ‘Europe Does Not See Us As Human’.

Kakissis writes: Rasha al-Ahmed imagined Europe would be a clean, generous place – not a makeshift tent in an olive grove where the mud is mixed with human waste and rotting food. A safe life with a house and enough food,’ she said, shuddering as she wiped fetid mud from her 1-year-old daughter’s cheeks. That’s what I hoped for when I crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece.’

Ahmed is 25, tall and no-nonsense, with three young children and a wise-cracking husband, Waleed, who worked as an ironsmith and roofer in Deir Ezzor, the city in eastern Syria where they’re from. They left Syria in November, worn down by a war that, after seven years, appears to have no end in sight.

They tried to live in Izmir, Turkey, but after only a month there, they felt trapped. Turkey hosts more refugees – 3.5 million – than any other country in the world. Most are Syrian. Waleed could not find work, even the most menial and low-paying kind. They saw other Syrians begging on the streets.

So they borrowed money to pay smugglers who helped them cross the Aegean Sea to Greece.

The family arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in December. Two years ago this month, under a deal the European Union sealed with Turkey, Lesbos and several other Greek Aegean islands became processing centres for migrants arriving to the EU by sea. They aren’t allowed to leave these islands until their requests for asylum are processed.

Those who are denied are supposed to be deported to Turkey. Those who receive asylum can go on to mainland Greece – to subsidised housing or, if that’s not available, to another refugee camp that’s better equipped than those on the islands. Ahmed says she didn’t realise that Europe had soured on asylum-seekers and that several EU countries are trying to block them from arriving.

A smuggler in Turkey told her and her husband that refugees are welcome in Europe and the family would have to stay for just a couple of weeks in Greece and then could go on to Germany. When they arrived on Lesbos, Greek police took them to an EU-subsidised camp run by Greek authorities and international volunteers, but it terrified them.

Trash lined every corridor. The overwhelming stench of rotting garbage, urine and feces made them want to vomit. The few toilets overflowed with human waste. Women shared tents with unrelated men. Other refugee women warned Ahmed not to walk around by herself – there were drug dealers and drunk men. She heard people screaming in food lines and watched fights break out. She looked up and saw razor-wire fencing.

‘Europe does not see us as human,’ she remembers thinking that day. The doors close

The European Union started closing its borders to migrants in October 2015, when Hungary blocked asylum-seekers who had previously been waved through the Balkans and Central Europe so they could reach Western Europe.

It was the height of Europe’s refugee crisis. That month alone, the UN recorded more than 200,000 migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece – all of them bound for Western Europe. By the end of 2015, more than a million migrants had entered the EU. Most were from war zones – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan.

More border closures followed. By February 2016, with thousands of migrants stuck in Greece, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was warning that the country was becoming a ‘warehouse of souls.’

The next month, the EU worked out its deal with Turkey aimed at discouraging migration. Just before the deal was sealed, European Commission President Donald Tusk hinted that anyone who didn’t qualify for asylum would be swiftly deported. Do not come to Europe,’ Tusk warned would-be migrants. ‘Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing.’

The EU paid Turkey roughly $3 billion to accept deportees and better patrol its coast to prevent more migrants from entering Europe. It also promised to fast-track EU visas for Turks and expedite Turkey’s EU membership process. And the EU said it would accept Syrians in refugee camps after they’d been vetted in Turkey.

Two years later, the number of asylum-seekers crossing from Turkey has dropped by more than 80 per cent, with 29,595 arriving in Greece in 2017. Most of the nearly 172,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean last year went to Italy, despite efforts to keep them away.

After they arrive on the Greek islands, the Greek Asylum Service, which is understaffed, often takes months to process asylum requests. If the requests are rejected, they’re often followed by lengthy appeals. Amal Adwan, a 47-year-old teacher from Damascus, Syria, must stay on Lesbos until she exhausts all appeals for her asylum request. Syrians face discrimination in Turkey,’ she says. ‘We cannot find work, and if we do, they don’t pay us.’

Amal Adwan arrived on Lesbos from Turkey about seven months ago. Her asylum request was rejected on the basis that Turkey is a safe country for refugees. I was shocked,’ she said, ‘because I didn’t know that there was a deal with Turkey to send us back. I found out about it when I arrived on the boat. It’s like Europe no longer accepts Syrians as refugees.’

While living for months in Turkey, she said she tried repeatedly to find work, to no avail. She worried about being forced to live on the streets. Now she has appealed against Greece’s rejection of her asylum request, and is waiting for an answer. I want to land somewhere where I can support myself. I will stay in Greece if I can get a job,’ she said. ‘I speak English. I am educated. I don’t want to be dependent on state handouts.’

Maria Stavropoulou, the former director of the Greek Asylum Service, told the newspaper Kathimerini in January that there was a backlog of more than 9,000 asylum cases at the time. ‘If there were no arrivals on the islands, I would say that asylum proceedings could be completed in two to two-and-a-half months,’ she said.

In 2017, the number of asylum claims in Greece rose by 15 per cent, according to the asylum service. Its staff received 58,661 asylum requests in 2017 and awarded protection to 10,364 people. Applicants came mostly from Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stavropoulou added that only 16 per cent of migrants arriving can be returned to Turkey under Greek and EU law. Far fewer have in fact been returned. Only about 1,400 of the more than 46,600 migrants who arrived on the Greek islands since the March 2016 deal have been returned to Turkey, according to the UN refugee agency.

As a result, the refugee camps on Greek islands, built to house no more than 2,000 people each, often hold more than three times that number. Leila Hassan, who’s 20 and from Somalia, said that when she first arrived at Moria camp, she wanted to turn around and go back to Mogadishu. Because the camp is like a prison, and we are the criminals,’ she said.

Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch says this is exactly the message the EU wants to send. ‘It’s like the EU is saying, “Don’t come here, because if you do, this is what you’re going to suffer,” ’ she says. ‘Overcrowded, very dirty, very unsanitary camps, sleeping literally on the concrete, on the ground. And this is happening in the European Union. It’s unimaginable.’

Human rights groups want the EU to end the so-called containment policy and let asylum-seekers leave the islands and go to the Greek mainland while awaiting a decision on their claims.