In a coordinated move, refugees are preparing to travel toward the national borders of both Turkey and Greece to escape the dire conditions of the camps they currently live in and to attempt to start a new life in other countries.
The mass movement has been coordinated on social media and will take place today, April 5.
The United Nations has warned refugees not to join the “Caravan of Hope,” informing them that rapidly spreading rumors of open borders are false and that they could face criminal charges if they try to cross them.
At the same time, human rights organizations have highlighted the dismal conditions refugees have to endure in Greece and Turkey. Although they have been made aware of this, the member countries of the European Union have so far been unable to find a solution to the situation.
In recent months, talk about forming a caravan has become widespread within these refugee communities. It began with Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but as Turkish municipal elections got underway, they decided not to take action. However, Iranian, Afghan and African refugees have prepared their backpacks, left their temporary accommodation and many of them have taken their children out of schools. Administrators for some of Hope Caravan’s Persian-language Telegram channels have announced that the march has started, is legal, and has the support of human rights organizations.
“Have the borders been opened?” ask groups of refugees, addressed to anyone who has even a tenuous link to their predicament. As recently as April 3, human rights activists were also asking the question as the caravan movement gained in popularity.
According to them, some Telegram channels have been informing refugee subscribers that the borders are open as far as Germany. At the same time, there are other rumors circulating, also unsubstantiated. They include the claim that tanks have been positioned on Macedonia’s border, refugees have been beaten up in the Greek city of Thessaloniki and that there has been widespread arrests of refugees.
In Turkey, refugees who have been in the country for mere months have been spurred on by the chaotic management of their asylum claims, joined by others who have been waiting years for their cases to be processed. Some people still based in Iran have gone on to social media sites to express their desire to join the group and try their luck at getting to Europe.
Rumors continue to grow and spread. People have claimed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that the borders would be open for a few days — again, with no evidence to support this claim. In recent months, Turkish officials have complained about the number of refugees in the country and the difficulty of managing the conditions in which they live. According to statistics published by the UN, at the end of 2017 Turkey had more than 3.5 million refugees within its borders.
These statistics also provide a picture of the difficulties refugees face in getting asylum from the countries where they hope to settle. According to a UN report, fewer than five percent of global refugee resettlement needs were met in 2018. To put it more accurately, of the estimated 1.2 million refugees in need of resettlement in that year, only 55,692 were actually resettled. Out of a total of 81,310 referrals, the largest number of referred refugees are from Syria (28,200), Congo (21,800), Eritrea (4,300) and Afghanistan (4,000). All in all, less than one percent of the 19.9 million refugees under the UN Refugee Agency’s mandate worldwide are resettled.
UN: Don’t Believe the Rumors
Dire conditions have made refugees in Turkey and Greece so desperate that are willing to take the risk of traveling to the borders despite the dangers. Recently the UN Refugee Agency warned that the promises of the “Caravan of Hope” could not be realized and that refugees could be charged with breaking the law and even have their documents confiscated if they rushed the borders.
Now essentially the same warning has been issued by the UN Refugee Agency office in Greece. “There have been reports of plans for an organized movement toward the northwest land border, referred to as the ‘Glitter of Hope,’ with the intention to cross the border of Greece to move further onwards,” it reported. But the agency and its partner organizations could “not encourage or support irregular movements,” it stated. “Please be aware that these informal movements, whether by land or by sea, are risky and dangerous. Attempts to cross borders irregularly are often unsuccessful, and can bear serious consequences including arrest, detention, family separation and even death.”
The Refugee Agency warning continued: “States have the right to manage their borders and strict border controls are already exercised by States in the region, in particular to prevent irregular movement ... In addition to potential unwanted legal consequences, participants in these movements may end up in dire humanitarian conditions including being left without adequate shelter, food and other basic services. Children and others with specific needs may be at particular risk. Please do not endanger your lives and the lives of your family members and children.”
Greece’s broken economy has led to both a desperate government and desperate refugees. Bureaucracy, disorder and the influx of refugees who want to reach western and northern European countries have paralyzed the Greek government, making it unable to manage refugees.
In March, Oxfam and 24 other non-governmental organizations signed an open letter to EU leaders calling for modifications to EU migration policies. They stated that the situation for migrants in Greece is “unsustainable."
The letter set out examples as evidence of the unsustainable situation. "Currently, around 12,000 people — twice the maximum capacity — have been forced to spend the winter in overcrowded reception and identification centers, sleeping in unheated tents or containers with limited access to running water and electricity. They are exposed to violence, harassment and exploitation, without proper security or protection. These terrible conditions are due to the European policy of trapping asylum seekers in EU 'hotspots' in the Greek islands, rather than hosting them in locations on the European mainland.”
The organizations called on European leaders to "agree urgently on fair and sustainable arrangements for sharing responsibility for asylum seekers arriving in Europe that will ensure member states' ability to provide decent and dignified conditions."
They also called on Greece to "immediately suspend the restriction of movement that traps asylum seekers to the Greek islands" and to "ensure Greece spends the available EU funding on essential services such as medical and legal services." In addition, they asked for support for the "planning of a fair and efficient asylum system and a long-term and sustainable reception and integration plan for refugees in Greece."
The UN Refugee Agency reports that, since the beginning of 2019, 8,025 refugees have reached Greece — 5,224 by sea and 2,801 by land. In total, in 2018, 50,508 refugees reached Greece, 174 of whom have disappeared or have died. In 2017, the corresponding figures were 36,000 and 310 — showing that the number of refugees trying to reach western and northern Europe is again on the increase.
Of course, these numbers only reflect asylum seekers whose names have been registered by the UN Refugee Agency and by the Greek immigration bureau. There are hundreds of refugees who reach Greece by using human traffickers. Their names are not registered anywhere.
Europe Must End the Deadlock
Despite warnings by human rights organizations and the UN, it is clear that many refugees are determined to try to break through borders without any guarantees that their lives will improve — or even be bearable — once they reach their destination. With European parliament elections approaching in May, the situation is becoming more complex and uncertain, both for the refugees and for the European Union. But what is certain is that, over the last few years, western and northern European countries have shown that they are unwilling to accept larger numbers of refugees or to reopen their borders.
In a speech in March, Edouard Rodier, Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) called on European countries to both increase the number of refugees they allow in for resettlement from countries like Turkey, and to re-start a relocation program for asylum seekers from Greece.
In 2016 the European Union and Turkey agreed that all new migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. In addition to providing financial support to Turkey, Europe agreed to resettle up to 72,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, directly from Turkey.
But the situation for refugees in Turkey and Greece remains critical. “Turkey is now the country in the world hosting the largest number of refugees, while the rest of Europe is providing protection to a disproportionately low share of people fleeing war and persecution. European countries should increase the number of people they accept for resettlement directly, and thereby allow the most vulnerable a safe route to protection,” said Rodier.
Responsibility for the refugees that still manage to arrive from Turkey has been left with Greece. A relocation scheme that allowed asylum seekers to be relocated from Greece and Italy to other European countries formally ended in 2017 and should be revived, Rodier urged.
“The conditions for people in places like [the Greek island of] Lesbos and the long waiting time for a first asylum interview proves that Greece cannot handle this refugee influx alone. With seemingly no broader EU consensus in sight, we call on individual countries and political parties to take the first steps out of the current deadlock. Renewed relocation initiatives from Greece would be a good place to start, to secure better European responsibility-sharing and less haphazard protection for refugees,” said Rodier.
Many human rights organizations have called attention to “gross violations of human rights” in Greek refugee camps. In addition to this, hundreds of refugees spend day and night on the streets of Greek cities enduring extreme cold and heat.
The stories of refugees and former refugees who have spent time on the streets of Greece or in its camps paint a picture of poverty, homelessness, loss of dignity, a lack of rights and being forced into an underground illegal labor market. The European Union’s decision to keep refugees in Greece has another consequence as well. Refugees develop deep hatred toward the country that they have been forced to live in under inhumane conditions. Now, despite ample warnings, many of them are determined to push ahead toward the borders without knowing what awaits them. Just maybe, they hope, they will be able to free themselves from the dungeons in which they currently find themselves.
Read more from Aida Ghajar's series on human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers, including:
The “Hellhole of Athens”, April 3, 2019
Frustrated Iranian Refugees in Turkey Launch Twitterstorm, February 15, 2019
Asylum Seekers in Greece: A Life of Fear and Suffering, January 29, 2019
Iranian Refugee Rights Activist Faces Long Prison Sentence in Greece, January 28, 2019
From Asylum Seeking to Asylum Dealing, January 23, 2019
Meeting with a Human Trafficker in Istanbul, December 18, 2018
Iranian Ambassador Shrugs Off Responsibility for Refugees, December 11, 2018
From France to Turkey: Human Trafficking and Asylum Seekers, November 13, 2018