On a bright and sunny day in early April, outside a terminal at what was once the Ellinikon International Airport in Athens, I listened as Javad, 16, told the story of the second refugee flight of his life. Javad (not his real name) is a member of the Hazara ethnic group and originally hails from the Baghlan province of Afghanistan. His family fled his home country during the rule of the Taliban, who infamously targeted the Hazaras for massacre, in part because most Hazaras are Persian-speaking Shi‘a. They escaped to Iran, where they lived in relative safety, but not dignity, as Afghans often face the exploitation of Iranian employers and the discrimination of the government. Life in Iran was still preferable, however, to returning to Afghanistan, where the Taliban are resurgent in many provinces, including Baghlan.

What led Javad to flee Iran was fear of forcible conscription by the government to fight on the side of the regime in Syria. Trying to spare their sons this fate, and following news of refugees traveling via Turkey to Europe and finding protection there, Javad’s family mustered what money they had and borrowed some more to pay for him and his older brother to make the journey. His brother was sent first, and Javad had to wait nearly two months before his family could collect the funds to send him as well. As his bad luck would have it, the delay meant that Javad arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos within days of a March 18 agreement between the European Union and Turkey, which effectively halted his trip and consigned him to a large tent outside the old Ellinikon terminal.

The airport ceased functioning in 2001, and lay in disuse for over a decade. Only in March did it begin to serve as a makeshift camp housing refugees and migrants. At Ellinikon, some 2,000 refugees—the camp manager refused to disclose the exact number—are living a life in limbo, uncertain what the future holds. Most are Afghans. Even before the current “migration crisis,” Greece was heavily criticized, not only by international human rights organizations, but also by other EU member states, for the conditions in its camps. In 2011, in fact, the European Court of Human Rights held that the camps were so crowded, dangerous and poorly maintained that to return asylum seekers to Greece would constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The conditions in which migrants and asylum seekers are now being forced to live in Greece are even more degrading—Amnesty International uses the terms “dire” and “appalling.”

Javad shares his tent with dozens of men, all sleeping on blankets on the floor. The shelter is designated for single males, and Javad was moved into it along with a group of other boys under 18 traveling without family. But men over the age of 18 were also placed there—in contravention of regulations concerning the detention and housing of unaccompanied minors. Everyone I spoke to at Ellinikon, whether they were staying in tents or inside the buildings, complained about the inadequate food, sanitation and medical care. Numerous children were suffering from colds and fevers.

Many of the refugees were nonetheless prepared to endure these conditions, if they knew that their stay would be temporary. Almost everyone I spoke to, whether at Ellinikon, or in other places around Athens housing asylum seekers, had traveled to Greece from Turkey with the intention of moving onward. No one planned to remain in Greece, a country undergoing a major economic crisis.

In the summer and fall of 2015, it was possible to move on. International conventions to which European countries are signatory forbid refoulement—the sending back of persons to a country where they fear persecution, or from which they could be sent back to a country in which they fear persecution. Those claiming asylum are entitled to have their case heard. In July 2015, Germany became the first of several EU countries to temporarily suspend the Dublin regulations, which require would-be refugees to register and seek asylum in the first EU country in which they arrive. Hundreds of thousands of people crossing into Greece could continue their journey—usually to Germany or Sweden, the top two destinations.

But the political tide turned, and as fall turned to winter those countries closed their doors. So did transit countries like Hungary and Serbia, which did not want to be “stuck” with the refugees. The Dublin regulations were reinstated. Greece was left having to deal with a seemingly unending flow of migrants and asylum seekers.

The EU-Turkey deal of March 18 is meant to discourage people from taking the Greek route into Europe. It allows Greece to return to Turkey any migrant arriving “illegally” after March 20, 2016. The principle of non-refoulement still applies: To avoid retracing their steps to Turkey, all those arriving in Greece must apply and be approved for asylum there. But Greece’s asylum system is badly overburdened, and it is clear the country does not have the means to absorb all of the refugees.

The pact makes special provisions for Syrians, stipulating a “swap” of sorts—for every Syrian who is sent back to Turkey, one may be resettled from Turkey to the EU. Presumably, the Syrian being returned is one who does not, strictly speaking, meet the definition of a refugee (it is a fallacy to assume that all persons who flee a conflict are refugees as contemplated by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees). In addition, Turkey has agreed to clamp down on illegal migration across its sea and land borders. The deal comes with financial incentives for Turkey and liberalization of EU visas for Turkish citizens.

Some asylum seekers in Greece will still be able to move on to other EU countries. Under a previous European Council decision, those nationalities whose asylum applications have over a 75 percent success rate (according to Eurostat statistics) can apply for relocation from Greece. At the moment, that essentially means that Eritreans, Iraqis and Syrians are eligible. Just over 900 of the 64,000-plus applicants have been relocated since September 2015.

But neither the “swap” nor the relocation procedures apply to Afghans. So someone like Javad must either seek and be granted asylum in Greece or be sent back to Turkey. Afghans are often rejected for asylum since they are deemed first and foremost to be “economic migrants” and not “political refugees.” This categorical exclusion runs counter to fundamental notions of fairness and the right to have one’s case assessed on an individual basis. It seems particularly unfair to Afghans, whose country has known little but war since 1979.

Since the EU-Turkey deal, arrivals in Greece have fallen significantly. More than 50,000 refugees and migrants “trapped” in Greece are gradually being moved from places like Piraeus and the village of Idomeni to official refugee camps administered by the Greek authorities. Those who are seeking asylum in Grece, asking to be reunited with family members in other EU countries, or hoping to apply for internal relocation must wait while the slow process grinds on.

The EU-Turkey deal, the Dublin regulations and, indeed, the international refugee regime itself are incapable of addressing the unprecedented forced displacement in today’s world. The mentality that labels this phenomenon a “migration crisis” for Europe neglects to consider the reality that forced displacement, for both political and economic reasons (which are related, despite all attempts by policymakers to separate the two), will continue for the foreseeable future.

How to cite this article:

Parastou Hassouri "Letter from Ellinikon," Middle East Report 278 (Spring 2016).

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