by Mariana Canotilho, Editor
‘Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’
The 6th EASO Consultative Forum Plenary took place in Athens on 28-29 November 2016. I took part in it, as an academic, interested in EU law, and a volunteer working with refugees. A feeling of deep frustration seemed to be shared by most of the attendants (academics, NGO’s workers, EU and UN agencies’ representatives). What is being done is not enough. It is too slow, too bureaucratic; the legal framework is either insufficient or absurd and counterproductive.
EASO is the European Asylum Support Office. It plays a central role in the implementation of the EU Migration agenda and the new hotspot approach. It is the European agency more focused on the specific problems of refugees, trying to strengthen the practical cooperation among Member States on the many aspects of asylum, and providing practical and technical support to Member States and the European Commission, especially to those whose asylum and reception systems are under particular pressure.
However, it can only do so much. The meagre means don’t help, but neither does the competence set, nor the legal framework being applied. The most worrisome feature, repeatedly questioned by NGOs, UN agencies and volunteers is the ‘safe country of origin’ criteria. As part of the European Agenda on Migration, the Commission proposed on 9 September 2015 to establish a common EU list of safe countries of origin that would enable fast-tracking of asylum applications from citizens of these countries, which are considered ‘safe’ according to the criteria set out in the Asylum Procedures Directive and in full compliance with the principle of non-refoulement. This might seem a reasonable idea. However, the criteria are so strict, that countries like Turkey and Afghanistan are considered safe based on their ‘stable democratic system and compliance with international human‐rights treaties’. As this does not stop people from fleeing war and human rights violations, it only aggravates the problems, creating a group of ‘second-class refugees’, who cannot even apply to the relocation mechanism.
Meanwhile, NGOs on the ground do what they can. What they can is mostly kind and helpful, but not enough. At the same time, as an outside observer, I realize at the EASO forum that the small, inevitable conflicts between them have already started. ‘This is my organization’s task, we don’t need you, go to some other camp, do something else’. Coordination, sharing of resources, experiences and solution’s mechanisms prove harder than one might think.
Furthermore, the whole system seems to be focused on the relocation, ignoring the growing and seemingly unsolvable problems that both refugees and welcoming institutions in countries like Portugal face after that, during the integration process. Cultural gaps, management of expectations, lack of communication due to language problems, the troubles in finding jobs and returning to what refugees refer to as ‘a normal life’ can prove almost impossible to endure and overcome.
At the Jesuit Refugee Service’s shelter house in Athens, almost 50 (soon to be 90) refugees of 4 different nationalities live in small rooms and share common areas, like a kitchen and an activities’ room. They are the lucky ones. They have left the tents in overcrowded camps like Moria, where fires break out as a protest and people get killed. They have been logged in a proper house, with heating and running water, whereas thousands of their fellow refugees live in various squats around the city, where their everyday subsistence depends on self-organised autonomous structures aided by anti-state activists and non-state volunteers.
I met Mohamed there. Like the others, he is waiting. Waiting to know where his life will hopefully be rebuilt, to find the rest of his family, waiting for a place to call home.
He is a nice plump man in his forties. His eyes are sad, his face worried. He has four kids. The two eldest ones, aged 13 and 11, attend Greek public schools. They are calm, educated children, who speak to me in English and Portuguese, putting to good use what the volunteers of the JRS and PAR have taught them. They are already fluent in Greek and Arab. So much wasted potential! Nevertheless, the effort being made by Greece, in between its never-ending financial and social problems, and the harsh treatment is has suffered at the hands of the Eurogroup, is moving.
Mohamed’s youngest son is a 7-month-old baby. I pick him up, and his father adds in a fainting voice: there’s something wrong with his head. The child clearly has some kind of handicap, his look totally absent, his little body lumpish. Please help him, he adds. He’s beautiful. He is, I answer. He’s wonderful. We will do our best.
Will we? Can we?
Picture credits: MEPs visit Greece (…) by European Parliament.