Afghans left in legal limbo in Greece while ‘real refugees’ helped to settle

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Refugee women with their children Viktoria Square, Athens, Greece.
Refugee women with their children Viktoria Square, Athens, Greece. Photograph: Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

International Rescue Committee points to unequal treatment, saying welcome for Ukrainians proves integration and support is possible for all

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Helena Smith in AthensMon 3 Oct 2022

It is 3.30pm and Suna Hamanawa, 25, is doing what she and dozens of other Afghan mothers do most days: whiling her time away on a park bench in Viktoria Square, a scruffy plaza in central Athens, as her children play around her. Like almost every other asylum seeker, she is relieved to be in Greece.

“We’re better here, we’re safer here even though me and my husband and our first little one [initially] spent 10 months in Moria,” she says, screwing up her face at the memory of the notoriously overcrowded and fire-ravaged refugee camp on Lesbos.

“But every day, in its own way, is a fresh hell. The Greek government does nothing. It just keeps saying ‘wait, wait, wait’. And that’s what we do all day, every day. Wait for our papers, wait for our travel documents. Wait for freedom.”

A year after Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, Greece continues to be the first port of call for thousands of people fleeing the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis. After Ukrainians, Afghans account for the second-largest group of asylum applicants in the EU and by far the biggest in Greece, where more than 37,000 – more than a third of the total number registered nationwide – have filed asylum claims.

Many Afghans think their troubles will be over once they reach Europe … this is simply not the case

Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, IRC

Hamanawa, who arrived in Lesbos with her husband, Mohammed, in a dinghy from Turkey in 2018, waited four years to become one of the estimated 28,500 Afghans to secure refugee status – a protracted period of legal limbo that is vastly at odds with other refugees, not least those from Ukraine.

In a recent report, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) chronicled Afghan refugees’ difficulties in Greece and the serious impact on their physical and mental health.

Of the 192 Afghans monitored by the organisation’s mental health teams between April 2021 and March 2022, about 97% had reported symptoms of depression, while 50% had considered suicide, the IRC report said.

“Many Afghans fleeing conflict and persecution in their own country think their troubles will be over once they reach Europe … This is simply not the case,” says Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the IRC’s Greece director.

“Instead, people face the stark reality of violent pushbacks from Greek borders, months or years living in fear of being sent back to Turkey or Afghanistan, where they could face untold horrors, extended periods trapped in prison-like reception conditions, far from towns and cities and an alarming lack of support to begin rebuilding their lives,” she says.

For the estimated 70,000 Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Greece, it has been a different story. After Russia’s invasion on 24 February, the EU moved quickly to issue a temporary protection directive to safeguard the rights of people desperate to leave the war-torn country.

Although relatively few Ukrainians have headed to Greece, the reception they have received there has been unusually warm, with senior officials often referring to the newcomers as “real refugees”.

It was vital, said the IRC report, that Afghans were also guaranteed access to full and fair asylum procedures and given “dignified” support with accommodation and integration

“While the Greek government has welcomed refugees from Ukraine, by efficiently registering them, issuing legal documents and allowing immediate access to employment, Afghans in Greece, alongside other asylum seekers and refugees, continue to be isolated from the Greek society in which they seek to rebuild their lives,” the report’s authors wrote. “Even after receiving status, refugees have limited integration support.”

Afghan asylum seeker Khorshid Ahmadi and her daughter Leyla in Viktoria Square, Athens.
Khorshid Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee, and her daughter, Leyla, in Viktoria Square, Athens. Photograph: Helena Smith

The biggest barrier for Afghans claiming asylum is the Greek government’s controversial decision to label Turkey a “safe third country” for people not only from Afghanistan but also from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. The decision has prevented thousands of people from being able to explain why they need international protection.

“We’ve been here for four years,” says Khorshid Ahmadi, 26, as she plays with her children in Viktoria Square. “My family’s request for asylum has been rejected three times. They keep saying we should return to Turkey, even if Turkey doesn’t take anyone back from Greece.”

As a result, she says, neither she, her husband nor their five children have legal status or any right to housing or cash assistance.

Greece’s centre-right government insists it pursues a “tough but fair” migration and asylum policy. Accusations of pushbacks – despite overwhelming evidence – have been strongly denied. But keeping asylum seekers at bay remains a priority. In September, the migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, noted that the country had blocked about 50,000 migrants from entering Greece in August alone.

Amid renewed tensions with Turkey, the public order minister in Athens claimed last month that every night about 1,500 people gathered at the land border with Turkey were attempting to cross as a result of Ankara’s policy to “weaponise” migration and push asylum seekers into Greek territory.

As one of Europe’s most southerly states, Greece was the main entry point for more than 800,000 Syrians when the refugee crisis first engulfed the continent in 2015. After the adoption of a controversial pact aimed at stemming flows between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, the influx dropped steeply.

As patrols have been reinforced, with the help of the EU’s border agency Frontex, the number has fallen further in recent years, particularly arrivals on the north Aegean islands facing the Turkish coast, where most asylum seekers at the height of the crisis were located. The decline prompted the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to boast last week that smuggling networks had been largely cracked.

International bodies have echoed the IRC in rebuking Athens for resorting to tactics of brute force to keep asylum seekers out.

Concluding a 10-day fact-finding tour of Greece in June, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders, accused the Mitsotakis government of creating a “climate of fear”, not only for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing poverty and persecution but also for groups defending migrants’ rights on the ground. Illegal evictions of asylum seekers at land and sea borders had become a general policy in Greece, she said.

Baida Al-Saleh, in the foreground, says the group arrived on the islet on 14 July.

Last week, Mitarachi insisted the government would continue to replace open-air camps on frontline islands, such as Lesbos, with barbed-wire encircled “closed controlled” access centres, and would push ahead with plans to extend a border fence along the Evros land frontier with Turkey.

Mohamad Mirzay, Greece’s Afghan community spokesperson, who arrived in the country in 2006 at the age of 14, says: “Every day, we hear from families back home of Afghans being lost at the border.

“One of our biggest problems is that a lot of young Afghans whose asylum claims are rejected get into drugs, a problem we are now trying to address as a community. It’s all so very hard. Very few want to stay here, they don’t want to endanger their future. For sure, you could say, Ukrainians get very different treatment.”

Sofia Kouvelaki, who heads the Home project, an NGO that supports unaccompanied minors, said: “Ukrainian refugees have proved a point. In Greece, and in the EU, they have shown that if we want to integrate we can, and if we want to welcome people with a human face we can do that too.”

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