Ritsona, Greece – Restrictive government decisions have excluded thousands of refugees from protection services and are creating a hunger crisis, aid groups say.
Just under 18,000 refugees live in camps on the Greek mainland. More than half – 60 percent according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency – do not have access to food services or cash distributions. Almost half are children.
This is because last September the government restricted services to those who are in the process of seeking asylum. Most of the camp residents do not fit this description.
Some have been granted asylum and are only entitled to benefits for 30 days after this decision.
Benefits were previously extended for six months, to help people navigate employment opportunities and premises. The government reduced this period in March of last year.
Asadullah Sadighi and her 16-year-old daughter, Afghans living in Ritsona camp, a former Air Force radar base 90 km north of Athens, fall into this category.
Sadighi told Al Jazeera: “When they give us asylum, they no longer give us food or money and leave us to fend for ourselves. They completely take away our protection.
He asked relatives back home to send money.
Those who were rejected and exhausted the appeal process have been ordered to leave the country – although the authorities are not forcibly removing them from the camp premises, as they cannot return them to Turkey.
In theory, a 2016 EU-Turkey deal obliges both sides to readmit failed asylum seekers, but Turkey stopped doing so in March last year.
And there is a third category of people who cannot even apply for asylum because they are deemed inadmissible.
Last June, a ministerial decision considered Turkey a safe third country for Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
These nationals are no longer even the subject of an asylum application, according to aid groups, but they are asked to apply next door, in Turkey.
“Turkey does not accept returns from Greece, so these people are in a legal vacuum, and one of the consequences of this vacuum is that they are not entitled to food and other basic rights.” , explains Melina Spathari, advocacy manager for Terre des Hommes. , Greece.
His was one of 33 aid organizations that wrote to the government at the end of October warning it of the looming humanitarian crisis.
They declared that Greece’s refusal to examine the asylum applications of these five nationalities on the merits contravenes European Directive 2013/23, which “provides that if the third country refuses to take back a person, the State must examine the asylum application as to its substance “. .
People who did not register as asylum seekers upon entering Greece are among those deemed ineligible for asylum proceedings.
Al Jazeera recently covered the plight of hundreds of Cubans in this category, who crossed the border between Greece and North Macedonia, where there is no registration center. IOM recorded the number of unregistered Greek refugees living in camps in October at 3,268, but there are many living in urban centers.
Previously, they had only one legal way to register once inside the country, and that was through a Skype interview with the Greek asylum service. But Mobile Info Team, an aid group that educates asylum seekers about their rights, says GAS has now cut that route due to a 14-month backlog.
Unregistered refugees and those for whom Turkey is considered a safe third country have no legal options, says Martha Roussou of the International Rescue Committee, one of 33 signatories to the October letter to the government.
“They don’t have any legal documents to stay here, so they can’t work, they can’t open a bank account, they’re in a legal limbo. And absolutely no provision has been made for these people, which is a complete oversight, ”she said.
Greece has rescued thousands of Aegean refugees, enrolled refugee children in public schools and secured funding from the European Commission for apartments for some 20,000 people.
But its policies have become increasingly restrictive since March 2020, when Turkey encouraged refugees to storm Greece’s borders. Greece accused Turkey of “arms” and “instrumentalizing” them.
Rather than easing restrictions, the government is tightening its grip on refugee management.
This year, he took over the management of 26 continental camps from IOM. On October 26, he again sidelined the UN by taking responsibility for the distribution of cash aid provided by the European Union.
The transition period has meant that those who are eligible for the money do not receive it for two months, further contributing to the food crisis. The so-called grocery stores and restaurants that refugees operate inside the camps depend on these cash distributions, as well as remittances from abroad.
Apostolos Veizis, who heads the INTERSOS organization in Greece, sees this treatment of refugees as part of a broader strategy of discouragement.
“After five years of these camps on the mainland, we are discussing a situation as if it were a 2015 or 2016 emergency,” he said, referring to years of high refugee flows in the EU. “This is an emergency that was not created for lack of resources. This is probably created because there is politics beyond and before people.
“The aim is that these people are not supposed to stay in the camp,” says Veizis.
Last July, the government encouraged thousands of destitute refugees to exit the streets and settle in camps.
“Thousands of recognized refugees, including mothers with young children, pregnant women, the elderly and chronic patients, were left homeless, living in public places for long periods of time,” Spathari said. “Having no viable alternative, they were forced to return to the camps in order to have access to the bare minimum, water, food, shelter and primary health care.
Aid groups like IRC point to a different possible future.
“We have seen asylum seekers who, because they were supported by an NGO or a municipality, and not by the state, do not even need this cash assistance,” Roussou said. “They can go look for a job, rent an apartment and live independently. People are perfectly capable of standing with a little support. “