by Aspasia Papadopoulou, Senior Policy Officer, ECRE*

“We had been prepared for the worst when visiting Moria. And it was bad indeed.”

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Lesvos is how close Turkey is. As the plane was landing at Mytilini airport that night, I could see the lights on the Turkish coast shimmering just a few kilometres away. It is tantalisingly close and it is only natural that people fleeing will want to cross.

We had been prepared for the worst when visiting Moria. And it was bad indeed. This all-in-one centre (registration, identification, fast track readmission processing, shelter and detention) hosts over 2,200 people in a space for 1,000. Overcrowding brings all sorts of ills with it. People fight for space, for the provisions, people fight because some nationalities have priority over others. And no matter how hard everybody who works there tries to push things through, there is no answer to the question of when they can leave this place, or the island for that matter. People wait for different things, in a place that looks undeniably like an open-air prison – even with the gate open. Frustration nurtures tension, you can feel it in the air. It only takes one little thing for a riot to spread like fire.

Then there are the children. The Moria centre currently hosts over 90 unaccompanied minors;, previously we were told they were over 150. But that is no place for children to be. Their graffiti-covered courtyard is a separate compound surrounded by barbed wire; the door remains locked. You can see them waiting, anxious and uncertain, glued to their smartphones where life is more interesting. Organisations supporting unaccompanied minors struggle to find shelters to take them out of there. Many have family members abroad but family reunification takes too long. Unaccompanied minors are not the relocation states’ favourites either. In Lesvos or in mainland Greece, these children are stuck there for too long.

Vulnerable groups and persons eligible for family reunification under Dublin III are channelled into the regular procedure for asylum in Greece and are given an appointment for the Asylum Service in Athens, where their claim will be examined. The others go through the fast track inadmissibility procedure that assesses whether they could be returned to Turkey as a ‘safe third country’. If the case is found inadmissible, they can challenge this before the appeals committees. 55 positive decisions have come of out the appeals so far. The appeals are a significant safety net, and the positive decisions are important because they prove that safeguards are there, and challenge the very basis of the EU-Turkey deal, namely the assumption that refugees can be returned to Turkey.

“The EU-Turkey deal, hailed by the EU as a success, is an inhumane deal that warehouses people on both sides of the Aegean.”

And for this, the refugees need lawyers. We spoke with the few lawyers currently involved and it seems that there is substantial need for more. Interest is growing from legal experts around the world who are looking into the possibility of supporting this emerging need. Nevertheless, as the lawyers on the island explained, there is little that foreigners can do, apart from funding or trainings for Greek lawyers. Ultimately, it will be them who can represent refugees. It will be them who will be struggling with cases now and a few years down the line, and whose capacity it is useful to strengthen. And they will be the first to get involved and try to stop deportations from happening.

The EU-Turkey deal, hailed by the EU as a success, is an inhumane deal that warehouses people on both sides of the Aegean. It is also based on a number of false premises. One of them is that refugees can be returned to Turkey. The appeals decisions triumphantly confirm what numerous reports have been saying, that Turkey is not a safe third country. The other is that there will be no arrivals because people will be prevented and discouraged from coming. A deal is a deal, and it can be broken in politics. If that happens, Lesvos will face a situation much worse than last year and it is even harder to think what a hotspot really can do.

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* ECRE and GCR conducted a field visit to Lesvos between 23-25 May 2016 in the framework of the project ‘Strengthening NGO involvement and capacities around EU hotspots developments’ 2016-2017, implemented by the Dutch Council for Refugees, the Greek Council for Refugees, the Italian Council for Refugees, ECRE and Proasyl.

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