Photography: Ingeborg Eliassen and Stavros Malichudis

By Ingeborg Eliassen, Juliet Ferguson, Stavros Malichudis, Nikolas Leontopoulos, Nico Schmidt

10th March 2020

When Greece asked other countries to divide 2,500 of the country’s then 4,500 single minors between them six months ago, most rejected the request. Investigate Europe asked the governments why. Their answers reveal that a common and humane European asylum policy has become a fiction. The European consensus is to help Greece keep refugees out. Now a feeble and reluctant “coalition of willing” is emerging. It is likely too little, too late to avert more chaos in the country tasked with containing migration.

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The German announcement came on the evening of Sunday 8th March: The EU, in the form of a “coalition of the willing” is considering taking up to 1,500 especially vulnerable migrant children from camps in Greece – sick children and girls under fourteen.

The seeming about-turn came six months after an unsuccessful Greek appeal for help with relocating 2,500 minors, weeks after local communities in Greek islands descended into chaos, and as thousands of refugees and other migrants had involuntarily become weapons in a battle between Turkey and the European Union on the Greek border.

The German announcement is an admission that does little to hide the reality: There is minimal political will in Europe for an asylum policy based on distribution of asylum seekers across the continent. A much bigger Europe-wide relocation scheme in 2015, promising Greece and Italy to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers, largely failed. Since then, more than 245,000 refugees and migrants have sought asylum in Greece. Today, most other governments are not inclined to show even a small gesture of ‘European togetherness’ in answer to Greece’s most recent appeal.

The Greek Government declined to publish an unusual letter written by Michalis Chryssochoidis, the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection. The letter was sent to 28 of his European colleagues last September, urging them to help. Investigate Europe has obtained this letter through Freedom of information requests in Finland and Norway.

READ Minister Chryssochoidis’s letter to Norway

READ Minister Chryssochoidis’s letter to Finland

READ Norway’s reply to Greece – all obtained via Freedom of Information requests submitted by Investigate Europe.

‘Dear colleague,’ wrote the Minister, before asking for some relief to the kneeling reception system in Greece: Could you distribute among you 2,500 unaccompanied minors now in various camps in Greece?

The words he found to describe the situation could hardly have left any of his colleagues in the dark about the urgency of the situation: ‘We need to act fast in order to take care of their situation, protect them and prevent abuse,’ wrote Chryssochoidis. ‘These minors can no longer remain in the Greek islands, while at the same time it is hardly possible to move them quickly in the mainland as the infrastructure to house them is lacking.’

Taking refugees from Greece will only make more people come to Europe, said the Danish Government in response to the letter last September. The request to Denmark was to take forty unaccompanied minors from the overcrowded camps. Investigate Europe asked 27 European governments for their answers to the appeal and their general willingness to relocate asylum seekers. 14 governments responded to our request, Denmark among them.

The Danish rejection was representative of the European response, which amounted to a massive chorus of “no.”

EU leaves it to the communities

The Danish rejection was representative of the European response, which amounted to a massive chorus of “no.”

The Danish position helps explain why built-up frustration recently exploded among locals in Greek islands. The islands have become seemingly permanent containment centres for refugees and other migrants on behalf of Europe. The Europe-wide rejection to share the burden is also a backdrop to the protests by many of the 42,000 people stranded in sub-human conditions in refugee camps, and why NGOs that try to improve the conditions have become targets for local fury.

The lack of a working European asylum system in the face of global migration and refugee flows has left Greece and some of its smallest communities to deal with the chaos, pitting locals against refugees and aid workers, and encouraging violent right-wing nationalists that have so far been a marginal force in Greece.

The Greek Government has responded with brute police force to the local protests, suggesting a lack of political tools. This only unleashed further rage. Riot police came from Athens to restore order after the government resorted to requisitioning private land to build closed detention centres. In Lesbos, volunteers that have been crucial to keeping the Moria camp going, have this week left the island following attacks by locals that have harassed and attacked them as well as journalists and refugees and other migrants.

As February became March, the Turkish Government added dramatically to the tense situation by letting refugees and other migrants leave Turkey for Greece. This was in breach of the EU-Turkey deal, which since 2016 has kept the vast majority of refugees in Turkey.

The Europe-wide rejection to share the burden is the backdrop to the protests by many of the 42,000 people that are stranded in sub-human conditions

No country in the world holds as many refugees as Turkey, which is host to 3,6 million Syrians and close to 400,000 asylum seekers from other countries. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” and let them go to Europe. Now that he needs European and NATO support for the Turkish incursion into the war in Syria, he is testing how this negotiating tool works. Thousands of men, women and children from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries have become bargaining chips. Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the move a “blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its  geopolitical agenda and to divert attention from the horrible situation in Syria.” At the border, the civilians were met with tear gas from Greek soldiers and riot police.

Lowest common denominator: Hungary

As far as we know, only two governments, France and Finland, told Greece that they will take in refugees in response to the September 2019 minors appeal. In addition to this, the Serbian Government has agreed to take 100 minors in a separate process. Among the recipients of the letter, several others suggested they will only follow if there is a collective European relocation scheme.

But there is no consensus for such an undertaking on a greater scale. The only common European denominator at present seems to be in line with the policies of Viktor Orban’s Hungarian government: To help Greece fortify the borders to Turkey in order to keep refugees and other migrants out.

On 1st March, the Greek Government invoked Article 78 of the EU Treaty, which says that the EU heads of governments can help one member state that has ‘an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries.’ It asked Frontex, the European border and coast guard, to intervene rapidly. For once, governments understood what ‘rapid’ means. On 2nd March, Frontex confirmed it would help with 1,500 officers and equipment from EU and Schengen states. These are required to provide officers within five days and equipment within ten days, according to Frontex.

Having flown over the Greek-Turkish border during a visit with the heads of the EU Council and Parliament on 3rd March, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised Greece “all the support needed.” Greece will get 700 million euros to manage the situation, she promised.

For refugees waiting in Turkey, the current main entrance to Europe, the right to seek asylum is temporarily dismantled. On 1st March, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that Greece will not accept any new asylum applications for one month. Greece has no legal justification to do this, warned the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

France and Finland break the stalemate

Back in September, Greece asked France to take in 350 minors. The French Government did what others did not: It said it would help. Not with unaccompanied minors specifically, but by taking 400 ‘vulnerable asylum seekers,’ most of them families with very young children, according to Julie De Carlini, Head of Communication at the Ministry of Interior in Paris. ‘France chose to relocate 400 vulnerable asylum seekers to help the Greek authorities to deal with the difficult situation, especially on the islands, resulting from the rapid growth of the number of arrivals, and to show some European solidarity,’ De Carlini wrote in response to Investigate Europe’s e-mailed questions.

The French plan is to relocate 400 people from Greece, according to De Carlini: ‘The 400 will arrive by the end of June.’

The Finnish Minister of the Interior also took action following the appeal from her Greek colleague to take 150 minors.

‘Children are in very poor conditions in Greek refugee camps. There is a lack of everything: health care, hygiene, protection. We should soon be able to help these children. We have explored the possibilities of responding to Greece’s request for assistance,’ tweeted Maria Ohisalo, who is also head of the Green party, in mid-February.

Ten days later, the coalition government decided to take in up to 175 unaccompanied children and single-parent families. They will come not only from camps in Greece, however, but from Cyprus, Italy and Malta as well, “depending on where the situation is the most serious,” stated Anu Aavamäki, Senior Specialist at the Finnish Ministry of the Interior. “Finland will receive primarily people who are likely to have grounds for international protection and who come from conflict zones, such as Syria and Afghanistan.”  But the timetable, she says, has not yet been decided.

This means that six months after the Greek called for help across Europe, no unaccompanied minor has yet been taken to relieve the situation in the islands.

Six months after the Greek called for help across Europe, no unaccompanied minor has yet been taken to relieve the situation in the islands

Unimpressed European governments

Greece proposed specific quotas for each country. In the letter, Chryssochoidis explained that this calculation reflected ‘country populations, requests for asylum during 2019 and sensitivity to requests within the Dublin framework,’ as well as ‘the overall political atmosphere within each country regarding the migration crisis.’ This led Greece to propose that Denmark (population 5.6 million), Hungary (9.8 million) and Poland (38 million) take 40 minors each, while it asked Norway (5.4 million inhabitants), Austria (9 million), Sweden (10.1 million) and the Netherlands (17.1 million) to receive 150 each.

Judging from the response, the Minister’s plea did not make much of an impression. Government explanations to Investigate Europe reveal wide-spread resistance to tackle migration in any other way than keeping refugees away – or helping Greece take care of those who nevertheless arrive at the European common external border.

The calculation reflected ‘country populations, requests for asylum during 2019 and sensitivity to requests within the Dublin framework,’ as well as ‘the overall political atmosphere within each country regarding the migration crisis’

Variations of no

The Hungarian Government said it will not participate in any relocation scheme as it does not consider it a solution, but is happy to help with measures to keep migrants out. ‘As far as solidarity is concerned, however, it should be noted that in  several fora Hungary has indicated its willingness to assist in any  tasks involving protection of the external border of another Member  State, or which result in direct and immediate expulsions,’ wrote the government’s International Communications office in its reply to Investigate Europe.

Cyprus (asked to take ten young people) and Slovenia (asked to take forty) point to their own migration pressure for reasons not to help. Estonia, too, says it does not have the capacity. Irish authorities (also asked to take forty) say they agreed to receive 36 minors from Greece in 2018.

Poland thinks the issue is for Greece to solve, with financial and technical help from others. Greece receives money to take care of arriving refugees and other migrants. ‘Since 2015, more than 2.2 billion euros of EU funds have been allocated for this purpose,’ the Polish ministry of internal affairs told Investigate Europe.

Norway also declined, saying it helps Greece with money and other resources to strengthen its asylum system. In late February, the Government stepped up this programme. Following the new Turkish policy, Norway pitched into the 700 million Euros pledge from the EU with a promise to provide 500 bunk beds, 1500 mattresses and ten tents.

The Czech Minister of Interior has requested additional information from Greece, and there is ‘communication on a working level between these two countries regarding the issue,’ according to Czech authorities. But Interior Minister Jan Hamacek previously did not welcome the Greek initiative, saying it seemed pointless to move ‘teenagers without the right to asylum around Europe.’

The German Government was asked to take 350 unaccompanied minors. In its response to Investigate Europe in late January, It said it will not take any under-age refugees from Greece now, but keeps in close touch with its Greek counterparts to help with winter protection in refugee camps, IT support, and 1,000 DNA tests for unaccompanied minors that want to be reunited with families in Europe.

The German Government was asked to take 350 unaccompanied minors

Yes to non-existing European approach

Germany and some other countries including Norway and Sweden do, however, want to discuss a more sustainable common approach in the longer run.

Germany has circulated a proposal for a system that will keep refugees in camps at the external borders initially, but which divides applicants with refugee backgrounds among the states according to the population and economic strength of each country. Germany will take over the rotating Presidency of the EU in the summer. It is expected to try to conclude a reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), a process that has been close to frozen since the influx in 2015.

‘Hiding behind money’

But no new distribution system is guaranteed to come out of this process. And no upcoming process solves the acute humanitarian, social and political desperation in and around the refugee camps in Greece in recent months – nor the chaos at the EU-Turkey border.

The Greek Government has not responded to Investigate Europe’s questions on how it assesses the situation and policy options after the massive show of European reluctance to take some of Greece’s unaccompanied minors.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis did not, however, hide his frustration when he spoke of the situation in parliament in November 2019: “We attempted to reach agreement with all EU states, saying for God’s sake, we are talking about 3,000 children… can they not be shared out among 27 countries so that Europe can show solidarity?” Mitsotakis said. The Prime Minister also claimed the EU “occasionally hides behind money… to avoid taking difficult political decisions.”

“For God’s sake, we are talking about 3,000 children… can they not be shared out among 27 countries so that Europe can show solidarity?”

Calls for a ‘coalition of willing’

“Everyone is waiting for everyone else,” says Karin Andersen, MP for the Norwegian Socialist Left Party, who recently returned from a visit to refugee camps on Lesbos island in Greece.

“If we are to wait for Viktor Orban or the Polish government, nothing is going to happen. Meanwhile, kids are going under in the Moria camp. One European country will be completely destabilised by local conflicts unless we help. We should be able to relate to a humanitarian crisis on European soil without thinking it will change everything. We need a coalition of the willing, as in NATO. Some countries must take a lead, and I think Norway should start,” Andersen explained. Last December, the Socialist Left Party proposed that the Government initiates a deal with Greece to take asylum seekers from Greek camps to be processed in Norway. It received scarcely any support.

“We need a coalition of the willing…Some countries must take a lead”

German and Norwegian cities: We are ready

Meanwhile, cities have been throwing themselves into the discussion, challenging the traditional monopoly of of national governments to define migration policies.

Around 140 German cities have joined an initiative called Safe Harbour Cities (Städte Sicherer Hafen) and want to receive minors from Greece. Potsdam has taken a lead role in this network, and mayor Mike Schubert recently visited the Moria camp in Lesbos, which has 500 unaccompanied children under the age of fourteen. This is also the number that the cities would immediately accept. Their aim  is to find a regulation that will let them do this.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior is responsible for issuing residence permits. However, a meeting planned for the end of January was cancelled by the Ministry. A new date is set in mid-March. Meanwhile, in cities all over Germany, there are vigils to show solidarity, with the motto #WirHabenPlatz (We have space).

Resistance from the federal government might render the local initiatives symbolic. Mayor Mike Schubert of Potsdam, however, thinks there is much more to it: “We have shown that there are cities that are willing to do more than is currently being done. We have turned to the Federal Government with this request to find a solution. According to Section 23 of the Residence Act, the federal states can admit particularly vulnerable groups in consultation with the federal government. And for me, minors under the age of fourteen are in need of protection.”

“We cannot say on the one hand: the conditions in the camps are untenable, children and women must be protected – and on the other hand wait until we have a pan-European solution. This waiting has been going on for five years now,” Schubert told Investigate Europe.

Two Norwegian cities, Trondheim and Stavanger, recently followed suit, with the City Councils stating that they have both the capacity and the will to receive unaccompanied minors from Greece. They appeal to the Government to let them do this. “We, as municipality, will not leave to Parliament the initiative on important issues that in the end relate to how we act as humans,” said Kari Nessa Nordtun, the Mayor of Stavanger. Trondheim City Council Member Ottar Michelsen echoed this stand: “The government should reconsider its rejection to Greece and let us do this, instead of acting like a plug.”

The combined pressures of escalation in Greece and grass root initiatives seem to have forced the relocation issue into some governments’ agenda. After an evening meeting on the 8th March, the German Government announced it would take in unaccompanied minors from Greek camps – provided a “coalition of willing” is negotiated on a European level.

In addition to France and Finland, the following day Portugal and Luxembourg said that they would pitch in together with Germany, the Guardian reported.

The German Government announcement does not answer to the Greek appeal to take in 2,500 minors, however: This scheme would encompass up to 1,500 children that are seriously ill or unaccompanied children under fourteen years of age, most of them girls. In the camps, those are a small minority. 90 per cent of the unaccompanied minors are boys over fourteen.

FACTBOX 1:

  • As of 15th February, Greece had 5,424 unaccompanied minors, a number that has been growing. The country has again become the main gateway to Europe for people who have left their home countries. The big majority of those who arrive, come from war zones. Every third person is under eighteen, and more than half of them come from Syria and Afghanistan. Nine out of ten of unaccompanied minors are boys, and one out of ten is under fourteen years, according to EKKA, the National Center for Social Solidarity.
  • Less than half of unaccompanied minors in Greece have safe living conditions.
  • In January 2020, almost 2,000 unaccompanied minors were in Greece’s infamous camps, another thousand were staying in squats, temporary apartments with others, or were homeless. 223 were held by police in prison cells, so-called protective custody, EKKA reports.

HEADER PHOTO: These six Afghan teenagers dream of a future away from war and with opportunities to study and work. Their journey stopped in the Moria camp in Greece, where they are sharing this tent next to a row of toilets. Nine out of ten unaccompanied minors in the camps are boys. Nine out of ten are over 14 years of age. [Photograph Ingeborg Eliassen]

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