The Inhumanity of Europe’s Refugee Policy


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This commentary was originally published on Project Syndicate. Written by OYW Ambassadors Costas Georgiades and Luca Bucken*

MAASTRICHT – For the asylum seekers in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, the word “almost” has become a source of devastation. They almost made it. They are almost at the end of their brutal journey. As Aarash, a 27-year-old father of a young daughter and an MBA graduate from Kabul, Afghanistan, put it, “When all is said and done, we are only almost human.” And Europe only almost welcomes them.

“Almost” causes unbearable despair to the asylum-seekers trapped on Lesbos and Samos, who have already endured the trauma of their journey and camp life. According to a reportreleased in October by Doctors without Borders, nearly 50% of refugees on Samos experienced violence while passing through Turkey, and close to 25% had experienced violence since arriving in Greece. Officials undertaking vulnerability assessments at Moria are left asking not whether someone has been raped, but how brutally and how often.

Against this background, it is unsurprising that residents suffer psychologically. Yet the waiting list for psychological treatment is over 500 names long, meaning that few will end up receiving any support at all. In the meantime, a small clinic run by the Greek nonprofit Emergency Response Center International in Moria confronts cases of self-harm daily, and suicide is not uncommon.

The trauma specialist Paul Stevenson described a demoralization syndrome that he observed during his work at migrant detention centers on Nauru, off the Australian coast. Following a natural disaster, he says, the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is about 3%. After a terrorist attack, that figure rises to about 25%. In the case of torture and incarceration, it jumps to 50%, because that “is considered to be the most demoralizing situation” a person can experience.


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This photo was taken by Costas while on mission in Greece.

Psychological torture and incarceration are effectively what asylum-seekers in the Moria camp now face. Although they are permitted to come and go as they please, there are no alternative living spaces or food-distribution points. And conditions in the camp are characterized by cramped and inadequate facilities – an estimated 6,600 asylum-seekers are currently residing in a camp built for 3,000 – not to mention the constant threat of abuse.

This situation contrasts sharply with the European Union’s narrative. A year after the European refugee crisis – or, more accurately, refugee-management crisis – peaked in the summer of 2015, the EU declared that the situation was under control. But, while it is true that fewer refugees were arriving on Europe’s shores, anyone who has been to Lesbos lately knows that the crisis is far from over.

Analysts have likened the EU’s asylum and security policies in the Mediterranean since 2015 to the construction of a “fortress Europe.” If the EU is a fortress, Moria camp is its torture chamber, with nightmarish conditions that have been well documented. This is no longer a “refugee crisis” or even a “refugee-management crisis.” It is now a humanitarian crisis by design. Given the EU’s data and resources, this outcome can be viewed only as intentional.

In fact, appalling conditions are being allowed to prevail in refugee camps, because authorities want to deter other asylum seekers – including some who arguably have no right to international protection – from trying to get in, and potentially even to impel some who have arrived to return home. Better camp conditions and allowing refugees to reach the Greek mainland, the logic goes, would contribute to another surge in crossings. Greece’s highest administrative court has called into question the legality of this containment policy, a result of the controversial EU-Turkey agreement. The Greek government, however, has defied the court’s ruling.

t is a heartless, cynical strategy of reckless disregard for human dignity, justified by bigoted discourse and biased narratives. Are Europe’s citizens and leaders really prepared to abandon basic values like solidarity and empathy for a future of walls guarded by Libyan mercenaries, an arguably unlawful deal with Turkey, and unconscionable conditions for people seeking refuge from poverty and conflicts that Europe helped to create?

Against all logic, and despite “almost” after “almost,” Moria camp residents remain hopeful that Europe will soon remember and abide by its commitments to upholding human rights. In the meantime, they demonstrate that it is often in inhumane conditions that humanity shines the brightest.

New arrivals receive support from their communities, including lessons on survival in the camp’s demoralizing environment. The camp’s different ethnic communities often act together to ensure that compatriots who develop psychosis, for example, are among those who actually receive treatment. Waqi, despite incredible personal trauma experienced before and after her arrival in Greece, cares for the children of two families because their depressive parents cannot.

It does not have to be this way. Many promising policies with the potential to create a safe and humane asylum process have been proposed. These include humanitarian visas, preference matching between host countries and asylum seekers, resettlement, and much stronger support for frontline countries.

Advocating for such solutions may not be comfortable or politically popular. Developing and implementing new asylum policies that respect the rights and humanity of asylum-seekers will demand bold leadership. But the status quo is clearly unacceptable.

*Costas Georgiades is a junior policy adviser at Maastricht University, a board member of the Youth Peace Ambassadors Network, and a One Young World Ambassador.

Luca Bücken is Public Affairs Adviser at Maastricht University, Director of Partnerships at Liter of Light, and a One Young World Ambassador.