Refugees around the world are facing a plethora of issues and challenges. However, Afghan refugees in Greece are currently dealing with a specific hurdle: the potential closure of their camp in Elliniko.
Afghan asylum seekers in Greece are in a particularly difficult situation because Afghanistan is now classified as a post-conflict country, increasing the probability that they will be forced to return to Afghanistan. The potential closure of the refugee camp in Elliniko is a result of the European Union’s preparations for the Brussels-Afghanistan Conference, which will be co-hosted by the EU and the government of Afghanistan for the purpose of hearing Afghanistan’s new form agenda and reaffirming the international community’s commitment to peace and reconciliation in the region.
A deal signed between Turkey and the EU earlier this year stipulated that asylum seekers who came into Greece from Turkey after March 20, 2016 would be returned to Turkey. Now, with many Balkan countries restricting their borders, Afghan asylum seekers may face a similar stipulation as did the asylum seekers in Turkey. The refugee camp in Elliniko, transformed from the old Athens airport, is not managed by the UN, making the UN unable to control its conditions. Rather, it is the Greek army that provides the refugees with food and the Greek government provides the refugees with medical services. While the large complex sits on 1,530 acres of land, its severely inadequate conditions reflect the neglect felt by many of the 50,000 asylum seekers in Greece. The refugees sleep on concrete floors, only having a thin blanket to provide any sort of comfort. Many of the small children sleep on the metal terraces, because they are unable to bear the tents’ high temperatures. Additionally, the food has an odor, making many refugees sick, and the camp’s young children are not provided with an adequate amount of milk, causing a spike in malnutrition and sickly children. 15-year-old refugee, Marzia Kamali, fled Afghanistan and arrived to Elliniko’s camp about five months ago with her parents and sister. When asked about the conditions she told Al Jazeera that, “We become very dizzy when we open the food,” and added that the odor is “not for humans.” Marzia even went to the hospital due to what she believes was food poisoning.
Despite the conditions, for the 3,000 Afghan refugees currently staying at this makeshift refugee camp, life in the camp is better than having to return to Afghanistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015 reported that Afghanistan produced more refugees than any other country for 32 years in a row before the recent upsurge in violence in Syria and Iraq. Although countries like Syria and Iraq have changed that figure, there are still nearly four million Afghans displaced. 2015 was the bloodiest year for Afghanistan due to the resurgence of the extremist organization, the Taliban, which forced civilians to flee their homes. Adding to the instability, the Kabul government has faced many struggles, including how to support refugees who have returned. In total, continuing violence has been the driving force for displacement of Afghans, and despite the country being deemed post-conflict by the United Nations Security Council, the upheaval has left profound implications on the quality of life that exists there today. The reason the United Nations Security Council views Afghanistan as post-conflict is due to the stabilization efforts that have led to impressive results in the country’s political transformation and political development.
The potential closure of the camp is not only related to the fact that Afghanistan is now deemed post-conflict, but also to Greece’s difficulties in sustaining the refugee population it accepted. The Greek government is straining to provide for the 57,000 refugees who indefinitely reside there. Because of this, the European Council is hoping that, with the assistance of the government of Afghanistan, it will be able to provide “sustained political and financial support to Afghan peace,” so that that Afghanistan will “remain on a firm path to political and economic stability, state-building and development.”
But what does this discussion of closing the camp mean for the refugees currently residing in Elliniko? Some believe that this conference is just an excuse for the EU to “build a barricade against refugee flows.” One individual who believes this to be the case is Electra Koutra, a Greek human rights lawyer who represents individuals in asylum cases. Koutra says that the EU is “exchanging money with returning people to unsafe places.”
The closure of the refugee camp would likely cause a secondary displacement to take place. Not only have the Afghan refugees in Greece been displaced within their country, but now they would be displaced again from their asylum country. Elliniko is “one of the last remaining informal refugee settlements in Greece that is untouched by the government.” The refugees in Elliniko do not get government assistance and “instead rely on aid workers and volunteers for their survival.”
Under the UNHCR’s Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness , the EU countries, including Greece, must meet human rights standards regarding their refugee populations. Greece has “an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of the inhabitants of the camps it administers” and Marzia’s story is not the only one that continues to raise human rights concerns of the camp. In addition to the UNHCR, the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, Greece has an obligation to respect the rights of refugee children. Article 3 of the Convention says that, “Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent supervision.” While camps like Elliniko are a better alternative for many than their country of origin, such camps should not be exempt from meeting human rights requirements.