Ritsona, Greece – Restrictive government decisions have cast thousands of refugees out of protective support 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 body – have no access to food services or cash handouts. Almost half are children.
That is because last September, the government restricted services to those who are in the process of applying for asylum. Most camp residents do not fit that description.
Some have been granted asylum, and they are entitled to benefits for only 30 days after that decision.
Benefits used to be extended for six months, to support people navigating employment prospects and premises. The government cut that period down in March last year.
Asadullah Sadighi and his 16-year-old daughter, Afghans living in Ritsona camp, a former air force radar base 90km north of Athens, are in this category.
Sadighi told Al Jazeera: “When they give us asylum they don’t give us food or cash any more, and leave us to fend for ourselves. They take away our protection completely.”
He has asked relatives back home to send cash.
Those who have been rejected and have exhausted the appeals process have been told to leave the country – though authorities do not forcibly remove them from camp premises, because they cannot deport them back to Turkey.
In theory, a 2016 European Union-Turkey deal obliges both parties to readmit rejected asylum applicants, 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 deemed Turkey a safe third country for Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
These nationals are no longer even processed for asylum, aid groups say, but told to apply next door, in Turkey.
“Turkey does not accept returns from Greece, so these people are in a legal limbo, and one of the consequences of this limbo is that they are not eligible for food and other basic rights,” says Melina Spathari, head of Terre des Hommes, Greece.
Hers was one of 33 aid organisations that wrote to the government in late October warning of the looming humanitarian crisis.
They said Greece’s refusal to examine asylum applications from these five nationalities on their merits contravenes EU Directive 2013/23, which “provides that if the third country refuses to take a person back, then the State must examine the asylum application as to its substance”.
People who failed to register as asylum seekers upon entry in Greece are among those deemed inadmissible for an asylum process.
Al Jazeera recently covered the plight of hundreds of Cubans in this category, who walked across Greece’s border with North Macedonia, where there is no registration centre. The IOM clocked Greece’s unregistered refugees living in camps in October at 3,268, but there are many living in urban centres.
They used to have a single legal avenue to register once inside the country, and that was via a Skype interview with the Greek Asylum Service. But Mobile Info Team, an aid group that informs asylum seekers of their rights, says the GAS has now cut off this avenue due to a 14-month backlog.
Unregistered refugees and those for whom Turkey is deemed a safe third country have no legal options, says Martha Roussou of the International Rescue Committee, one of the 33 signatories of the October letter to the government.
“They have no legal documents to stay here, so they cannot work, they cannot open a bank account, they’re in a legal limbo. And absolutely no provisions have been made for these people, which is a complete oversight,” she said.
Greece has rescued thousands of refugees from the Aegean, enrolled refugee children in public schools and got the European Commission to fund apartment housing for some 20,000.
But its policies have become increasingly restrictive since March 2020, when Turkey encouraged refugees to storm Greek borders. Greece has accused Turkey of “weaponising” and “instrumentalising” them.
Rather than relaxing restrictions, the government is, tightening its grip on the management of refugees.
This year it took over the running of 26 mainland camps from the IOM. On October 26, it further sidelined the UN by assuming responsibility for the dispensation of cash assistance provided by the European Union.
The transition period has resulted in those who are eligible for cash not receiving any for two months, contributing further to the food crisis. Self-styled groceries and restaurants refugees operate inside the camps are dependent on these cash handouts, as well as remittances from overseas.
Apostolos Veizis, who heads the organisation INTERSOS in Greece, believes this treatment of refugees is part of a broader strategy of discouragement.
“After five years of those camps on the mainland, we are discussing a situation as though it was an emergency of 2015 or 2016,” he says, referring to the years of high flows of refugees into the EU. “This is an emergency that was not created because of a lack of resources. This is being created probably because there are politics beyond and before people.”
“The objective is those people are not supposed to stay in the camp,” Veizis says.
Last July, the government encouraged thousands of destitute refugees to get off the streets and take up residence in camps.
“Thousands of recognised refugees, including mothers with young children, pregnant women, elderly and chronic patients, found themselves without shelter, living in public squares for prolonged periods of time,” said Spathari. “Having no viable alternatives, they were compelled to return to camps in order to have access to the bare minimum, water, food, shelter and primary healthcare.”
Aid groups like the IRC point to a different possible future.
“We’ve seen asylum seekers who, because they were supported by an NGO or municipality, not the state, don’t even need that cash assistance,” said Roussou. “They can go get a job, rent an apartment and live independently. People are perfectly capable of standing on their own two feet with a bit of support.”