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Searching for Hope in Greek Refugee Camps #2

ICE Graveyard 20/04/2016 Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis

Lesvos, April 18, 2016
I didn't plan to visit Lesvos with the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch. My own trip had been planned for months. But when I heard that they would arrive one day before I was scheduled to be there, I asked if I could join the delegation. I know Patriarch Bartholomew because of my many years of work in interfaith dialogue, and because I am an active member of the Greek Orthodox church - My husband and I were married in the Patriarchate in 2000.
The media coverage of the Lesvos visit was extensive. But most international press did not mention that it was the Ecumenical Patriarch who instigated the trip, suggesting that Pope Francis join him. The media might never have known the origination of the visit, because the Greek government jumped into the middle of it, declaring it an official state visit by Pope Francis, at which point Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras became the host.
I think its important to report that from the ground, where I was very privileged to be, the visit of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew to Lesvos was nothing at all like a state visit.
What I witnessed was this: two leaders, bound together by their common concern for human rights, moved to action by plight of over a million people - many women and children - in what is the worst refugee crisis to befall Europe since the Second World War.
The main target of the Pope and Patriarch's visit was the refugee Hot Spot, in the village of Moria. The leaders delivered moving, impassioned speeches from a small podium in the refugee camp. They called for a humanitarian response, the called for understanding and acceptance. What was difficult to see from the media coverage, however, was what is really going on in Moria.
Of the estimated 56,000 refugees who are here in Greece - mostly Syrians, but also Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis and others - the vast majority arrived before March 20th. Under the EU-Turkey agreement, refugees who arrive in Greece after March 20th have a different status. Before the cut-off, refugees are able to get papers to stay in Greece while waiting for their applications for asylum to be processed. If you came later, it's a different story. Most of those refugees who arrived after March 20th, even if they apply for asylum here in Greece, are subject to be returned to Turkey to wait out their application process from there.
Why does this matter? For the three to four thousand people at the Hot Spot in Moria it means that they can't leave the Hot Spot until a decision is made about their status. Since they might be sent back to Turkey, the government feels it needs to keep them under lock and key. The government prefers to use the term that this is a "closed" facility rather than "detention." I had a hard time seeing the difference.
A day after the visit of the leaders of two of the largest religions in the world, I went back to Moria. My suit jacket still had white marks from where I leaned up against a freshly painted wall the day before, an effort by the camp managers to wipe away the graffiti, much of it demands for freedom. Unlike the day before, today the residents of the Moria Hot Spot were protesting. It was quiet, and peaceful: a "sit-in" by about 50 Yazidi's from Iraq. There were a few men but mostly they were women and small children, shielding themselves from the hot sun with a few cardboard signs reading "Freedom for the Yazidis!"
The director of the Moria Hot Spot tried to explain the reason that, unlike the vast majority of refugees in Greece, the residents of this camp could not leave. I could see that she was pained - she had been in charge of the camp for many months, from before it had become "closed", and clearly saw herself as an emergency services professional, not a jail warden.
The fact is, none of the Greek government representatives I spoke with were proud of the situation in Moria. But there was a very strong sentiment that the return of refugees is a key component of the EU-Turkey deal, and that justified the action. "Its deterrence." One said to me. "We need to send the message DON'T COME. We can handle 56 thousand people in Greece. Compared to our population, its not too much. But my greatest fear is that the deal will fall apart."
This is a very common view here in Greece. With the northern border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia closed, and the Balkan route to northern Europe shut down, any new refugees arriving in Greece will have one of two fates. Either they will be send home, or they will be stranded here. If the EU-Turkey deal falls apart, it will be much more difficult for the Greek government to send refugees home.
Foreign affairs experts from around the world are seriously question the durability of the EU-Turkey deal. There are many obvious challenges for both its short-term implementation and meeting its longer-term goals, like the proposed visa-waiver program for Turkish citizens traveling into Europe. But for the Greeks, they are holding their breath.
An official in Lesvos pointed out that in 2015 about 500,000 people passed through their small Mediterranean island. There are 5,000 refugees still there, and officials told me that even though it's a challenge, they feel they can accommodate them. "But what happens if, again, we start to receive 5,000 a day?"
2016-04-20-1461165900-6621833-IMG_1570.JPG © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-04-20-1461165900-6621833-IMG_1570.JPG
(Photo courtesy of John Shattuck)

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