Authors: Stavros Malichudis, Achilleas Stamatiadis & Costas Karakatsanis
Edited by Iliana Papanglei
Proofread by Gigi Papoulias
On the morning of Sunday, September 13, Hamasa did something she would not normally do on a Sunday morning: she took to the streets to protest.
Greek riot police had used teargas to halt the previous day’s peaceful protest in front of Kara Tepe, on the Greek island of Lesvos, where the victims of the Moria fire had been sleeping rough for five days.
Representatives of the asylum-seeking communities believed it was time for a shift in their position: maybe it would be better, they thought, that this time women protest instead of men. Perhaps police would be reluctant to use teargas against women.
And so it happened – on that day, and the following day as well. This time her husband, Neimatollah, stood aside, and watched as she and the rest of the women marched, shouting azaadi (freedom), for themselves and their families.
It’s been eight months since the young Afghan couple arrived on Lesvos. So far, they say, they have not had the interview for their asylum applications. They fear that due to the fire that turned Europe’s most notorious refugee camp into ashes, now it will take longer until they get to officially tell their story.
They have a “strong” case. Back in Afghanistan, the couple was living in Baghlan, one of the 34 provinces of the country, north of Kabul. The Taliban are now in control of most of the Baghlan province, and the couple decided to flee the country so that they would not have to live in constant fear and threat anymore. Neimatollah had been pressed to join their forces, they say.
When their asylum claim is processed, it is most probable that they both will be granted international protection, and will be allowed to live in Greece.
However, according to both the Greek government and major TV channels, Hamasa and Neimatollah are not refugees: they are “immigrants”.
“Immigrants” or “refugees”?
After coming into power in July 2019, New Democracy completely changed the language used to describe the “refugee crisis” that Greece was experiencing.
The new government chose to present the asylum seekers still present in Greece, or those arriving on the Aegean islands solely as “immigrants” − doubting their refugee profile − and thus their own responsibility of maintaining a humanitarian approach.
In November 2019, however, a Solomon analysis found that this shift in the state’s rhetoric was not at all in accordance with the actual data of the time. And this has been the case ever since.
For example, in his tweets, Notis Mitarachi, Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, uses the hashtag #μεταναστευτικό (#immigrationissue). The same hashtag is used not only on his personal website, but by the official social media accounts of the Ministry of Migration as well.
And when Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis, visited Lesvos, in referring to the victims of the Moria fire who remained on the streets as the new camp was being created, he stated that “all immigrants will return to the new camp.”
But are the people that the Minister was referring to really “immigrants”?
More than two-thirds have a refugee profile
We did an analysis of all available data focusing on two main elements: firstly, the nationalities of about 12,500 people in Moria and, secondly, the acceptance rate of international protection for each of these nationalities.
Which nationalities constitute Moria camp’s population? Since no official figures are provided, and recent UNHCR data is only available for all the five Aegean islands combined (Lesvos, Leros, Kos, Samos, Chios), we had to make some calculations.
We used a picture that the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, posted on his Facebook profile on August 20. The picture presents information on the demographics of Moria camp.
Among the population at that time, of 12,322 asylum seekers, Afghanistan represented 77.2%, Syria 8.1%, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 6.6%, and Somalia 1.5% of the total sum.
These four major nationalities equal a sum of 93.4%, with the remaining 6.6% attributed to other nationalities.
For our analysis, we took into account the absolute bottom percentage: this means that we assumed that for the remaining 6.6% of the population, the acceptance rate would be 0%.
This means that, even if nobody representing the other nationalities of the camp was entitled to international protection, still 67.75% would be recognized as refugees. This represents two-thirds of the total population, without taking into account that other nationalities in the camp are also among the ones usually granted asylum (e.g Iraq, Iran, State of Palestine).
Same stands for all the Aegean islands
During recent months, the Greek government has reportedly urged EU countries to weigh in and accept asylum seekers and refugees from the overcrowded Aegean islands. But in the aftermath of the fire, at a time that EU governments finally appeared to be willing to take in refugees from Moria camp, German media reported that the Greek government was resisting their intention.
According to multiple reports, that was so that the act of arson would not be rewarded, (six Afghans – four young men and two minors – have been arrested in connection to the fire), and also to avoid triggering similar incidents on the other islands, in which asylum seekers are forced to live in equally problematic conditions.
Germany finally agreed to take in 408 families, a total of 1,552 people, from all the five islands. As of September 21, in the camps on the five Aegean islands, there are a total of 23,059 people living in facilities built to house 6,095.
Is this population also possibly entitled to international protection, according to their nationality and the acceptance rate of these nationalities?
Asylum seekers from Afghanistan represent 47%, Syrians 19%, DRC nationals, Palestinians, and Somalians 6% each of the total population. These five top nationalities constitute a percentage of 84% of the total.
Again, we made our analysis assuming that none of the remaining 16% would be subject to international protection, concluding in the absolute bottom result. We concluded that 66.17% of asylum seekers will still receive international protection.
But again, available UNHCR data on the sea arrivals of the year, state that nationalities frequently granted international protection (e.g. Iraq, Iran), are also among the top nationalities on the islands.
Established media adopt government’s discourse
In the aftermath of the fire, the country’s established media followed the government’s example and came up with headlines where the victims of the fire were broadly presented as “immigrants”.
“Lesvos: Immigrants sleep and eat inside churches and cemeteries”, was the title of SKAI TV’s report on September 11, 2020, while another SKAI report talked about “shameful images of immigrants sleeping on the street.”
When TV-channel ANT1 visited Moria, the title of their report was “Thousands of immigrants living on the streets,” and when the new camp was created and former residents hesitated to enter, OPEN TV reported “Afghans threatening immigrants not to enter the facility.” It had earlier reported on “tensions among immigrants.”
Star TV aired an “exclusive report”, broadcasting the “moment that immigrants set fire to the camp and flee.”
Asylum seekers’ lives on hold
It has now been over a week since Hamasa protested in the streets of Kara Tepe, and the couple has finally entered the new camp, in a section where they are housed among other couples and families.
Despite the government’s promises, the tent they share with another Afghan family has no electricity, nor beds yet. Conditions regarding hygiene, they say, are reminiscent of Moria camp, as there is no water for showering, and there are not enough portable toilets for the camp’s population. They sleep on wooden pallets.
Remaining on the street for over a week, they, like others, were hesitant to enter the new camp. However, they were persuaded by reassurances of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum that on September 21, 2020 the Skype interviews for asylum claims would begin again, and registering at the new camp was mandatory in order to be interviewed.
On that morning, though, they were told that due to technical issues (this very lack of electricity), they would need to wait one more week. Hamasa and Neimatollah are unsure if they will be among the lucky families that Germany decided to take in, and do not know when they will get to leave.
For the moment, it seems they will have to remain in limbo, enduring an indefinite period of time, living in the same reality as before.