As a result of the geographical containment policy, the island starts filling up with migrants. Newcomers are forced to live in the olive groves surrounding the official camp: ‘The Jungle’. Soon, families with young children are forced to live in muddy tents with rain and open sewage is leaking in. Infectious diseases spread like wildfire. Sexual assaults, fights, and suicide attempts keep medics busy at night. Marzia volunteers at one of the clinics in the camp, translating Farsi-English for a Dutch NGO. Looking at all the suffering around her, she starts to ask herself a question: Why?
Political scientist Angeliki Dimitriadi may have an answer. She heads the migration program at ELIAMEP, an independent think tank based in Athens that conducts policy-oriented research in Europe. Dimitriadi says that the containment policy is a result of the EU-Turkey deal. It was implemented both as a deterrent measure and as a way of ensuring that eligible asylum seekers could be returned to Turkey, she explains. Under the agreement, asylum seekers can be returned if their applications are deemed inadmissible, for example because Turkey is seen as a ‘safe third country’ for them. The islands function as a buffer zone, isolating asylum seekers from the mainland until the admissibility of their case is determined. Politicians in turn believe the buffer zone itself and the threat of deportation under the EU-Turkey agreement will prevent other migrants from making the journey.
When rights organizations warned that conditions were getting particularly grim in the winter of 2018, Greek Migration Minister Mouzalas acknowledged that he believed moving people to the mainland would create new incentives for migrants to make the crossing. He told German news magazine, Der Spiegel, that relieving the islands “would play into the hands of the smugglers” and result in a “mini version of 2015.” Back then, the surge of asylum seekers was so large that the islands were no more than a waypoint on the journey to Western Europe.
Migration experts have spent the last five years explaining that this assumption is not supported by research. They find that people are motivated to migrate mainly because of the conditions in their place of departure, their financial situation, and the availability of a support network. Conditions of the journey and at the destination only matter to a small extent. Nonetheless, officials have kept explaining policy with references to ‘push and pull factors’ in border regions.
In the almost five years that Camp Moria existed, living conditions in the camp have only worsened, as documented by organizations like Doctors Without Borders. They have provided medical care to migrants on Lesbos since 2014. They have also warned about the conditions in the camp continuously, says Karel Hendriks, Humanitarian Representative for the organization: “It started with warnings about bad hygiene, then outbreaks of infectious diseases. In the end, we were reporting about auto-mutilating children.” That nothing was done with these warnings is no accident, Hendriks emphasizes: “It is not difficult to make facilities better than they are now.” Why has it not happened? “Because they hoped it would have a deterrent effect”.
Political advisor Gerald Knaus, who is considered the architect of the EU-Turkey deal, would agree with that point. He says conditions in camp Moria cannot merely be explained by the incompetence of responsible politicians. “Europeans deliberately tolerate the conditions on the island to deter others who might be thinking of making the journey,” he told Der Spiegel in November 2020. A policy of deterrence by omission. “Having no policy, is a policy,” Dimitriadi adds, “for a very long time, there was no effort, and that was the policy.” It calls into question the use of the EUR 6,167,750 stated as the EU’s contribution on a sign at the entrance to the Moria camp.
Deterrence may also be one of the reasons for the long delays in the Greek asylum system, which is why migrants are stuck on the islands for such long periods of time. Marzia had to wait for a year before she could finally argue her case in an interview with the asylum services, and she is not the only one. In 2020, most asylum seekers in camp Moria had been there for more than a year, in some cases for more than three years. Recognition rates for Afghans and Syrians – the predominant nationalities in the camp – were over 75% and 85% that year. It shows that most migrants had legitimate reasons to be there, even by the standards of the Asylum Service itself.
It is difficult to establish the extent to which these delays are the result of deliberate policy decisions. Authorities deny any such allegations and attribute them to overloaded asylum systems. But while arrivals have remained relatively stable over the last five years, authorities have failed to address the issue and waiting times for asylum seekers on the Greek islands have not been reduced.
Dimitriadi says deterrence lies at the core of the European migration system. The EU relies on the idea that free movement within its territory requires strong external borders to survive, she explains: “The purpose of the border countries was from the beginning to filter and prevent entry”. A notion that conflicts with another strong principle under EU law: the right to asylum. The crossing of these principles is where, according to Dimitriadi, European migration policy has formed. “This is where the catch lies,” she explains, “Yes, access to asylum has to be guaranteed, but only for those who succeed in crossing the border. The trick is, to get in.”
Marzia managed to ‘get in’, but then got stuck on one of the Greek islands, where she was forced to live in a refugee camp under dire circumstances while waiting for her case to be decided. If her asylum procedure would have completed within a reasonable time, Marzia would have been spared much of the hardship she went through. But rights organizations say this is exactly the point. As emphasized by Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis: “They need to understand that if they give their money to a trafficker to bring them to Greece, they will lose it.” It fits the characterization of the country made by European Commission President Ursula von der Lehen in March 2020, when she thanked Greece for being the “Shield of Europe”.