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The refugee crisis in the eastern Mediterranean must be fully accepted as a European and global problem

Considering that “Europe’s panicked response to the refugee and migration crisis is crushing Greece between two brutal realities: the closure by ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ of its border with Greece and the imposition of the EU-Turkey Agreement in the Aegean islands”, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) today concluded that “the first victims of the situation in Greece are the refugees and migrants”, of whom 46,000 individuals are blocked on the mainland and some 8,500 on the Aegean islands.

At the same time, it found that Greece had been “left bearing a grotesquely disproportionate burden simply because of its place on the map”, despite being “in every other respect perhaps the least well-placed of all EU countries to bear this responsibility.”

The members of the Assembly felt that much of the responsibility for this situation fell to the European Union, which had tacitly supported the closure of borders along the western Balkans route and concluded the 16 March Agreement with Turkey. The EU had “failed to provide adequate support to Greece or to ensure that responsibility is shared equitably amongst its member states,” they said.

“This crisis must be fully accepted as a European and global problem and not only a Greek one. The only effective response will be based on respect for the human rights of refugees and migrants and on genuine solidarity and the practical sharing of responsibility,” the Assembly members stressed.

PACE is concerned above all about conditions in detention in the “hotspots”, where vulnerable persons including women and children are exposed to risks of violence, exploitation and abuse; living conditions in the reception centres on the mainland, which fall far below acceptable standards; ineffective protection of the rights of unaccompanied children; and the risk that the asylum-seekers would be returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey Agreement, despite the fact that such returns appear incompatible with EU and international law.

In a resolution adopted on the basis of the report by Tineke Strik (Netherlands, SOC), the Assembly called on the Greek authorities, amongst other things, to ensure that detention in the hotspots and on the mainland satisfies all of the requirements of international human rights law, that there is sufficient reception capacity for all asylum-seekers, that the rights and interests of unaccompanied and separated children are guaranteed, and that the asylum system is promptly made fully operational, with the current pre-registration exercise completed quickly and effectively.

At the same time, PACE called on the EU and its member states, amongst other things, to implement without delay the September 2015 agreements on relocation from Greece, to cooperate smoothly with the Greek authorities on family reunification, to deploy seconded national staff to support the Greek asylum service, and to make financial assistance available to actors on the ground, avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy.

Addressing the Assembly, Ioannis Mouzalas, Greek Alternate Minister for migration policy, underlined that “Our concern has always been to respect humanitarian law and to improve reception facilities, despite our financial difficulties.” Commenting on the need for a common response based on true solidarity and respect for human rights, he stated that “The fairest way to share responsibilities is not just about giving money, but of distributing refugees equitably and giving them proper living conditions.”

Meritxell Mateu (Andorra, ALDE), author of a report on the recent visit by a PACE delegation to Greece (30-31 May 2016), said: “Our on-the-spot visit was an opportunity for us to see for ourselves the harsh reality of the situation. Finding a solution to this crisis is a responsibility which all European countries must shoulder together. Some of our governments are putting up barriers and are hiding behind protectionist decisions; our duty is to make our states aware of the need to re-establish solidarity and trust. Europe must once again become a place of welcome where everyone can rebuild their lives.”

“We need to keep in mind that some 52,000 migrants are still stranded in Greece, which needs much more assistance and solidarity from other European nations,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe. “The EU-Turkey deal provides a guarantee that each individual can apply for asylum and that their applications will be processed in the right way. We have to do something to stop the unacceptable smuggling of people, to prevent more needless deaths in the sea and to ease the pressure on Greece,” he stressed.