War, Sea, and Wall: The Triple Tragedy of Refugees Fleeing to Greece

Kara Tepe Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos by United Nations Photo

by Raafiya Ali Khan
Staff Writer

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sea as the continuous body of saltwater that covers the greater part of the earth’s surface. While the literal meaning of sea can be discovered easily by just a few clicks on the internet, it symbolizes much more than merely a body of water for those attempting to traverse its treacherous waves. The sea is a natural paradox; it is used as a means of survival for most, yet it can also lead to the ultimate end: a watery death. Refugees know the risk of maritime travel, yet choose to sail in dangerous conditions, hoping to arrive at lands that may promise them a better future, rather than the war-torn ones they have left behind. As of 2018, most refugees arriving on Greece’s shores and applying for asylum are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, escaping a civil war, as in Syria’s case, or violence resulting from domestic unrest and political crises. The most prominent example of the perils refugees face is encapsulated in the 2016 Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini’s story. 

Mardini, a young swimmer from Syria who eventually participated in the 2016 Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team, left the country during the civil war in order to escape the violence and instability that pervaded her hometown of Damascus. Along with her sister, Sarah, Mardini traveled through Lebanon and Turkey before attempting to reach Greece in a boat meant to hold six people but filled with twenty. Their motorboat began to fail only thirty minutes into the journey to Greece. Yusra, Sarah, and two others, the only people who knew how to swim among the group, pushed the boat while swimming for three hours in open water before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, saving the lives of all onboard. Others, however, are less fortunate. On March 2, 2020, a child drowned when a dinghy transporting 48 migrants from the Turkish coast to Lesbos capsized. This tragedy occurred after Turkey recently opened its borders to refugees, allowing them to leave the country and access other parts of Europe.

Europe has been dealing with a refugee crisis for five to six years now, yet only one country has borne the brunt of it: Greece. In 2019, Greece received almost 60,000 refugees arriving by sea, which is almost double the total number of sea arrivals from the previous year. A majority are forced to stay in Moria, the refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, as they wait for their asylum requests to be processed. According to Eurostat, only 1.8 million out of the 3.6 million asylum requests the European Union (EU) has received since 2014 have resulted in legal protection. As the asylum seekers wait for their requests to go through, they have to live in terrible conditions, while also facing threats of violence. Moria is not large enough for the sheer quantity of immigrants on the island, and while some build makeshift tents out of plastic and other materials, others are forced to sleep outside in the surrounding olive groves due to lack of resources and infrastructure. The camp does not have a proper sewage system, and raw sewage has streamed close to children’s mattresses before. Sanitation issues aside, the refugees also deal with the threat of sexual violence. Fatima, a thirteen-year-old from Iraq, sleeps with a knife under her pillow in order to defend herself from potential abusers and rapists. As the refugees endure these terrible conditions, the likelihood of their obtaining a chance at a better, safer life has decreased significantly, as the rejection rates for asylum in the EU have increased from 37 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2019

Children huddled around a fire on Moria. Photo by Fotomovimiento.

As the EU struggles to accept refugees and place them in humane conditions, Greece has announced a new measure of national security for the country: a floating barrier. The conservative government of Greece proposed the construction of a 1.7-mile long barrier between the Greek and Turkish coastlines, in order to deter smuggling boats from entering the country. Greece’s conservative government argues that the barrier will curb increasing flows of migration to the country. However, human rights groups oppose this plan, explaining that the barrier will not deter migrants from coming to Greece, but rather will increase the dangers faced by asylum seekers in reaching friendly shores, as well as create more tension on the islands housing the refugee camps. As for the legality of this proposed barrier, Adalbert Jahnz, a European Commission spokesperson, has stated that the construction of such a barrier is not explicitly against EU law, however, obstacles of this nature should not impede the seeking of asylum “which is protected by EU law”. Nonetheless, Jahnz admitted that the protection of external borders is under each countries’ jurisdiction, meaning that the EU cannot impose regulations on Greece regarding its floating border wall.

The conservative government of Greece channeling more than $554,000 into the creation of a floating barrier to deter migrants from seeking asylum on Greece’s shores is an ill-prepared plan. This enormous sum of money could be used to refurbish and restructure the refugee camps on the surrounding islands like Moria, making them safer and habitable for those seeking refuge from the horrors of war. Instead of building walls, perhaps Greece, in conjunction with other EU countries could focus on building infrastructure strong enough to handle these rising rates of immigration.

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