A RAPIDLY CHANGING LANDSCAPE
Since 2014, the landscape of Europe has been changing at a rapid pace in regards to refugees and other people on the move. Asylum laws are constantly changing, countries are still overwhelmed with the amount of people moving from one place to another, integration is a struggle, and there are too many moving parts for most people to keep track of.
Earlier this month, Greece ruled that new arrivals to the islands would not be confined to camps there during their asylum procedure. Previously, since the start of the deal with Turkey, those who arrived to the islands of Greece had to stay there for the whole duration of their asylum procedure. The more full the camps became, the longer the wait for everyone – which caused tensions to rise. This legal changeonly applies to new arrivals, which is of course seen as unfair to all those who arrived earlier and feel that they are now trapped on the islands. For those who will arrive from here on out, they will be registered at their point of arrival and then be free to travel elsewhere in Greece while their procedure plays out. If they have friends or family in another city like Athens or Thessaloniki, they will be able to travel there and coordinate their case from UN offices in those cities. This means that new arrivals to the islands will likely come to the mainland in the future – bringing even more flux to a population that already seems to be constantly changing.
In addition to this change, a new corridor has begun to be used at the Turkish/Greek land border with a 33% increase in refugee inflows to Greece in April 2018 compared to the same month in 2017. In Evros, the number has tripled because people think that the land crossing is safer – despite the fact that recent floods and rushing rivers have made things increasingly perilous. Tensions between Greece and Turkey are already high, with two Greek soldierswho accidentally crossed into Turkey last month still being held in a Turkish prison. According to the Greeks, the soldiers were out patrolling the border at Evros for people making the dangerous crossing. (You can read more about this new land route here.)
According to our sources (through contacts with various NGO’s in Thessaloniki especially), these land crossings are contributing to increased tensions in Northern Greece, especially in Thessaloniki. In this city, the homeless population is already quite high and most aid organizations are at full capacity for the amount of beneficiaries they can take on. In the last month, around 200 people came to the city after crossing through this land border of Greece and Turkey. People who work in the field of refugee aid and integration worry that arrival numbers for this year will be critical, similar to peak numbers in 2015.
In a town like Katerini, population of around 50,000 in the city proper and 85,000 in the municipality, tensions are beginning to grow. In the beginning the town was unsure but welcoming towards foreign families in need – and they still are welcoming overall – but their patience starts to grow thin. Some in the city have begun to grumble, “What’s going on? They have been here for too long.” Citizens were placated in the beginning by the sudden influx of new cash in their economy as over 550 refugees moved into the city center, each family with their own cash card to spend at local businesses and restaurants. Today, the organization I work for rents 115 houses/apartments in the city, giving these owners a stable source of income from the properties (some of which had been vacant for a while before we rented them).
But after almost two years, people here wonder how long it will all last. The UN will soon pull out of Greece (maybe in 2019, maybe in 2020) and when that happens, organizations and the families they help will have to begin standing on their own feet. Since the UNHCR only steps in during emergency situations, that means that the programs they fund and support are usually only equipped to handle immediate situations and they cannot necessarily look to and plan for the future. For the PERICHORESIS/UN program, this means that they have the capacity to help people with legal issues, medical care, and social events – but they cannot provide language lessons or aid people in finding employment – two things that are critical for long-term integration. And because around 90% of people in the PERICHORESIS/UN program will end up eventually staying in Greece, these two missing components will set people back on their journey to integrate.
This post has no particular agenda, except to show people just how much is in flux in the field I feel called to work in. When you live in the United States, or another country, and are not personally affected by human migration, it’s easy to be confused by the situation – why does it all have to be so complicated? Why can’t they just do X, Y, and Z? The reality is increasingly complex and changing every day – legal structures that are updated, new pathways that people take to come to Europe, the tension felt in small city’s that host refugees, and the worries that come when professionals in the field look to the future. There are so many factors at play that it’s almost a job in and of itself just to keep updated on all this.
Working in this field means that the context in which you work is always shifting and changing. It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, what information is still current and relevant, and how many people are in a certain place at any given time. It’s like trying to do yoga on a paddleboard in the middle of the ocean during a lightning storm and you’re surrounded by murky shadows in the water that may or may not be sharks. Things are intense.