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Refugees in Greece: MEPs demand solidarity, warn about impact of health crisis

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The EU and its member states must help Greece manage its borders, according to Civil Liberties MEPs, who warn about the risk of COVID-19 spreading in refugee camps.

MEPs stressed that the current pandemic is yet more evidence that no country can deal with certain challenges alone. They praised the commitment to relocate 1,600 unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands to other EU countries, but requested clarification about when precisely this will happen and about which member states will participate. Some requested that relocation should also apply to other vulnerable asylum-seekers and to families.

Critical situation in refugee camps

Many MEPs are worried about a possible outbreak of COVID-19 in the overcrowded hotspots on the Greek islands, given the already dire conditions in which people are living. Some suggested transferring people to the Greek mainland or using empty hotel rooms to ensure social distancing, while others opposed any additional relocation, to avoid creating problems of public order.

The discussion also touched upon the crisis that followed Turkey’s announcement one month ago that it would let people cross into EU territory. MEPs underlined that solidarity with frontline countries is key and that migration should not be used for political purposes. Several speakers also questioned the Greek authorities’ decision not to accept any asylum requests for a month and reiterated that, as signatories to the Geneva Convention, all member states must respect the right to seek international protection.

In a debate that you can watch again online, the Civil Liberties Committee assessed on Thursday the situation at Greece’s external borders with Greek Ministers for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, and for Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis. Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, and the Croatian State Secretary for European and International Affairs, Terezija Gras, presented their views to MEPs, as did Frontex Executive Director, Fabrice Leggeri, and the Director of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), Michael O’Flaherty.

MEPs call for solidarity and measures to prevent Covid19 crisis in refugee camps

The situation of refugees in Greece calls for a concerted EU response to avoid a Covid-19 outbreak, according to MEPs on the civil liberties committee.

As Europe grapples with the challenges of the coronavirus crisis, concern is also growing over the living conditions of asylum-seekers in camps on the Greek islands.

The situation at the Greek-Turkish border escalated at the beginning of March when Turkey opened its borders to asylum seekers and refugees by breaking the 2016 migration pact with the EU.

In a virtual meeting, the civil liberties committee discussed the current border situation and the need to avoid this humanitarian crisis turning into a public health issue with the Greek government. Representatives from the European Commission, Frontex and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency joined MEPs in stressing the importance of solidarity and the unity of the European Union to help mitigate the growing crisis.

Measures in place

Together with member states and EU agencies, the Commission has set up an emergency contingency plan, regularly monitors the situation and has adopted new measures.

Two rapid border interventions were launched, additional border guards have been deployed and Greece activated the Civil Protection Mechanism, resulting in more than 90,000 items of assistance to the camps being giving to Greece by EU countries.

All migrants arriving in the hotspots undergo a mandatory health check. Newly arrived and rescued people are kept in separate areas until their medical screening has been completed.

The Commission has allocated a budget of €350 million in continued support for Greece, where most of the refugees and migrants arrive, €50 million of which will be for medical care.

After receiving a health check, 1,600 unaccompanied minors currently staying in the hotspots on the islands will be relocated to other EU countries:, namelyGermany, France, Portugal, Finland, Lithuania, Croatia, Ireland and Luxembourg. Some will be travelling to Luxembourg next week.

With the support of the International Organization for Migration and Frontex, a voluntary scheme has been set up to encourage people to go back to their home countries.

More support needed

Notis Mitarachi, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, said that many special measures had been taken to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps on the islands, but that more support was needed.

MEPs called for more support, accommodation facilities and medical equipment, extending relocations to families, extending existing asylum deadlines and considering doing interviews virtually.

The Commission has proposed an additional budget of €350 million for the construction of new camps on the mainland in Greece and new apartments, which will require approval from Parliament.

Margaritis Schinas, Commission Vice-President for Promoting the European way of life, said it was imortant to stick to our values and respect fundamental human rights and EU law. He added that the EU should also continue its work on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, set to be presented in the coming months.

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EU Politics

Conditions worsen for stranded migrants along Belarus-EU border

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At least eight people have died along the border between Belarus and the European Union, where multiple groups of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants have been stranded for weeks in increasingly dire conditions. 

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCRappealed for urgent action on Friday, to save lives and prevent further suffering at the border with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The latest casualty was reported within the past few days. 

UNHCR warned that the situation will further and rapidly deteriorate as winter approaches, putting more lives in danger. 

For the Agency’s Regional Director for Europe, Pascale Moreau, “when fundamental human rights are not protected, lives are at stake.” 

“It is unacceptable that people have died, and the lives of others are precariously hanging in the balance. They are held hostage by a political stalemate which needs to be solved now,” he said. 

According to media reports, the EU regards the increase in asylum seekers at the border, a direct result of Belarus, in effect, weaponizing migrants, in retaliation for sanctions placed on the Government over the suppression of the protest movement following last year’s disputed re-election of President Lukashenko.  

International group 

Among those stranded are 32 Afghan women, men and children. They have been left in limbo between Poland and Belarus since mid-August, unable to access asylum and any form of assistance. They do not have proper shelter and no secure source of food or water. 

A group of 16 Afghans tried to cross into Poland this week, but they were apprehended and not allowed to apply for asylum. They were also denied access to legal assistance. Within a few hours, they were pushed back across the border to Belarus. 

So far, UNHCR has not been granted access to meet with the group from the Polish side, despite repeated requests, and only met them a few times from the Belarusian side to deliver life-saving aid. 

International law 

The Agency has been advocating for the group to be granted asylum, since the Afghans have expressed their wish to settle either in Belarus or in Poland. 

The request has been ignored by both sides. For UNHCR, that is “a clear violation of international refugee law and international human rights law.” 

“We urge Belarus and Poland, as signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to abide by their international legal obligations and provide access to asylum for those seeking it at their borders.  

“Pushbacks, that deny access to territory and asylum, violate human rights in breach of international law”, said Mr. Moreau. 

UNHCR urges the authorities to determine and address humanitarian and international protection needs, and find viable solutions. The agency also stands ready to support refugees, together with other relevant stakeholders. 

“People must be able to exercise their rights where they are, be it in Belarus or in Poland or other EU States where they may be located. This must include the possibility to seek asylum, access to legal aid, information and appropriate accommodation”, Mr. Moreau concluded. 

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Focus on the recovery from the pandemic at the 19th EU Regions Week

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The annual European Week of Regions and Cities has shown how the EU and national and regional governments can support European citizens and their local communities with public policies aimed at investing in a fairer, greener and more digital future for recovery. Under the theme ‘Together for Recovery’, more than 300 sessions, including debates with high-profile officials, regional and local representatives, an inspiring Citizens’ Dialogue, various workshops as well as an Award for outstanding young journalists, celebrated the EU values of cohesion and solidarity.

Taking place in a hybrid format, with sessions both physical and virtual, the 19th EU Regions Week had one main mission: highlighting the role of EU investments in the recovery from the pandemic and in facing common challenges. The event kicked off with a press conference with Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and Elisa Ferreira, Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, who underlined that “Cohesion Policy was one of the first responders in the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the core value of EU solidarity”.

The second annual local and regional barometer was presented by Apostolos Tzitzikostas, followed by a debate with members of the European Committee of the Regions. The report confirmed that the pandemic related measures put at risk regional and local finances, resulting in a 180 billion budget cut for local and regional authorities across Europe. At the same time, 1 in 3 local and regional politicians want regions and cities to become more influential in EU policy-making on health issues.

Unless we measure the state of our regions and cities, we cannot understand the state of our Union” said Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions. “Only by taking the pulse of our communities, we can decide how effective the EU has been on the ground, and what the EU needs to do to help its people”.

Further taking stock of the EU cohesion policy response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as informing the general public, various workshops touched upon life before and after the pandemic, including explanations regarding the role of regions and cities for a Green Transition, the Cohesion Policy 2021-2027 and NextGenerationEU, as well as the CRII, CRII+, React-EU support packages for regional and local healthcare services and equipment.

Young journalists were also invited to take part in the EU Regions Week 2021, getting the opportunity to debate with Elisa Ferreira at the Citizens’ Dialogue. In the Youth4Regions programme for aspiring journalists, Irene Barahona Fernandez from Spain and Jack Ryan from Ireland won the 2021 Megalizzi-Niedzielski prize for aspiring journalists.

About the event

The European Week of Regions and Cities (#EURegionsWeek) is the largest EU-wide event on regional development. It is co-organised by the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions.

In total, more than 12 000 participants and 900 speakers joined the 4-day event either physically or online, showing engagement in all corners of EU society – from our vibrant youth to our high-profile officials, local and regional representatives, academic experts and professional specialists, displaying a common readiness to tackle what the future holds, together.

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EU Politics

EU and Qatar sign landmark aviation agreement

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The European Union and the State of Qatar today signed a comprehensive air transport agreement, upgrading rules and standards for flights between Qatar and the EU. The agreement sets a new global benchmark by committing both sides to fair competition, and by including social and environmental protection. The signing means new opportunities for consumers, airlines and airports in Qatar and the EU.

Qatar is an increasingly important aviation partner for the EU. It was the 15th largest extra-EU market in 2019 with 6.3 million passengers travelling between the EU and Qatar. Ensuring open and fair competition for air services between both is therefore crucial, also for routes between the EU and Asia.

Adina Vălean, Commissioner for mobility and transport, said: “This agreement, the first one between the EU and the Gulf region, is a global benchmark for forward-looking aviation agreements. It is testimony to our shared commitment to economically, socially and environmentally sustainable aviation, based on a modern framework covering fair competition and closer cooperation on social and environmental matters. This agreement will bring new opportunities, more choice and higher standards for passengers, industry and aviation workers.”

Today’s agreement creates a level playing field that is expected to result in new air transport opportunities and economic benefits for both sides:

  • All EU airlines will be able to operate direct flights from any airport in the EU to Qatar and vice versa for Qatari airlines.
  • EU airports in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands will be subject to a gradual build-up of capacity until 2024. For more details on this, see the Q&A.
  • Strong provisions on open and fair competition will guarantee a level playing field.
  • The parties recognised the importance of social matters, agreed to cooperate on these and to improve their respective social and labour laws and policies as per their international commitments.

The agreement will facilitate people-to-people contacts and expand commercial opportunities and trade. Going beyond traffic rights, the EU-Qatar agreement will provide a single set of rules, high standards and a platform for future cooperation on a wide range of aviation issues.

Background

Qatar is a close aviation partner for the European Union; more than 6 million passengers travelled between the EU and Qatar per year under the existing 26 bilateral air transport agreements with EU Member States prior to the pandemic. While direct flights between most EU Member States and Qatar have already been liberalised by those bilateral agreements, none of them include provisions on fair competition, or social and environmental issues, which the Commission considers essential for a modern aviation agreement.

In 2016, the European Commission obtained authorisation from the Council to negotiate an EU-level aviation agreement with Qatar, which started on 4 March 2019. While the agreement still needs to be ratified by the parties before formally entering into force, it will start being applied from today’s signature.

Similar EU comprehensive air transport agreements have been signed with other partner countries, namely the United States, Canada, the Western Balkans, Morocco, Georgia, Jordan, Moldova, Israel and Ukraine. Further air transport agreements with Armenia and Tunisia are expected to be signed in the coming weeks.

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