ECPMF in Greece: Press freedom violations in the refugee crisis

by Ola Aljari

ECPMF’s reporter on the refugee crisis, Ola Aljari - a refugee herself from Syria - travelled to Greece to speak to both refugees and journalists who are struggling with the current refugee crisis, which seems to have gotten worse as the EU and Turkey agreed upon a questionable deal.

Demo_Athens_March(1)_900 Pro-refugee demonstration in Athens, 19 March, 2016. Photo by Ola Aljari, ECPMF.

Greek reporters have told ECPMF that they are being prevented from covering the refugee crisis in their own country, their photos are deleted, and some resort to bribing officials in order to get access to the camps where they are held.

Eight mass demonstrations took place in Greek cities including the capital Athens on 19 March, the day after the European Union and Turkey made the decision to deny refugees access and to return them to Turkey.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees have fled the war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. They sought safety away from the killing, clashes and fear, travelling on rubber boats to Greece through the Aegean Sea, the so-called "Golden Gate". But it seems that the EU wants to close the "Golden Gate" and would rather amputate than cure. This is the attitude that was reflected in the deal, which was made with Turkey on 18 March.

However, the demonstrators in Greece have a different point of view. They reject the deal and demand the opening of the borders. This is in spite of a media blackout that makes it hard for Greeks to get details of what is really happening.

George Panagakis_900 George Panagakis at the Athens demonstration, 19 March, 2016. Photo by Ola Aljari, ECPMF.

Authorities prevent journalistic work

Speaking to ECPMF during the demonstration in Omonoia Square in Athens, Greek photo-journalist George Panagakis said that things have been getting harder and harder for refugees since the borders closed: "Closing the borders caused a big problem to the refugees, and through these demonstrations people are showing their solidarity to them."

Panagakis, who works for the Pacific Press Agency, also talked about the difficulties that journalists face during covering refugees’ stories: “I am covering different stories in Greece, but focusing on refugees’ issues for the last two years, especially since 2015.

"In the last few months, most of the news has been about refugees in Greece who arrived in boats and their struggle to go to Idomeni on the Greece–Macedonia/FYROM border. The authorities put those refugees in military camps, which I believe are not good places for women and children to live in. They also prevent journalists and photographers from entering these camps to write stories or take photos. Sometimes they even delete the photos we take. And they prevent refugees from leaving the camps in many cases, so we can only access the information released by the government."

Circumventing restrictions

When asked about how journalists deal with these restrictions, Panagakis said: "We try to gather information from refugees who are not in the official camps but have relatives there. We also get some help from Syrians who have been living in Greece for a long time and speak Greek. I avoid covering stories including children to avoid the legal complications."

He sadly added:

Finding even those sources is getting harder, because refugees are more afraid now after the increase of the verbal assaults against them. Some of those racist people call refugees ISIS supporters. However, some journalists bribe officials to get into the camps or use mobile phones’ cameras to take photos.

Refugees welcome

The demonstration in Athens was organised by “Keerfa”, a Greek anti-fascist movement.

"Refugees are welcome. We do not want anyone to be forced to leave. We can host all the refugees and their families and we can provide health care, education and decent life for all of them", said Eleanna, an activist of Keerfa.

The organisation opposes the EU and NATO policies as well as NATO participation in returning the refugees back to Turkey.

"We think it will be better for Greece not to be a member of the EU anymore. The economic situation in the country has deteriorated because of the EU policies", Eleanna explained. The prominent slogans of the demonstrations were: "Refugees welcome, NATO out", "Bring your families", "No concentration camps" and "Fascists in jail".

Nawras_Yousif_900 Nawras Abdullah and Yousif Belal at Athens demonstration, 19 March, 2016. Photo by Ola Aljari, ECPMF.

Nawras Abdullah, a Syrian refugee who participated in the demonstration in Omonoia Square, told ECPMF: "Greek people are really nice and great; we are moved by their kindness, but really shocked because of the soulless EU-Turkey deal". He also explained that it was impossible for him and many other Syrian refugees to stay in Turkey, where they are not allowed to work and do not receive any aid.

Yousif Belal, another Syrian refugee, added to this: "We lost all our property in Syria and we paid our savings to reach Greece. If they forced us to go back to Turkey, we would lose everything."

The EU-Turkey deal on refugees

Now, the Turkish military forces are enforcing the EU deal on refugees. On 22 March they shot at Syrian refugees, including the family of Mahmoud Almatar (he got killed, while his family was unharmed). The family was fleeing Alraqqa, which is under ISIS control, after ISIS kidnapped one of their sons.

On Monday, 4 April, it was reported that three boats carrying 197 deportees arrived at the Turkish port of Dikili from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chois, under the EU-Turkey deal.

"Officials from the EU border agency Frontex said that Lesbos boats were carrying mostly Pakistanis who were already being deported to Turkey before the deal's creation. As such Monday's deportations are not a true test of whether the agreement can stop the flow of mainly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis to Greece," according to The Guardian.

The European Union deal with Turkey states that "all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey. This will take place in full accordance with EU and international law, thus excluding any kind of collective expulsion. All migrants will be protected in accordance with the relevant international standards and in respect of the principle of non-refoulement (non-refoulement is a principle of law which forbids the rendering of a true victim of persecution to his or her persecutor). It will be a temporary and extraordinary measure. It is an international agreement. The agreement took effect from 20 March 2016. No information is available about whether it can be renewed and when it is due to expire."

"Migrants arriving in the Greek islands will be duly registered and any application for asylum will be processed individually by the Greek authorities in accordance with the Asylum Procedures Directive, in co-operation with UNHCR. Migrants not applying for asylum or whose application has been found unfounded or inadmissible in accordance with the said directive will be returned to Turkey," according to a press release by the European Council on 18 March.

The deal was made unanimously by the members of the European Council on Friday, 18 March, and was described by The Independent  as “a dark day for Europe”.

‘The cyanide pill’

Meanwhile, the situation for refugees in Turkey is getting worse. The procedures to receive a residence permit are long and complicated. Being able to legalise their status much more easily before, Syrians in Turkey are now supposed to prove the possession of valid passports, almost 2500 US dollars or 6000 Turkish Liras (which equals nearly 2240 Euro) and health insurance to be able to legally stay in the country. Often, they cannot send their children to regular schools as the educational system is unable to integrate foreign students.

Amnesty International called the EU-Turkey refugee deal "a historic blow to rights." Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, John Dalhuisen, said: "Promises to respect international and European law appear suspiciously like sugar-coating the cyanide pill that refugee protection in Europe has just been forced to swallow."

Many Syrian activists and journalists had been killed in Turkey by the end of 2015. In October, Ibrahim Abdulkader and Faris Hammadi from the activist group ‘Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered’ were killed in southeastern Turkey and found beheaded in their apartment. In December 2015, the Syrian journalist and filmmaker Naji Aljerf was assassinated in Gaziantep one day before he and his family were supposed to fly to France after their asylum request was approved.