Ramona Muljar: refugee status could be determined before arriving to the territory of the European Union

Ramona Muljar describes the life in a refugee camp in Greece or hotspot. Who are the arrivals and where they come from, what kind of problems they have and how the local cooperation works – all that was the subject of the interview below. Ramona was a legal advisor for the Estonian Human Rights Centre’s legal office for refugees between 2013 – 2014 and a volunteer on the strategic cases concerning refugees between 2014 – 2015. Ramona currently works for the Finnish Migration Office.

Could you tell us what exactly is a hotspot and how does it work? How did you end up there?

A hotspot is a refugee camp in Greece or Italy, where in addition to the local government workers there are also people from the European Union’s organization EASO (European Asylum Support Office). So they are either from EASO itself or people sent there from the EU’s member states for 6-8 weeks, who usually work in this field in their own countries. I ended up there thanks to my employer and spent 2 months on the island of Samos. I interviewed asylum seekers and put together evaluations, based on which the Greeks made their final decision.

Are there any NGOs or international organizations included in the local activities?

Yes, many, for example UNHCR, IOM, Boat Refugee Foundation, MedIn, Médecins Sans Frontières. They provide medical help, legal advice, tents, and so on. This European operation in Italy and Greece also involves policemen from different member states, for example I met a criminal police officer from Tartu and three policemen from Tallinn.

Who are the arrivals and how do they get there?

People arrive to the island of Samos directly from Turkey, around half of the arrivals are Syrian, a quarter of them Iraqis and a quarter of other nationalities (for example from African countries like Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, etc.) Some arrive alone, some with families, this particular camp had a lot of families. They arrive on rubber boats – the smuggler puts them on the boat at “the right moment” (meaning that the smuggler checks if there are any Turkish border patrol officials nearby, they mostly depart during the night, etc.), points them to the right direction and gives them the phone number of the Greek border patrol to call once they are in Greek waters – so they would come to the rescue.

On Samos, there were some German ships from Frontex (European Agency for External Borders), which were used to rescue people from the water and bring them to the island. The smugglers themselves no longer go with the boats, because the Greek border patrol arrests them and puts them in jail.

For how long do the asylum seekers stay in the camp, on average?

It depends. Some Syrians, who are waiting for a decision about their appeal (if the first decision about whether they can return to Turkey according to the EU-Turkey agreement, has been negative), have spent over a year on Samos. Generally, the refugees wait for a decision for 3-6 months and they must stay on the island until then.

A view on the refugee camp on Samos

What does the process look like, how does the distribution work and how do the refugees move on?

The applicants come, they will be registered and given accommodation, food, etc. In a few weeks, they have an interview to determine if that person or family can go back to Turkey according to the agreement between the EU and Turkey from 2016, and their grounds for seeking asylum will be ascertained. After that, they wait for the decision in the camp. If the person is already in Greece, i.e. on the territory of the EU, it is difficult to send them back to their home country if the application is rejected – for example, they lack travel documents etc. Having to accommodate them while they wait costs money, of course.

How to solve such a situation?

If they could get their decision already in Turkey or somewhere else on the external borders of the EU, then those who have no grounds to get international protection, would get a negative decision immediately and they wouldn’t arrive to Europe at all. Those, who really need protection, could start a new life in Europe much faster. At the moment, everybody who wants or can and who have no grounds for getting protection, come and slow down this process and spend the resources meant for those who need them.

In my opinion, about 50-60 percent of the arrivals on Samos had grounds to get international protection, but the remaining 40-50 percent will stay in Europe for no reason, illegally. And people just keep coming.

How are the arrivals feeling, what are the conditions and the everyday life like?

They get bored. At the same time, they could be more active themselves, go to the library, educate themselves on the internet, etc. At the camp, they are given information and the NGOs organize workshops. It seemed like they were mostly focused on waiting for the decision – they either didn’t dare or want to start a new life before that. When I was there, there were protests about bad living conditions, because there were too many people in the camp, and many had to live in a common tent for several months. The camp fits around 800 people, but during the last weeks, there were already some 1200 – 1400 people there, if not more.

What’s the attitude of the local people and Greeks in general, how do they feel about the refugees?

Nobody is particularly happy about the situation. Big gangs of young men wander about the city, yelling and disturbing the peace. During the summer, people didn’t want them on the streets, because it was the tourism season and tourism is a source of income for many of the locals. In addition, on the island – especially in the summer – a lot of water is needed, so the mayor of Samos turned off the water in the camp every day between 12 – 16, so the tourists and the locals would have enough water. I still want to stress that the Greeks are generally very friendly and helpful, for example I didn’t notice any racism at all. Despite the extremely difficult economic and political conditions, they have handled the situation as delicately and hospitably as possible. More than a million people passed through the Greek islands in 2015. The situation has been quite difficult, and it still is. The Greeks have done their best despite of this.