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World Refugee Day, 20 June 2023: We must not get used to human tragedy

On World Refugee Day, the Greek Forum of Refugees and its community members organized an event aiming to highlight and raise awareness regarding the ongoing challenges and difficulties faced by refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, all being related to the inhuman conditions and behaviors that violate human rights and undermine human dignity in a European country.

We at the GFR emphasize that this day is not a celebration for us, but rather a mourning for the hundreds of lives lost daily at various borders of Europe. In fact it was a reminder that refugees and asylum seekers suffer and are at risk every day, both at the doorstep of Europe and within it, in so-called reception and hosting centers.

During the event, refugee communities, refugees from reception centers (camps), victims of push-back and violence at the Greece-Turkish border, and representatives of civil society organizations were brought together with the common goal of highlighting the challenges in the asylum system proposing possible solutions, and the inhuman condition that asylum seekers and refugees face in “reception centers”. Refugees from the camps highlighted the inhuman condition and difficulties they face daily. The main issues, among others, are:

  1. Marginalization and a feeling of being detained like criminals in containers surrounded by high walls, as the camps are placed outside of cities, far from the local society, and perceived as a threat to the locals
  2. Lack of transportation and connection to the nearby cities and local society, reinforcing their marginalization and isolation from the local communities
  3. Lack of basic needs, such as food and hygiene items, particularly for women and children
  4. Difficulties in accessing medical care and the healthcare system, leading to cases where people even lose their lives while waiting for ambulances
  5. Serious obstacles to accessing education, especially for children, and a complete lack of opportunities for any activities and engagement for adults, resulting in a worsening of already burdened psychological issues
  6. Problematic asylum process (lack of access to legal support, lack of proper information, prolonged waiting and delays in renewal of refugee cards, even, for up to one year)

In the wake of the recent incident in Pylos, representative of the Greek Forum of Refugees and a member of the Board of Director aptly stated: “We do not celebrate; we always mourn. What happened in Pylos is neither the first nor the last tragedy. It happens every day.”

During the event, participants had the opportunity to hear a powerful testimony from a refugee who endured approximately twenty Pushbacks at the Evros-Greece border. Speaking with courage about his traumatic experiences, the young refugee shared, “I faced the consequences of around 20 pushbacks. Sometimes, due to my small build, I was lucky not to be attacked by the border police, as they considered me underage. However, on other occasions, I was not as lucky, and the officers would physically assault me with batons. Even in those difficult moments, I witnessed my friends and fellow refugees being subjected to the same violence from the border guards.” His traumatic experiences shed light on the harsh realities faced by refugees at the border, where violence and mistreatment persist, and leaving many in painful and dangerous situations.

Among other issues a member of a Community, raised a concerning point regarding the treatment of refugees by Greek and European authorities: “If it were a cruise ship carrying tourists in danger near European shores, the authorities would undoubtedly rush to their rescue with a coordinated effort from all EU countries. However, when faced with 700 refugees at serious risk of sinking and losing their lives, the same level of cooperation and coordination was not extended. It is a profound disregard for European values and a violation of human dignity. It is shameful” This statement highlights a worrying disparity in the response to humanitarian crises and raises questions about the commitment of EU to upholding human rights and dignity in the face of the refugee plight.

Drawing attention to the inhumane behavior of the authorities, a member of another community remarked, “For the rescue of five people in a submarine for a guided tour of the Titanic, millions were spent, and global forces and countries were coordinated – and rightfully so. Within 24 hours, the causes of the tragedy were announced. On the contrary, 700 people in Pylos (Greece) were at risk of sinking and waited for hours to be rescued. In this case, there was no coordination, no expenditure, and it wasn’t even considered an emergency situation. We are certain that there won’t be any serious and independent investigation to shed light on the matter. We are shocked that the victims were unjustly blamed, and it truly is a shame for Greece and Europe.” This statement highlights the stark contrast in response between different crises, raising concerns about the treatment of refugees and the lack of accountability in such situations.

To highlight the diverse skills and talents of refugees, often hidden under the label of ‘refugee’, the event also featured an art exhibition titled “HARTS” (Hands on Refugees Talent and Sustainability). HARTS was initiated by Greek Forum of Refugees, aiming to showcase the abilities and talents of individuals in this specific context through a visual art display of paintings created by women refugees. There were also musical performances by refugee bands residing in the camps and cuisines by communities.

The event served as a reminder that World Refugee Day should be a day of remembrance for the thousands of lives lost along the tragic refugee journey. It also provided an opportunity for refugees themselves to have their voices heard, showcasing their abilities, talents, and shedding light on the ongoing challenges they face. Throughout the event, the urgent need for solidarity and responsibility-sharing in Europe was emphasized, as well as the importance of exploring and rescuing refugees in danger, all while safeguarding human rights and human dignity.

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