NGOs abandon Greece, oppose EU-Turkey refugee plan

Idomeni, at the Greek border with FYROM. [Martin Leveneur / Flickr]

NGOs helping the Greek government cope with the refugee crisis  have decided to cease operations for practical reasons, as well as in opposition to the “inhumane” EU-Turkey deal. EURACTIV Greece reports.

This is yet another blow to the EU, after the UNHCR refused to get involved in the refugee returns organised by the bloc under its recent deal with Turkey, claiming that the hotspots in the Greek islands, where refugees are processed, have become prisons.

UNHCR refuses to play ball with EU, as 'hotspots' become prisons

The United Nations refugee agency has refused to be involved in the refugee returns organised by the EU under its recent deal with Turkey, claiming that the so-called “hotspots” on the Greek islands, where refugees and migrants were received, assisted, and registered, have become prisons.

At approximately the same time, the Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World NGOs decided to abandon the Idomeni area, on Greece’s northern border, for security reasons.

Angry refugees protested against the border closures, and did not allow the NGO to distribute food. They also decided to stage a hunger strike.

“Our teams temporarily left the camp in Idomeni yesterday on Tuesday [22 March] at about 14:00 in the afternoon for security reasons. Our staff, however, remains in the region, in Venzinadiko and Kilkis. We are following the developments. The police did not ask us to withdraw but it is a process that we follow in our missions around the world for the safety of our staff,” the MSF Team Leader in Idomeni Antonis Rigas told EURACTIV Greece.

Another NGO, Praxis, which distributes food to refugees, also decided to leave the Idomeni area.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced that they withdrew from one of the hotspots in Lesvos “because the EU-Turkey agreement converts the reception centers into deportation centers. If we continued (operating), we would become a participant in a system that we consider unjust and inhumane”, the Greek branch of MSF tweeted.

“The proposed deal with Turkey shows once again how European leaders have completely lost track of reality,” Aurélie Ponthieu, MSF’s Humanitarian Adviser on Displacement, recently said.

“If this cynical agreement is implemented, for each Syrian that risks his life at sea another Syrian will have the chance to reach Europe from Turkey. This crude calculation reduces people to mere numbers, denying them humane treatment and discarding their right to seek protection in Europe,” she noted, adding that people are not numbers, but men, women, children, and families.

“Around 88% of those using this route are coming from refugee-producing countries, and more than half of them are women and children. They should be treated humanely and in full respect of their rights and dignity,” Ponthieu added.

Who will distribute food?

The question that remains unanswered is who will actually distribute the food.

Deputy Citizen Protection Minister Nikos Toskas said that the army will take over the feeding of refugees.

Speaking to Skai TV, Giorgos Kyritsis, the main coordinator of the refugee plan in Greece, said that relevant instructions were given yesterday evening.

Kyritsis said that the army was ordered to prepare food for the refugees, without specifying who would distribute it.

But Panos Kammenos, the minister of defence, and chief of the right-wing junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, does not share the same view.

Kammenos told Ant1 News that the military would not be involved in Eidomeni.

“The armed forces are neither catering, nor (the) refugees’ asylum service,” he commented.

Two different issues

Contacted by EURACTIV, Kyritsis explained that Idomeni and Lesbos are two different cases.

In Idomeni, NGOs stopped their operations due to security reasons. “It is a clearly practical issue which will be addressed by improving the security environment,” he told EURACTIV Greece.

Referring to Lesbos, he noted that the NGOs opposed the EU-Turkey deal, which has grey areas that still need to be clarified.

“Some parts of the deal raise questions to us as well […] we consider NGOs as partners in our efforts to assist the refugees and immigrants,” he stated, adding that initiatives will be taken to find a solution.

A Spokesperson of the Committee of the United Nations for Children (UNICEF) said in a press briefing in Geneva yesterday that the organization was concerned about the impact of the EU-Turkey agreement on children.

"We do not see any reference to children, despite the fact that children make up 40% of those who are trapped in Greece at the moment," a spokesperson said, adding that 19,000 children are trapped in Greece and around 10% of them are unaccompanied.

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