Humanitarian groups have accused the Greek government of fomenting a hunger crisis in the refugee camps with “conscious” political decisions that have left thousands of people without access to food.
Decisions aimed at deterring migrant flows, they said, created an intolerable situation in which refugees have had to struggle to feed themselves for months.
“It is unthinkable that people are going hungry in Greece,” said Martha Roussou of the International Rescue Committee. “Through no fault of their own, they have fallen by the wayside, and all because of a problem created by loopholes in legislation and policy.”
The IRC said it estimated that 40% of the camp’s occupants, some 6,000 refugees, had been denied basic means of subsistence due to the center-right administration’s decision to stop food supplies for those no longer they were in the asylum procedure.
A worryingly high number were children. Nearly 40% of the population residing in state establishments are minors.
“Local elementary school teachers have reported children arriving at school without having eaten, without even a snack to get them through the day,” the New York-based group said in a statement.
Although 16,559 refugees were registered in camps on the Greek mainland, new catering contracts were agreed to provide food for only 10,213 people, it revealed.
Aid organizations first raised the alarm in October after a law change resulted in vital services being cut off not only for recognized refugees and unsuccessful asylum seekers, but also for those who had failed to register applications, often due to chronic processing delays.
In an open letter addressed to Greek and EU officials, the 33 groups demanded that food be delivered to all residents of the camp, regardless of their legal status. European Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson responded that Greek authorities had been repeatedly asked to “ensure that all people, particularly the vulnerable” receive food and other necessities.
The Athens Ministry of Migration strongly rejects any suggestion of a hunger crisis. Manos Logothetis, who oversees the reception of refugees, described the allegation as “nonsense” and said it had been fabricated by NGOs.
“If there are 10 refugees in this country who have been denied food, I will quit my job,” he said. “If there really was a hunger crisis, there would be riots and protests. We speak to the EU commissioner every week and assure her that there is no problem with food, that everyone who is supposed to receive it, including the vulnerable and disabled, is supported.”
But in a written statement, the ministry reiterated that under Greek and European law, only people applying for international protection can be considered “eligible beneficiaries for material conditions of reception and therefore food.”
Camp residents who don’t fit that description have surged in recent months, even though Athens has also been applauded for speeding up asylum applications.
Rights groups said excessive expectations of successful asylum seekers are partly to blame. Under legislation implemented last year, quickly recognized refugees are forced to fend for themselves, with benefits they once enjoyed, including cash assistance and food, suspended after 30 days.
In a society with little support for integration, survival is often impossible and most are forced to return to the camps after facing bureaucratic hurdles, language challenges and difficulties finding work.
Turkey’s refusal to readmit rejected asylum seekers has also not helped. A landmark agreement reached between the EU and Ankara in 2016 aimed to send back to Turkey migrants who failed to obtain refugee status. The country has refused to accept anything since March 2020, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan encouraged thousands of asylum seekers to enter the bloc through Greece, sparking a border crisis that further soured already tense NATO allies ties.
With their claims rejected and nowhere to go, they too are forced to stay in camps.
But the rights group says it is the Greek government’s controversial decision to rule Turkey as a safe third country that mainly explains the buildup of people no longer considered part of the asylum process. Since June, Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have been denied the right to apply for refugee status, with Athens saying they should apply for refugee status in neighboring Turkey.
“It has created a situation where thousands have been left in legal limbo and total misery without access to food and other basic rights in the camps,” said Minos Mouzourakis, legal officer for Refugee Support Aegean, a migrant solidarity group. in Athens. “What is absolutely clear is that the unfolding hunger crisis in Greece is the direct result of the government’s conscious political decisions.”
He said it was imperative that, given Turkey’s position, Greek asylum officials break the deadlock by reviewing the asylum claims of the five nationalities on the basis of merit.
Some 90,000 refugees currently live in Greece, and arrivals have fallen sharply since the height of the migration crisis when some 1 million Syrians crossed the country on their way to the EU. The Kyriakos Mitsotakis administration has taken a much tougher approach to the issue than that of Alexis Tsipras, his leftist predecessor.
Last year, the government took over the operation of the 24 camps on the mainland, formerly run by the International Organization for Migration, and in a long-delayed process took over an EU-funded cash assistance program previously administered by the UN. The chaotic transition further exacerbated the food crisis, and handouts to refugees eligible for cash disbursements in camps and private housing were frozen for three months.
Logothetis acknowledged the problem, but insisted that, as of last week, the payments were “rolling out”.
“Much of this crisis is the result of mismanagement, disorganization and a lack of policy reflection,” Roussou told IRC. “We work in Afghanistan where there is hunger and it is so difficult to solve. Here in Greece it should be very easy.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism