Evacuating the Greek Refugee Camps and strengthening Europe from Below

Published 14 April 2020 / By Julia Schweers and Daniel Kersting

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On the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, and Kos, more than 40,000 asylum seekers live, behind barbed wire fences, in overcrowded detention centres. Hygiene and social distancing are impossible: in the camp of Moria, up to 1300 people have to share one sink.

The few medical care givers have been overwhelmed long before Covid-19. As we write this article, Greece quarantined a camp close to Athens after 23 asylum seekers tested positive for the coronavirus. It is only a question of time until the epidemic fully hits all camps – in that case a humanitarian disaster could kill thousands of people. This is why numerous organisations like Médecins sans Frontières and Medico International have, for weeks, been urging the EU-Commission to evacuate these camps – so far in vain.

This lack of political will is an existential threat not only to the refugees in Greece but also to Europe as a human rights and peace project. In this situation, it is crucial to understand the EU’s unique obligations and how they may be fulfilled despite its ongoing inaction during the coronavirus pandemic.

The EU’s Unique Responsibility to the Refugees

While charity organisations mainly call on Europe’s humanity, the EU has at least three more reasons to help with the situation in the Greek refugee detention centres beyond a universal duty to prevent a foreseeable humanitarian crisis: a legal obligation, a moral obligation, and a political reason.

The legal obligation grows out of international and European law, and from the fact that these asylum seekers are already in Greece, thus on EU territory. Therefore, some EU country has to be in charge and take up the responsibility to determine their status and offer at least basic care – that is what both the Geneva convention and the Dublin Regulation establish.

The moral obligation grows out of the fact that the EU created the impending disaster through the EU-Turkey deal, which purportedly delegates the EU’s asylum responsibilities to Turkey. The deal has been legally questionable from the beginning. It also led to the current situation in Greece, leaving thousands of people stranded on EU shores, for whom the EU blames Turkey and vis versa. Moreover, Dublin’s “first country of arrival" Rule left countries like Greece hopelessly overburdened – and in turn created a fertile soil for anti-asylum policies and violent assaults on refugees. As an agent whose prior actions directly worsened the welfare of the people involved, the EU stands under a specific moral obligation to now ensure their safety.

The political reason flows from the above two obligations: if the EU refuses to fulfil the above responsibilities, it violates its own legal and moral standards and gambles away its legitimacy.

The question that remains is whether Europe can fulfil these obligations when both its national governments and the EU institutions remain in a gridlock.

The Rise of Trans-urban Europe

Fortunately, there is a new and promising development: plans to resettle refugees through a transnational cooperation between municipalities. Such plans may be far from ideal but could prove the only alternative to the current gridlock. If carried through swiftly, they may prove effective in ensuring the safety of the refugees, while upholding the normative foundations of the EU. These developments could transform the EU asylum policy into a transurban one, even if only momentarily.

From Barcelona to Berlin and Sheffield, a group of “Solidarity Cities” have declared their willingness to host more refugees than their national governments intend to. The city council of Berlin, for example, is currently considering to fly in 1500 people from the Greek refugee detention centres. In many ways, solidarity cities depend on their state’s green light. Barcelona, for example, has been complaining for years about Madrid’s blocking of their efforts. Nevertheless, the cities and civil society in general could rise the pressure on the national level by pointing out that there is no actual impediment to bringing the people in Moria and the neighbouring camps to safety.

The advantages of such a transurban approach are obvious: municipalities know best what capacities they have and what provisioning they are capable of. At the same time, it is ultimately at the local level where empathy will have to grow and prejudices slowly resolve. In fact, in these times of immobility – when nation states close their borders and compete rather than cooperate in the fight against COVID-19 – a transurban approach to the current crisis bears a unique chance to both save the refugees and the European project. Thus, as Europe fails from above, we may see the rise of a Europe from below, where solidarity continues to span national borders and the right-wing slogan of the “overloaded boat” is countered with the demand #LeaveNoOneBehind.


Julia Schweers is a DPhil Student in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.

Daniel Kersting is a Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, Germany.