A week with refugees -- between policy and reality


This article was written as part of a NewsMavens collaboration (article in cache, see below) with exceptional freelance women journalists in Europe. I was taken up in this series as “an editor and journalist with a bright vision for online journalism”.

Earlier this week, European Council President Donald Tusk kicked up a fuss in Brussels when he declared the mandatory refugee quotas for member states “ineffective”. 

-- by Lisa Dupuy, December 2017

Migration was on the agenda for a summit dinner on Thursday, but the content of Tusk’s letter -- the draft of which was leaked earlier this week -- caused some of the member states to lose their appetite.

The Council President’s statement that “only member states are able to tackle the crisis effectively” was interpreted as a sign to the first responder countries of Greece, Italy and Spain to take sole responsibility for the issue, rather than to rely on the EU to redistribute the influx of migrants. In his remarks, Tusk called the policy of mandatory quotas (in which every member state must take in a certain number of refugees) “highly ineffective”.

Meanwhile, the refugees’ lives are dictated by regulations, by paperwork and by lots of waiting.

I learned of the latest European developments while sitting in a living room in Thessaloniki, surrounded by a Syrian refugee family.

The family was forced to flee from Aleppo when war broke out there in 2012. Its nine surviving  members (that’s two parents and seven children, aged between eleven and twenty-three) have scattered around the Mediterranean, first in Turkey and then in the Idomeni, Jelana and Veria refugee camps in Greece.

Five grueling years (the horrors of which have filled at least fifty hours of interview on my tape recorder) later, they have been granted refugee status and are awaiting family reunification in Germany -- another migration policy that has recently complicated the jobs of policymakers.

By the standards of the homeless refugees who wander about Thessaloniki, congregating in cafés, trying to organize fake travel documents or a car to smuggle them across the border onto the heavily-monitored Balkan route, the family’s lives are now looking up. Their flat is rented by UNHCR and they receive a monthly allowance. By the accounts of some of the locals I have spoken to, their finances are close to average in Greece, which is still reeling from a financial crisis and where unemployment is over 20%. No wonder this frontline country doesn't take lightly to wording that suggests it hasn't taken full responsibility in regulating migration.

Meanwhile, several countries have refused to adhere to the relocation system, notably those whose current governments have marked populists leanings like Hungary and Poland, and also the neighbouring countries of Slovakia and Czechia.

Leaders of the Visegrad countries often defend their views by trumpeting their intentions to put their own citizens first, but even a cursory glance at the EU shows the opposite -- it's the countries that take best care of their citizens that are also willing to take in refugees.

This week shed light on Hungary’s dangerous disregard for its handicapped citizens, as well as a wave of homeless deaths in Bratislava due to a lack of available facilities. And Poland -- who, like Hungary, refused to take in a single refugee under the mandatory quota scheme -- shocked the world with scenes more reminiscent of a police state than a functioning EU democracy.

A single week spent with one Syrian family is not going to give me the wisdom to accurately dissect the complexity of countless different-yet-similar histories. The saddest part is that even in this scenario, a roof over your head and food on the table don’t alleviate matters of loss, trauma and frustration. It doesn't solve frustration of paperwork or waiting times or confusing legal finger-pointing. It doesn’t amend the happenstance that is sometimes part and parcel of bureaucracy.

If anything, I left that warm, smoky apartment in Thessaloniki with more contradicting notions -- between the papers and reality, between what's legal and what's ethical, between what's regulated and what's needed -- than I knew when I first rang their doorbell.

This short essay was also part of the project Lives in Between.