In the Kara Tepe processing centre in the Greek island of Lesvos, where Syrian refugees are registered after clambering off boats from Turkey, new arrivals are met by the smiling faces of International Rescue Committee staff and bottles of water. Young girls and boys have their faces painted by Save the Children, while their parents wait in well-organised lines for registration at UN refugee agency (UNHCR) booths. At the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) daily clinic in Kara Tepe, patients wait on neatly arranged wooden benches. For those who need to stay, there are brand new UNHCR transitional shelters and sturdy tents erected in tidy rows on freshly gravelled ground under the shade of olive trees.
Just a kilometre down the road it is a different and far darker world. The Moria immigration centre is a prison-like building with high barbed-wire fences and forbidding gates, now surrounded by a filthy ad hoc camp. Outside, entire families cram into makeshift shelters consisting of tarpaulins tied to the wire fence. Hundreds more sit in the hot sun. The food stalls have no customers: no one has money. The atmosphere is tense: police in full riot gear tramp past on their way to the office at the top of the settlement. Here, hundreds of people wait for hours in an unmoving queue outside the wire gates to apply for papers. “This is terrible,” ActionAid’s director for Greece, Gerasimos Kouvaras, visiting on an assessment mission, told IRIN. “This place can’t even provide the basics.”
The difference? Kara Tepe is for Syrians only. Everyone else must go to Moria.
“We call it the humanitarian caste system,” said one international NGO volunteer. “We see it in donations. We see it in volunteer interest. And we see it from the governments.”
Moria, initially the island’s only processing centre, was overrun in the summer when arrivals hit 4,000 a day. The Greek authorities designated Kara Tepe as a temporary processing site for Syrians, who made up the bulk of the arrivals. Aid staff told IRIN that initially Kara Tepe was also filthy and overrun. But once the crisis, and specifically the plight of the Syrian refugees, became global news in the summer, more aid agencies began arriving and focussed largely on helping the Syrians. Moria, meanwhile, continued to grow but received nothing like the attention or the support.
From governments - in the UK and Australia, for example - announcing increased quotas specifically for Syrians, to the focus on Syrians among public advocacy and volunteer efforts, the perception is growing that being Syrian is a short cut to asylum approval, public sympathy and more comprehensive levels of support.
In Greece, this discrimination isn’t implicit: it’s overt government policy. Those arriving from Syria are automatically given papers entitling them to stay in the country for six months. For other nationalities, it is only a month. “The view of the Greek authorities is that Syrians are considered to be prima facie refugees because of the war, so they should be entitled to international protection, whereas the others have a higher chance of being economic migrants,” said Djamal Zamoun, UNHCR team leader in Lesvos.
From a burgeoning trade in Syrian passports to fights between different nationalities, the distinction is impacting the relief effort in multiple ways. At Kara Tepe, organisations have seen a surge in asylum seekers claiming to be Syrian. Some present fake or stolen passports – Syrian passports are for sale in Turkey for around $1,000 each. Others just say their papers are lost. The Frontex official said those claiming Syrian nationality not only believe they will get asylum more easily but also that European countries will give them additional support once they get there.
“We have suffered too,” said one newly arrived Afghan refugee. “We came on the same boats. Why should it be different for us?”
The UN refugee agency’s team leader was clear that de facto discrimination in favour of Syrians was not acceptable. “UNHCR does not share this view that it is acceptable to prioritise one group,” he said. “Unless proven that they are not genuine refugees, they should all be given the same treatment.”