View of a makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni on the Greek - FYR of Macedonia border where thousands of refugees, mainly from Iraq and Syria, are stranded © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

Greece is Empyting It’s Largest Refugee Camp. The Timing Could Not Be Worse

(World Humanitarian Summit, Istanbul)  One issue that constantly plagues international gatherings such as the World Humanitarian Summit is the frequent contradiction between the words and commitments said at these meetings and the actions actually taken by governments. Case in point: as the international community met in Istanbul today to call for greater accountability in adhering to humanitarian law and upholding the rights of those forcibly displaced around the world, the Greek government announced that it plans to clear a large refugee camp that has built up at the Macedonian border.

Over the past few months, the camp at Idomeni has become a symbol for Europe’s inability to handle the refugees flowing into the EU. As borders across the so-called Balkan route continued to close, reopen, and then close again, many refugees who trekked from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan became stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni. Not able to continue further but unwilling to go back, conditions at the camp soon deteriorated as overcrowding and frustrations increased.

Now the Greek government has said enough is enough. While just 400 miles away from Idomeni politicians and NGOs spoke of their commitment to address the needs of refugees, riot police and local officials in Greece prepared to clear those same refugees from the outpost that still provides some hope of a better life even in squalid conditions.

That apparent hypocrisy highlights the difference between political words and practical action. Today the World Humanitarian Summit saw one high level meeting, one special session and several official side events dedicated to forced displacement, burden sharing, and upholding the rights of those affected. Several more events are planned for tomorrow. But without the actions to back up such commitments, the much needed change to the status quo will not happen.

There are good reasons to close the camp at Idomeni, mainly because conditions there are horrid. But according to activists on the ground (with the camp on lockdown and journalists barred from entering) there are fears about how the Greek government plans to clear it. More importantly, closing Idomeni is placing a bandaid on a gaping abyss of a wound; it is not closing because it is no longer needed, it’s closing because Greece is begrudgingly settling in for the long haul in hosting these refugees.

The refugees at Idomeni arrived prior to the implementation of the EU-Turkey migration deal, meaning they are not subject to automatic deportation back to Turkey. For those whose refugee status is confirmed, resettlement to an EU country is planned. But again, political words often do not match actual actions.

In September 2015, EU states agreed to resettle 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, the two countries that saw the bulk of refugee arrivals due to their location on the Mediterranean Sea. By mid-March 2016, only 1145 of these 160,000 had actually been resettled. The EU Commission then set a goal of speeding up resettlement by setting the goal of 22,000 relocations by mid-May. In a report on its progress, the EU Commission acknowledged that only 355 of this 22,000 person goal were actually resettled as planned.

In comparison to this continuing failure, several European politicians spoke today on addressing forced displacement with compassion and dignity. For example at a press conference earlier today, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel spoke passionately about the need to maintain our humanity and not turn our backs on those in need. But a review of the resettlement figures released by the EU Commission this month shows Luxembourg has only accepted 30 refugees since September 2015 while more than 100,000 refugees have arrived in Italy and Greece since the start of 2016 alone.

Moving thousands of refugees and hour and a half away to abandoned building around Thessaloniki as planned does not fix the situation, although it will help put the problem a bit further from sight. But sweeping these refugees under the rug is not what is needed, and is not what is being called for by politicians, government representative and aid organization this week in Istanbul. Marrying those calls for action with actual action is what is needed, and that means moving beyond the speeches to formally adopting the progressive platforms proposed to create a real way forward.