When Khalil Mohammed began his hunger strike, all he wanted was somebody at to take his Skype calls. The 19-year-old Syrian is languishing in Greece, one of around 54,000 refugees unable to move beyond the economically crippled nation since Macedonia closed its borders in March.
Though he dreams of moving to a country that will give him the best chance of restarting his life, Khalil wants to stay on the right side of the asylum laws and regulations that have become increasingly hostile to people like him.
While Istanbul prepares to host the World Humanitarian Summit, the woes of tens of thousands of refugees stuck in limbo have remained unheard for months. The U.N.-led gathering is expected to be attended by 9,000 people and aims to make refugees a pivotal point of discussion, yet it is far from offering any immediate respite for people like Khalil.
In Greece, in particular, the asylum and relocation system – a central plank in European Union efforts to deal with the refugee crisis – is failing. It has pushed many displaced people into taking desperate measures.
“We tried to call so many times, but nobody answered – it was just busy – so we decided to hold a hunger strike because we couldn’t think of another way of getting people to listen to us,” Khalil explained from his tent in Ritsona, a camp more than an hour’s drive from Athens.
The Skype call he has been trying in vain to make is the first step in a pre-registration scheme aimed at creating a safe, legal way for refugees to apply to stay in Greece, or move into other E.U. countries.
The interview via Skype, an online phone and video service, begins a process that will either see them approved for asylum and possibly relocated, or rejected.
But the system is woefully under-resourced, with tens of thousands of refugees given only a few hours a week to call the understaffed asylum service. Each asylum seeker is given a limited time slot during which he or she can call. They have to go to a specific access point to be able to make the call because there is no wifi in the camp, and the network is too unstable for calls to go through because of the remote location.
“We’re very concerned about the Skype initiative introduced by the Greek authorities,” said Jean-Pierre Schembri, a spokesman for the European Asylum Support Office. “Access to Skype has proven to be very difficult, with limited time for calls and a large number of people wanting to access it.”
With Greece facing its own economic crisis, many asylum seekers want to move elsewhere in Europe – an idea not discouraged by the authorities.
Originally, 160,000 refugees were supposed to be relocated from Greece and Italy into other E.U. countries by September 2017. The reality, however, is in stark contrast: Out of more than 63,000 who hoped to be moved from Greece, just under 900 have so far benefited from the program.
With a limited number of countries pledging to accept refugees, the E.U. is putting pressure on member states that shirk their responsibilities by threatening to fine them – up to $290,000 for each asylum seeker they reject .
However, any efforts to improve things are being undermined by the inadequacies of the Greek state’s Skype set-up.
Khalil and his family have been through a lot to get to Europe, only to be stuck trying to make a simple call.
Three months ago they fled Kobani, the scene of vicious fighting between the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish forces last summer. ISIS slaughtered more than 150 civilians in the town near the Turkish border.
“Back home we once had everything, and now we don’t even have a country,” said Heva Abdi, Khalil’s mother. She spoke from the tent that she shares with him and three of his siblings.
Absent from the makeshift home, though, is her fifth son, 16-year-old Mustafa. Kidnapped by ISIS, he managed to escape and fled before the rest of his family, eventually making it to Germany.
“When your husband dies, it’s so hard and it feels like the worst pain in the world,” said Abdi. “But to lose your son twice, that has been even more difficult.”
For Abdi and her sons, relocation is the only legal way to reunite a family split by the shifting policies of European countries. But although family ties are taken into account in the scheme, those taking part cannot necessarily choose their country of resettlement.
While Khalil and nine of his friends went on hunger strike to raise awareness of their plight, other refugees are giving up on legal procedures and resorting to smugglers to try to get out of Greece.
On the Greek side of the Macedonian border at Idomeni, well over 10,000 refugees remain encamped in grim conditions, waiting with fading hope for the path ahead to reopen.
Among them is Qusay Lubani from Damascus. “Every day people are trying, but no one is succeeding,” the Syrian-born Palestinian said of the repeated Skype connection failures.
Lubani described an atmosphere of despair, where many are once again contemplating smugglers. “Others are even thinking of going back to Syria, because nothing is clear here,” he added.
With efforts to move refugees already hampered by the reluctance of many E.U. member states, the failure to get them on to even the first rung of the asylum ladder in Greece could have profound consequences, warned UNHCR’s Stella Nanou.
“People must settle down somewhere and have a sense of permanency,” she said. “The sooner they can do this the better, and if people continue to live in harsh conditions, integrating them in the long run will be even more difficult.”
There are some signs of change ahead.
After six days without eating, the Ritsona hunger strikers ended their protest at the start of this month after reassurances that asylum officers would visit them promptly to book interviews face-to-face.
Meanwhile, plans are under way to increase the capacity of the overstretched asylum services across mainland Greece by the end of May, added Nanou.
This should enable UNHCR and European authorities to provide greater support to the Greek asylum services in helping arrange the interviews face-to-face.
Nevertheless, the services will reach only a fraction of the 54,000 refugees in Greece. Afghans and Pakistanis are among the nationalities excluded from relocation. Nor will the interviews take place on the Greek islands, where some refugees have been detained under the recent “one-for-one” deal to deport those who arrived after March 20 back to Turkey in return for resettling refugees from Turkish camps in Europe.
Many refugees who discussed the issue were highly critical of authority figures, including U.N. representatives, who entered their camps offering help that never materialized.
Meanwhile, the patience of those like Khalil is running out as they continue to be strung along with promises of change.