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Greece Illegally Turns Away Thousands of Vulnerable People Seeking Asylum: A Crisis of Accountability

Greece illegally turns away refugeesReading Time: 4 minutes


Greece illegally turns away refugees


By Zoe Allen, Sona Circle

Greece accused of illegally expelling refugees

Last week, the New York Times reported claims that Greek authorities have been taking refugees from refugee camps and abandoning them in motorless rafts outside the Greek sea territory border rather than offering them asylum. 

The report claims over 1,000 refugees have been expelled in this way, which is illegal under international law that rules that countries have to offer safety to those who are fleeing violence and persecution. The groups, including children and babies, were left floating in the sea, either to be picked up by Turkish border forces or to be lost at sea. 

The New York Times report was formed from interviews with refugees who were abandoned by the Greek forces, with further evidence from three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard.

Greece denies claims of abandoning people at sea

Greece has since denied these claims, saying that Greece follows international law and has offered asylum to tens of thousands of people. Rather than saying they will investigate the reports, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis claimed that the reports were fabricated by Turkey.

He further deflected blame onto Turkey by claiming that Turkish border forces had been escorting boats filled with refugees into Greek waters rather than taking them safely to Turkey. 

This comes after Turkey recently announced they would not stop refugees from travelling on to Europe, largely through neighbouring Greece, causing large amounts of tension between the country and even resulting in violent border clashes. 

UNHCR calls on Greece to investigate the claims

UNHCR confirmed that these allegations had been increasing in number since March and that it appears to be true that refugees “may have been summarily returned after reaching Greece”.

UNHCR, amongst other rights groups, have called for the Greek government to investigate these claims internally, but there is as yet no call or seeming intention to investigate or intervene externally.

However, it is likely UNHCR, as a powerful international body on refugees, will monitor the situation and any further allegations.

NGOs and charities blocked from providing further assistance

Moreover, many NGOs and aid organisations have been blocked from operating in Greece, as legislation was introduced earlier this year to limit the ability of charities to provide support to refugee communities. 

This has resulted in further uncertainty, opacity, and lack of accountability for Greek authorities and a lack of protection and aid for refugees in Greece. 

This has meant there have been fewer reports on this situation and no immediate response on the ground to prevent this happening. However, as the situation continues to develop – as the New York Times report was only released on August 14th – there may be services put in place to prevent this happening further. 

To fully prevent further human rights abuses, it seems likely an investigation by UNHCR will be necessary, however, UNHCR is yet to express an intention to do so.

A note on the terms we use

Refugees are people who have fled persecution, war, famine and serious threats to their life in another country and settled in another country. A person seeking asylum is fleeing these threats and applying to resettle in another country but has not yet been awarded the right to remain. Refugees and asylum seekers cannot return to their home country safely. 

We never use the term “illegal migrant” which you may find some people using. Seeking asylum is by definition never illegal under international law, no matter what methods have been used to gain entry to a country. Using “refugee” instead of “migrant” helps differentiate between people who have moved country searching for jobs or wealth (economic migrants) and people who have moved country because they have no other choice if they want to live freely and safely (refugees). 

How can we help in the UK?

There are still plenty of organisations working on the ground in Greek’s refugee camps providing essential supplies and services to people in need. You can find a list of organisations to donate to or volunteer for here. 

As yet, there are no petitions calling for independent reviews or interventions in Greece or Turkey. However, you can sign the #EuropeMustAct petition started in March, which calls for fair relocation of asylum seekers, oversight of Greek refugee camps and a register of European legal, medical and protection staff to work in Greek camps to support refugees.

It’s also very important that we continue to welcome and support refugees in the UK as well as helping them in mainland Europe. You could donate to major charities helping refugees in the UK, such as British Red Cross or the Refugee Council.

Get involved with Sona Circle?

At Sona Circle Recruitment, we partner with companies to provide paid internships and apprenticeships to refugees, helping to combat an elitist internship culture and the recruitment practices that currently exist. If you know of a company that would be interested in hiring from the dependable refugee workforce, they can get in touch with us here.

You can also show your support by donating on our JustGiving page or by purchasing an Equal Tee from our online shop where all the profits go to supporting refugee employment. 

By wearing a #EqualTee you are standing in solidarity with any group in society that has been unfairly treated or discriminated against. This doesn’t end with refugees and asylum seekers, it includes the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ rights, gender equality and BAME rights.

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An Insight to the Italian Migration and Asylum System

The Italian Migration and Asylum SystemReading Time: 3 minutes


The Italian Migration and Asylum System


Agnese Pierobon, Sona Circle

As the COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, economies and health systems across the world, many communities have experienced disruption. One annual event occurring each summer in Italy which has seen no change over the years; the arrival of migrants in the southern shores of the country.

This summer, however, the Italian Parliament is discussing a reform of the law covering the asylum reception system, putting to question the protection granted to migrants.

Italian Minister of Interior Mr Lamorgese submitted a legislative proposal in order to reform the so-called “Safety and Immigration decree”. 

To understand the impact of this proposal, it is important to take a step back and have a look at the Italian asylum system and what effect any changes will have on the lives of refugees.

In Italy, the reception system for asylum seekers and refugees was formally established in 2001, when the PNA (Program of National Asylum) was formed. This was the first public program of its kind in the country.

Later in 2002, an important innovation to the programme was implemented, the national network of the SPRAR (Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees), which represented the cornerstone guidelines for the reception of refugees in Italy. The SPRAR was in place during the first extraordinary wave of arrivals, between 2011 and 2013.

During that critical period, in order to cope with the increased number of arrivals, the then Minister of the Interior declared a state of emergency, the so-called North Africa Emergency (ENA). A new reception system was set up to work in parallel to the SPRAR. 

This new system brought with it a new set of problems as it cut down the services to asylum seekers (i.e. poor integration programmes, no language classes and no job orientation).

In 2013, when the state of emergency had passed, the ENA reception programme was discontinued, which meant that the migrants still hosted in the reception facilities at the time had to leave, with no alternative accommodation provided. 

The “respite” period was short, however, and in 2015 a major wave of new arrivals in Italy found the country yet again, unprepared.

To provide a timely response, the CAS (Extraordinary Reception Centres) was set up, with the aim of fulfilling the shortcomings of the SPRAR system. The guidelines regarding the structure and management of the CAS have remained vague over time, without clearly indicating minimum structural requirements or quality standards. 

These centres, however, instead of representing a temporary solution became the focus of the Italian reception system efforts. In 2018, the Safety and Immigration Decree essentially transformed the extraordinary reception centres into an essential step in the application for international protection. 

At the same time, the SPRAR renamed SIPROIMI (Protection for Holders of International Protection and Unaccompanied Foreign Minors) has seen the exclusion of migrants and asylum seekers from potential benefits by creating a range of categories of migrants, such as refugees, subsidiary protection, unaccompanied minors and special cases (victims of violence, labour exploitation, health treatment and civic value).

The newly iterated SIPROIMI, proposed by a populist Italian politician, was met with a lot of concern by immigration experts, as it decreased the minimum standards of living for asylum seekers. In the CAS extraordinary reception centres, support with language, employment and integration were withdrawn which meant that many months were wasted while asylum seekers awaited their asylum claim results. 

The new Minister of Interior, a technician with a broad range of experience, has proposed a change to this regulation, a reintroduction of the SPRAR system and a modification of the Safety and Immigration Decree. This is currently on the agenda for the Italian Parliament to vote on. 

In the meanwhile, thousands of migrants are leaving Libya and North Africa and heading towards Italian shores. After decades, an effective European response is still lacking. Italy remains alone in the rescue of migrants from the shores due to the lack of a cohesive agreement among the European Union. 

However, in this chaotic picture of the Italian legal framework concerning refugees, there is one thing that has always made a positive difference to the country’s response to refugees, this is the commitment of the Italian population in supporting refugees and asylum seekers by volunteering and donating to support refugee programs. 

Many of the flaws of the government response systems are repaired by the commitment of the Italian people. 

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The Perilous Journey Refugees Face

Reading Time: 4 minutes



Chiara Fabbro (@chi.fabb), Sona Circle Contributor

Imagine for a moment…

It is night, pitch black, although by now your eyes have gotten used to the darkness. You’re in the middle of the sea, on a rubber dinghy, and around you a large expanse of water. You’re driving the dinghy. You have no experience at doing this, but someone had to do it so you are taking turns with two others. You can feel the salty water splashing on your hands and on your face as the dinghy makes its way forward in the choppy sea. At the beginning it felt nice, still in the warmth of the day, but it’s been almost two hours now, you are soaked and shivering. Your hand on the throttle is completely numb.

The smugglers asked you for a thousand euros each to make the trip. The dinghy is so packed, there are 50 of you on board, and it feels very flimsy. You can swim but you wonder how many of the others can. There are a few elderly people and several children, some of them very little, also a baby. You’re all wearing life jackets, which makes you feel a bit safer. At least if anything happens, you’ll all float until a rescue boat finds you, right?

What you don’t know is that many of the life jackets are fake; they are made of a cheaper material that will soak up the water, instead of floating. They will actually make you drown faster.

The only noises now are the waves crashing and the high-pitched whine of the engine. Everybody is silent. There was some chatter at the beginning, someone prayed at some point. Now just silence. You are all cold and scared. You don’t even know if you are going in the right direction anymore. Your mind is battling so many thoughts, as you try to stay calm and focused. You remember the last phone call with your mum. You were worried about her safety and she was so scared about this crossing. You had a hard time convincing her it was a good idea, pretending to be convinced yourself.

You had heard so many stories about this over the past few weeks, a family you met had tried to cross but they had almost sunk. People were desperate. Another couple told you of their first attempt, they had made good progress at the start but later they were approached by another boat which forced them to stop. It was terrible, they said, everybody was screaming, the men on the other boat took their engine and left them to drift away with the current, back towards Turkey. In both cases they were eventually rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard, and back to the start.

That’s why everybody was saying it was better to make the journey at night, less chance of being seen. However at this point, you’re not sure if it really was a better idea anymore, you’re starting to seriously worry that you won’t make it.

This is the story of thousands of people every year, trying to cross the stretch of sea between Turkey and Greece, to seek asylum in Europe. Many people attempt this journey multiple times, as they are caught and sent back. Some lose their lives, too many. This is just one leg of a perilous journey so many are forced to make as they are forced out of their home country. They are fleeing war and bombings, the fear of snipers in the streets of their home town, oppression for speaking up against a certain regime or persecuted for their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

In the absence of a safe and legal path to seek asylum, the only option they are left with is to put their lives in the hands of the smugglers, and at the mercy of the sea. They risk their lives in the search of safety. Isn’t this ironic?

“…like a wave that never breaks”, that’s how they teach you how to recognise a dinghy on a night vision telescope during spotting training.

In autumn 2019, I joined Lighthouse Relief as a volunteer in the emergency response team on the Greek island of Lesvos. The NGO assists boat landings on the North shore of the island. It involves looking out for incoming dinghies to alert search and rescue vessels. It is a crucial job to reduce the risk of fatal incidents during the last part of the crossing, made so dangerous by the conditions, the inexperience, and the rocks. It also involves providing first response and support to people arriving on the shores, which is so important after such a terrible journey, with emergency blankets, food and tea, dry clothes and warm shelter for the night, along with first aid whenever necessary.

In March 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit this corner of the world, the situation in Lesvos was critical. Turkey opened its borders and there was a big increase in the number of people attempting to reach Europe. Simultaneously, there was a surge in attacks on migrants and NGOs perpetrated by extremist groups. This forced many humanitarian organisations to suspend their operations.

The situation now post COVID-19 is even harder due to the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus. My thoughts go to the migrants who are forced into even more precarious conditions and to the locals and NGOs who are trying to manage the situation with humanity and courage. The work of organisations like Lighthouse Relief will continue to be much needed, until Europe provides a legal and safe way to seek asylum. Until then, sadly, people will keep on entrusting their hopes for a safer life to a flimsy dinghy, like a wave that never breaks.

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The Story of Tendol Gyalzur, the ‘Mother of Tibet’

Reading Time: 3 minutes



by Aanya Bhandari, Sona Circle

Orphaned at the age of eight, during the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising, Tendol fled to India then immigrated to Germany where she became a nurse, and later helped the Chinese government to aid needy children in her homeland. 

Tendol Gyalzur was born in Shigatse, located within the historical Tsang province of Tibet. She was one of the estimated 80,000 Tibetans who were forced to flee the suppression of the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet.

Tendol was one of the lucky few selected from a refugee camp in India to be immigrated to Germany. Before she left, she engraved the Dalai Lama’s words, which read, “Share your happiness with others” on a tree. Unknown to her at the time, she would one day return to Tibet to live out these words and bring joy and happiness to thousands of Tibetan orphans.

After being sent to an orphanage in Germany, she was adopted by two doctors who ran a children’s village orphanage near the German-Swiss border at Konstanz, where she grew up with eleven other Tibetan orphans.

While living in Germany brought a sense of stability and security, she suffered a culture shock at being displaced and also encountered racial abuse from Germans for the colour of her skin.

After high school, she trained as a surgical nurse, and later met her husband, Losang Gyalzur, originally from Eastern Tibet, who had immigrated to Switzerland. The couple moved to Zurich, and raised two sons.

So how did an exiled orphan return from Switzerland to establish orphanages and nomadic schools across Tibet?

Nearly three decades after she had fled from Tibet, Tendol returned to her homeland, but this time bearing a bright red swiss passport in her hands and Dalai Lama’s words in her heart.

She was moved to open her first orphanage by the sight of street children rummaging through the trash for food in Lhasa. When she took them to a nearby place to eat, the manager at first place refused to let them in.

“It was then, for the first time in my life, I realized that the only thing I wanted to do was fight for the rights of these abandoned children,” she said.

Securing aid from the Tibet Development Fund, a Chinese-controlled non-profit, and using private savings, Mrs. Gyalzur opened Tibet’s first private orphanage in 1993 in Lhasa, accepting children from a variety of ethnic groups.

Triggered by her own memories of being an orphan, her spirit to improve children’s lives remained undeterred.

Through years of hard work, perseverance, determination, love, and support, she was able to set up another orphanage in her husband’s hometown of Gyalthang in 1997. Five years later they also established a centre in western Sichuan for the children of nomadic herders.

Unlike other orphanages at the time, which were highly religious, the only faith Tendol propagated was humanity. In an interview she once said her work was practical and pragmatic, “my religion is wiping children’s noses”.

Such was the reputation of Tendol’s labour of love, that people from near and far recognized her orphanages as beacons of cultural understanding, showing what many cultures and religions can do when they unite and set their minds to help children.

In a tense political environment, Mrs. Gyalzur was known for her ability to cooperate with Chinese officials for more than a quarter-century to get her job done. That cooperation, with a government accused of human rights abuses, drew criticism from within the Tibetan diaspora.

Tsering Shakya, a professor at the University of British Columbia saw Mrs. Gyalzur as pragmatic. “You can have your own political stance, but being able to effect change at the ground level is necessary.”

After 25 years, amidst suppression on the work of foreign organizations, Mrs. Gyalzur handed control of her centres to the Chinese government, although she continued to visit them.

As Tendol succumbed to Covid-19 on May 3rd, 2020, at the age of sixty nine, she leaves behind a legacy of service and perseverance.

Through individuals like her, we realize that children are children, people are people, no matter what ethnicity or religion. She showed the world that love is boundless, and through acceptance even dry lands can turn into lush green pastures.

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Refugees & COVID-19: Why the Ability to Self-Isolate is a Luxury

Reading Time: 2 minutes



By Aanya Bhandari, Sona Circle

In an appallingly short span of time, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a calamitous global effect, touching nearly every country and territory. As is the case with any catastrophic event, certain groups are left more vulnerable than others. One such group in this instance is refugees.

Refugees face immense barriers to accessing healthcare and taking preventive measures which others might take for granted, including regular hand-washing, sanitation facilities and of course, the ability to self- isolate.

A study by the University of Birmingham shows that many undocumented migrants are apprehensive about seeking medical help, for the fear of being reported to immigration authorities and being deported. As a result, they are often left to suffer in silence.

Even in normal times, those living as refugees, migrants, or internally displaced due to conflict, environmental disasters or extreme poverty, face physical and psychological barriers to integration. However, due to the pandemic restrictions, which have put a halt to economic activity globally, groups of individuals that were once extremely vulnerable are now struggling to survive.

Employment opportunities which were previously available in the informal economy have vanished, resulting in a loss of income opportunities and an increase in economic hardships for millions.

As UK unemployment claims have soared by nearly 70% since April 2020, we’re left to imagine the impact on refugees, considering the refugee unemployment rate has historically been three times as high as that of the British population.

While many NGOs and governmental organisations are working to stabilise the situation on the economic front, COVID-19 has no geographic borders or language barriers, and self-isolation is far from becoming a reality in major refugee camps around the world. Refugees residing in shelters, shared lodgings and overcrowded housing with common kitchens and toilets are simply unable to self-isolate, bolstering health risks and concerns about contracting the virus.

According to an emergency release by UNHCR, 134 refugee hosting countries have reported local transmission of COVID-19 within camps, including Bangladesh which hosts almost 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, with 600,000 concentrated in the Kutupalong-Balukhali expansion site.

Consequently, local NGOs have cut down on the number of volunteers going into refugee camps to decrease the risk of bringing in the virus. As a result, many initiatives that support refugees, including education, skill development, and mental health counseling sessions, have been stopped.

The cumulative effect of the economic, social, psychological, and medical complications has caused an unprecedented disruption to the lives of millions of refugees.

As the world economy struggles to re-stabilise, the global community must work together and demonstrate solidarity to ensure that the human rights and protection of forcibly displaced people are preserved.

While you’re surrounded by your loved ones, in the safety and comfort of your homes, you can show your support by making a donation (no matter how big or small) to the Sona Circle Refugee Employment Fund where 100% of donations go directly to supporting refugee employment in the UK, via our Just Giving page.