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Refugee crisis

Andrea Grunau / jsJune 17, 2015

Herbert Goldmann has witnessed authorities' inability to care for boat people on the island of Lesbos firsthand. The Green party politician told DW that the ongoing situation is inhumane and unacceptable.

Zelt Kleinkind Griechenland Lesbos
Image: Herbert Goldmann

Deutsche Welle: Many refugees who come to Europe arrive on the Mediterranean coasts of Italy and Greece. You were recently on the Greek island Lesbos. What impressions did you come away with?

Herbert Goldmann: After the island of Kos, Lesbos receives the most refugees in Greece - up to 1,000 people per day. After arriving, refugees are put in a sealed off area and wait to be registered. The streets and squares near the harbor are filled with people who have nothing but the piece of cardboard that they will spend the night on. The sheer numbers of people pose an unsolvable problem for authorities. Water, food and clothing can only be provided to refugees with the help of NGOs and private individuals. When you are there, you are face to face with misery every second.

Did you see things that alarmed you?

I was appalled at the way refugees were handled. They arrive on the north side of the island and then have to make their way to a reception camp some 37 miles away (60 km). According to Greek law, it is illegal to bring refugees to a reception camp - that applies to bus drivers, taxi drivers and private individuals. Sick people, pregnant women and children have to make the 37 mile trek on foot. The journey, often undertaken in a traumatized and exhausted state, can take two or three days to complete.

Herbert Goldmann
Herbert Goldmann went on a fact-finding tour to the island of LesbosImage: Gruene Landtagsfraktion NRW

When people land on Lesbos they have to report to a hermetically sealed prison in the city of Moria to have their documents checked. Officially, this process is supposed to take two to three days, but I talked to refugees who said, "We've been here for three weeks already." 80 to 90 percent of the refugees, who arrive in Greece, come from Syria. I think it is intolerable that a refugee with rightful claims should have to stay in a prison. What we are asking of the people who made it - of those who have survived the Mediterranean - is inhumane and totally unacceptable for the European Community.

Are human rights being abused?

Yes. Although I have to say, everything is in short supply - from qualified personnel to finances. I don't want to suggest a lack of goodwill. Every participant that I spoke with - police, mayors, coast guard, etc - said, "We want to help, but our hands are tied." I have the impression that they are at once shocked, livid and despondent about being abandoned by the international community.

Is it a justified accusation?

It is certainly not exaggerated. One can imagine what kind of effort it takes to care for up to 1,000 people a day; to provide shelter for the sick and young among them, to provide things like food, toothbrushes and soap. None of that is guaranteed.

What does the EU, does Germany have to do?

I firmly believe that current refugee policy regulations are not enough. Dublin III guarantees that Central European states are "guarded" against legal access by refugees, it only deals with EU border states. A repeal of Dublin III is imperative. Europe and Germany both bear a great degree of responsibility for the flood of refugees at the borders, because of their own unacceptable arms policies, which allow them to export of weapons to crisis zones and influence other political decisions.

Current discussions in Germany have to do with how we can keep people from coming here in the first place, and how we can make "Fortress Europe" more secure. What do you think?

I think it is a totally schizophrenic approach to want to shield Europe from these people's suffering. In no way does it stand in relation to our obligations. Naturally, we have to enter a dialogue with African states, but not by demanding that Libya, Tunisia and Algeria keep refugee boats from setting sail. Many refugees come from south and central African countries. It is much more important that we begin a dialogue among European powers in order to come up with a comprehensive path to legalized immigration. What's going on now is illegal. We need rules that allow people to come to Europe and to Germany for humanitarian reasons, and within a legal framework.

Hafen von Mytilene Griechenland Lesbos
Many refugees have to sleep on the streetsImage: Herbert Goldmann

Do you think it's wrong that the Dublin statute dictates that refugees who land in Greece should stay there?

There is simply no way that plan can work, not just because of the current economical situation in Greece. We demand that the Greeks make massive public sector personnel cuts, and that they generate savings, but in terms of refugee policy, that is exactly what has led to this disastrous situation.

How should Greece be helped?

With financial aid, and possibly with personnel that can help workers there establish a formally correct process that allows for the quick and efficient verification of paperwork and the administration of medical exams. A process that is part of a concerted Europe wide effort would help both refugees and authorities organize things more quickly.

What do you say to those in Germany who say that we are already overwhelmed?

I disagree. When I see the faces of the affected, when I see the fear and uncertainty - not only in the eyes of children, but also adults - I think that we have a moral obligation to help. According to database numbers, more than 29,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since the year 2000. I think that the real numbers are even more gruesome.

All of us who see this are culpable, perhaps not legally, but certainly morally, if we fail to do everything within our power to make safe passage possible - or at least to make sure that people are rescued from life threatening situations. For us, the problem is usually reduced to the level of logistics and financial burdens. But I believe that we live in a country that is capable of shouldering such problems, even when they are this big.

Herbert Goldmann is a Green Party representative in the State Parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia. He recently partook in a fact-finding trip to Greece and Italy with other NRW parliamentarians at the invitation of the Protestant Church of Germany.

This interview was conducted by Andrea Grunau.