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CN: this article contains discussion of anti-refugee violence and xenophobia
Despite the decrease in the number of refugees arriving at Greek islands such as Lesvos, last year saw a rise in the number of recorded dead and missing refugees in the Aegean. Meanwhile, Greece faces another lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights for illegal pushbacks. Refugees continue to face poor living conditions in open-air camps, and promises of ‘state-of-the-art’ facilities from Athens remain unfulfilled. With no sign of the situation improving for refugees currently trapped in camps across Greece, Politika News spoke to the founder of SolidariTee, a refugee rights charity funding legal aid for asylum seekers in Lesvos and other parts of Greece. Tiara Sahar Ataii launched the charity in January 2017. Speaking to Politika News, she expressed her frustration at the systemic failures behind the situation in Lesvos.
You launched SolidariTee in 2017, when you were a first-year student at the University of Cambridge. What made you launch the charity?
Having been brought up in the UK by parents from a migratory background, from a country that has produced a large number of refugees, I generalised my upbringing in relative calm and safety to others.
So, when I first started volunteering as an interpreter for other Farsi/Dari speakers, I was really shocked to see that the same kind of trauma that my parents had gone through in the ’80s was still ongoing. I had naively assumed that such things ‘no longer happened’.
It was shocking to confront the realisation that injustice could exist within the same borders that I had enjoyed so many rights in. I began to realise that lack of citizenship impedes your ability to access any other rights – in Hannah Arendt’s words, it is ‘the right to have rights’.
I don’t mean to imply that I was able to put these feelings into words at the time, but I felt strongly that there was no ‘solution’ to the so-called refugee crisis without citizenship. And legal aid was the only way I saw that working.
I was adamant that I didn’t want to engage in voluntourism, and so the solution I found was to engage students in thinking structurally about asylum in the long term, whilst raising the funds to help those stuck in a legal limbo in the short term.
During your experience as a translator and interpreter in Greece, what is something that has stayed with you to this day?
That it is all so avoidable.
That so many individuals are forced into a perpetual legal limbo for no other reason than politics.
Migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, have been scapegoated for societal ills not at all related to them to such an extent that, as European countries, we let people – humans just like us, just with the misfortune of being born into a different set of circumstances – drown and die in inhumane conditions.
In your 2019 TEDx Talk, ‘A Sustainable Solution to the Refugee Crisis’, you say the following: “The European refugee crisis is a legal crisis”. What do you mean by this?
It is difficult to talk about the ‘refugee crisis’ as one singular crisis. Each context is different and further to that there should be no reason to label immigration as a ‘crisis’ intrinsically.
In Europe’s case, the ‘crisis’ element comes from our inability to respond compassionately – rather than penalising individuals in detention centres and encouraging deterrent politics that lead to humanitarian crises.
Nonetheless, there are – thankfully – pathways to long-term settlement that do exist, but are often elusive due to a lack of legal aid.
SolidariTee’s funds go towards funding legal aid (through grants to trusted NGOs) for asylum seekers and refugees in Greece. What level of success has this brought to the cause?
An asylum seeker in Greece has a 35% chance of receiving asylum in the first instance, but when represented by a SolidariTee-funded lawyer, this jumps to 76%.
Legal aid is life-changing. The legal procedure is not easily understandable, especially for those with limited education and/or literacy. It is also littered with miscarriages of justice. SolidariTee seeks to address this.
One notion often repeated by xenophobic and/or anti-refugee voices is that the majority of refugees are single, adult men and are therefore not likely to be in danger. What is your response to those who repeat this?
Half of refugees worldwide are women and girls (UNHCR).
Where single men choose to seek asylum in Greece, they may not be accompanied by their families for a myriad of reasons, including: the cost of smuggling and the specific threat upon them (for instance due to their sexuality, political opinions, forced conscription), resulting in them migrating alone; a strategic migratory practice whereby a son makes the perilous journey alone and seeks family reunification after; or sometimes in the case of adolescents, due to being orphaned.
Further to this, there is no reason why men cannot be vulnerable.
47% of those in the Greek islands are Afghan, 15% Syrian, and 9% Somali – some of the most long-standing and dangerous conflicts worldwide. Men can also be victims of torture, gender-based violence, and political oppression. Vulnerability is based on a number of indices and gender is only one part of it.
But finally, I’d like you to ask yourself: why are you particularly opposed to men seeking asylum? Centuries-old stereotypes of ‘Eastern’ men often entail that they are aggressive and violent – these have little bearing on reality.
If you are only happy to accept child refugees, does this mean that you are only interested in immigrants who are able to integrate fast enough that they can forget their past lives?
Finally, what piece of advice do you have for our readers who may wish to affect meaningful change in this humanitarian crisis?
Never underestimate the capacities and resilience of the population you are working with – often the most meaningful solutions come from within! Aid can often seem as if it is about ‘help’ but it should entail levelling the playing field and directing spare capacity and expertise to populations in crisis such that they become self-sufficient.
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