Even before 2015, Greece, along with Italy, were the main gateways for migrants and refugees fleeing war and economic hardship in the hope of finding security, employment and welfare in a prosperous, democratic and socially liberal Europe.
In previous years, the EU’s concern was that Greece was not treating arrivals properly. It was accused of causing drowning by pushing boatloads of migrants back towards Turkey, abusing migrants and criticised for building a fence on its border with Turkey.
“Push backs are simply not allowed. They are not in line with EU and international obligations,” said Michele Cercone, a spokesperson for home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström, in November 2013.
“We have always said that walls do not solve problems. What solves problems is a consistent structural management of migratory and asylum seekers’ flows,” he added, saying that offering arrivals the chance to claim asylum when they arrived in Europe formed part of the “core values” on which the EU was built.
A couple of years on, the picture is very different: all around Greece countries are building fences to keep migrants out, the EU is looking for ways to deter people making the journey across the Aegean and, according to Greece’s Alternate Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, some European ministers are even encouraging push backs, although this last point is contested.
The sheer scale of the refugee influx last year (more than 850,000 arrived in Greece compared to 43,500 in 2014 – an almost 20-fold increase) and the political impact this is having throughout the EU has triggered paroxysms that narrow the field of vision of decision makers to just the immediate and local. If a leader as dominant as Chancellor Angela Merkel can incur so much wrath over her refugee policy that 40 percent of Germans would like her to resign, what is to keep mere political mortals from panicking about their futures?
Perhaps in this light it is understandable that European politicians have spent more time and energy on trying to find ways to pass around responsibility rather than to come up with a plan to respond to a challenge that is not going to go away any time soon. Each time any of the initiatives taken over the last few months have failed (a relocation scheme, a deal with Turkey and reintroducing border controls in the Schengen area) to stem the flow of people to Europe, Greece has been the fall guy, taking the blame for not “controlling” its borders properly.
There are two points that need to be clarified here. The first is that it is practically impossible to “control” a sea border, as Frontex spokeswoman Ewa Moncure recently highlighted. There are few people crossing Greece’s land border with Turkey, where there are natural obstacles (a river) and man-made ones (a 10.5-kilometer fence and land mines), but the Aegean Sea is a different issue altogether. The Greek coast guard, navy and EU border force can patrol the sea, acting as a deterrent, but once an overcrowded, flimsy dinghy sets sail from the Turkish coast, they have no choice but to rescue those on board. In January 2014, Greece was criticised for an alleged push back in which 12 migrants drowned. This is the way it should be; the option of scaring the life out of migrants (or even snuffing out lives) so more do not come should never be anywhere near any table around which European decision makers gather. This is the least that human decency demands of an enlightened Europe.
The other point concerns what more Greece can do once refugees and migrants arrive on its islands to prevent them simply moving on en masse to other parts of Europe. On this subject, a lot of European complaints about Greece’s ineffectiveness have been valid. Certainly until a change of minister and approach in August, when Mouzalas replaced Tasia Christodoulopoulou. Before that, Greek immigration policy was a mix of bewilderment and permissiveness. The SYRIZA-led government was ideologically opposed to the idea of detaining refugees or migrants but would not have had the organisational capability to do so even had it accepted that this was the best policy. Mouzalas, with a background in humanitarian aid, at least realised the importance of putting proper procedures in place on the islands.
As a result, the quality of the registration process has improved over the last few months. Frontex is more involved, arrivals are being fingerprinted, and their details entered on the EU’s Eurodac database. The draft Schengen evaluation report published by the European Commission last week concluded that “Greece is seriously neglecting its obligations” by not checking documents properly or entering fingerprints into the system. However, it should be noted that the unannounced checks on the islands of Chios and Samos were carried out between November 10 and 13, since when the situation has gradually improved.
For example, when I visited Samos at the end of November, the screening of documents was being carried out by Frontex officers, who were also entering fingerprints in the Eurodac system as the machines needed for this process had reached the island. Mouzalas said this week that Greece now has 68 Eurodac machines, which were provided after repeated calls for assistance from Athens. A sign that the process is now more robust is that, according to Frontex, the proportion of arrivals claiming to be Syrian (and therefore eligible for asylum) fell to 39 percent in December, whereas it had been at 51 percent in October and 56 percent on average for the whole of 2015.
It is also worth noting how stretched the Greek coast guard is simply performing search and rescue operations. On Samos, I met Captain Antonis Karakontis, who skippers one of the island’s two patrol boats. In December 2014, Karakontis and his crew received an award for taking part in the most rescues in Greece during the year. They had saved a total of 1,322 people in 39 incidents. During 2015, the same crew was involved in 251 rescue missions and pulled 9,532 people to safety (a 721 percent increase), according to figures provided by the Greek coast guard on December 17. This underlines what a remarkable job is being done by some of the Greek authorities who are bearing the full force of this runaway international crisis.
In recent weeks, they have received additional support from other member states. On Thursday, Frontext said that it 750 officers, including almost 300 involved in the registration and screening of arrivals, on the Greek islands after Athens officially requested in December additional assistance with guarding its borders. The only reason that there is not a stronger presence (the agreement was for close to 400) is because EU member states have been slow in providing personnel, rather than anything to do with Greek reluctance to accept help.
This suggests that European policymakers should not be expending more energy on repeated discussions about whether Greece is patrolling its borders and if arrivals are being registered. The debate about excluding Greece from Schengen is equally absurd, especially as it does not have borders with any other country that belongs to the passport-free zone.
Instead, the focus should be on how to stem the flow of people making perilous journeys across the Aegean and what to do with those that take the risk anyway. So far, the EU’s efforts to get Turkey to tackle human traffickers has been a failure. The 3 billion euros Ankara was promised has not been released and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems more concerned with the Kurdish crisis in southeastern Turkey and limiting the freedom of the press than addressing the migratory flow. Clearly, this needs to be addressed if the EU is going to get any respite, which would give it time to get its house in order. Greece has suggested an agreement with Turkey for all arrivals not from refugee-producing countries to be shipped back across the Aegean. The Netherlands has proposed a similar scheme, with the EU agreeing to take a set number of refugees each year directly from Turkey.
In the meantime, though, Greece appears to be under pressure to become a holding pen for arrivals. The help being provided by other countries to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) with approval from Brussels, the tighter border controls further north, the calls for Greece’s neighbours to halt migrants in their tracks and the pressure to create the so-called “hot spots” on the Greek islands point to large numbers of refugees and migrants being held back in Greece while they await relocation or deportation.
Mouzalas claims that one of the ideas mentioned during an EU interior ministers’ meeting last week was for a large refugee camp (for 300,000 to 400,000 people) to be created in Athens. This is a non-starter for a number of reasons but the figures point to something along these lines developing, maybe tens of thousands of refugees and migrants being detained at the island hot spots, thus alleviating the pressure on nervous politicians in central and northern Europe. One only has to apply the emerging way of thinking within the EU to last year’s figures to understand that Greece is likely to be called on to manage a whole new type of problem. There were more than 850,000 arrivals in 2015, only 414 of whom have been relocated against a promised total of 66,400 over two years due to the complexities of the process and the reluctance of many member states. Greece also deported 16,015 people in the first nine months of 2015 but around half of these were Albanian nationals. Even if in 2016 the number of refugees and migrants arriving at Greek islands is reduced and there is a marked increase in the number of people being deported and relocated (both hampered by bureaucracy that is not just limited to Greece), if the borders north of the country are shut then there will be tens of thousands of people stuck in Greece at any one time.
Given the extent of the economic crisis, the limitations in the commitment of public resources, the political instability, the high unemployment rate and the presence of a neo-Nazi party in Parliament, the Greek government and its EU partners cannot sleepwalk into such a situation, or even push things in that direction, as some within Europe appear to be doing, without realising that it would be a disaster.
Having played the blame game in the hope that the issue would disappear, the EU has only seen the problem become worse. It should be clear now that a series of half-measures and a strong dose of wishful thinking are not going to be enough. The EU has to pull together on this issue and come up with a common and comprehensive policy that will involve a great deal of money and resources being committed. Anything short of that will lead to the fissures that have already developed spreading and growing wider.
In the meantime, there is nothing to be gained – and much to be lost – by singling Greece out publicly as the weak link in a chain where all the components have failed to function properly. The response from Greece has been flawed and muddled but which EU country can claim its reaction was much better? Athens was slow in requesting assistance through the EU civil protection mechanism and committing national resources. This has been rectified now as equipment and personnel from the EU is arriving and the Greek army is going to help with the effort at the hot spots.
Despite its economic difficulties, Greece has also agreed to pay its share (25.1 million) of the 3 billion euros going towards Turkey to deal with the refugee crisis. At the same time, the number of NGOs and volunteers providing assistance, without which the situation would be even more dramatic, is growing and filling in the gaps. It is this spirit of cooperation and burden-sharing that the EU now has to use as its guide in this complex, testing crisis. It is time fo move on from the search for scapegoats and to focus on finding solutions. It is not just indecorous but a betrayal of the values Europe is meant to embody to make examples of those who, in the most trying of circumstances, are hauling people out of the sea and burying dead children on its behalf.