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Greece's refugee crisis

Pavlos Zafiropoulos, AthensDecember 25, 2015

Despite much-hyped EU summits and agreements, Greece has yet to see much substantive practical support in dealing with the refugee crisis, as Pavlos Zafiropoulos writes from Athens.

Griechenland Flüchtlinge aus Eritrea vor Rhodos
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Over a period of a few days in mid-November, the steady stream of small rubber boats carrying refugees and migrants over the choppy, chilly waters separating Turkey and the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean slowed to a trickle. "We didn't know why," an official from the Greek Interior Ministry told DW.

Had Turkish officials begun clamping down on the criminal rings of people smugglers? Had EU border closures and tougher rhetoric begun to deter people from making the hazardous crossing? Was it the weather? "We later found out that they had sold out of rubber boats," the official said with a grim laugh. "When new shipments came in the arrivals picked back up."

To describe the ongoing phenomenon of mass irregular migration into the EU as multifaceted is a gross understatement. Thousands of people from a diverse group of countries - many war-torn and some not - continue to gather daily on Turkish shores looking to make the crossing into Greece and the EU. And while the onset of winter appears to have stemmed the flow from a peak of about 10,000 per day in October, arrivals remain at historically high levels.

"We have reports that the smugglers drop their prices when the weather is bad," Daniel Esdras, head of the Greek office of the International Organization of Immigration told DW. "It is a business like any other. And for those who don't have enough money that is their only opportunity to cross and they take it."

According to the International Organization of Immigration (IOM), an average of 3,300 people have made the crossing per day in December compared to July's average of 1,700. And on December 21 - ironically the first day of winter - 2015 officially became the year when over 1 million irregular migrants and refugees entered Europe. The vast majority (802,000) entered through Greece. But not all of them made it: in total 3,695 people are thought to have perished in the Mediterranean in 2015.

Much talk, but little action

In the face of these numbers even hard won responses appear at best inadequate, such as the EU's relocation scheme for refugees, which provides for the transfer of 160,000 asylum seekers between EU countries over the next two years and has effectively yet to begin.

More recently on December 17, Greece and the EU's external border agency Frontex agreed to launch a rapid intervention operation. The plan, due to begin at the end of the month, will see additional Frontex officers assisting Greek authorities largely in migrant and refugee registration and screening and coastal patrols on the islands and the newly created 'hotspot' centers.

In the (much) longer term, EU leaders have also agreed to establish a controversial European border guard that will be able to intervene even against the wishes of member states, mollifying those calling for a European effort to 'seal' Greece's borders.

police helping refugees copyright: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
The EU's helping hand has been basic at bestImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Dilkoff

Yet, good intentions aside, the fact remains that once the easily-capsizable rubber rafts laden with migrants and refugees set off from Turkey, any coast guard vessel that intercepts them has few options available. "What is Frontex going to do," Esdras of the IOM asks, "other than drown them?"

Greek authorities left scrambling

Meanwhile the Greek authorities, already ill-equipped and under-funded to manage the enormous flows moving through the country, find themselves continually on the back foot as new variables change the facts on the ground. The irregular flows of primarily Syrian and Afghani refugees has attracted migrants from other countries and particularly Iran, Morocco and Algeria, Yet in late November, Slovenia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) shut their borders to all those not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, stranding the rest in Greece.

Many of the rejected migrants were subsequently transported back to Athens following a police operation at the Greek - FYROM border crossing. They were initially housed in two stadiums in the city but one of these, the Tae Kwon Doe arena in western Athens, was cleared of refugees in order to be used for a scheduled kick-boxing competition.

As a result in Victoria Square in central Athens - long a hub of migrant activity, which has been repeatedly cleared over the months after police interventions - one can once again see migrants sleeping out in the open, this time mainly Moroccans and Algerians. Despite the border closures many say they will persist in their journeys to northern Europe.

people sitting, standing in a square copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos
For many refugees, Victoria Square in Athens is just a stopover on their arduous way to western and northern EuropeImage: DW/P.Zafiropoulos

Already there are numerous reports of alternative smuggling routes being created through Macedonia and Albania, as well as migrants reaching border points with forged identification papers.

Amin, 22, a law graduate from Morocco in Victoria Square told DW that his dream had been to become a policeman but because he has a tattoo was disqualified from holding any government job. "I will try to go through the [Macedonian] forest. It is dangerous but I am already dead in my country. I have no choice."

For others, the difficulties have proven too much and in the lobby of the IOM office in Athens, groups of young men can be seen waiting patiently to fill out their paperwork for voluntary return to their countries.

"From June 30 when the previous program expired until now, there wasn't a program," Daniel Esdras said, arguing that the delays had exacerbated the problem of mixed migration flows joining the exodus of refugees. While some EU emergency funds were released to Greece to deal with the refugee crisis, the voluntary return program was not considered an emergency priority. "I have become like a broken record saying that we have to be proactive, and not simply reactive," Esdras told DW.

Greek dismay

After a dramatic summer of economic brinksmanship between the Greek government and the EU that resulted in the near collapse of the country's banking system, many Greeks now view Europe's lukewarm assistance in dealing with the refugee and migrant crisis as par for the course in a union where short-term national interests are often seen to be trumping ideas of humanitarianism and solidarity.

Even for once ardent supporters of the European Union such as Lena Antinoglou, a resident of Lesbos and longtime volunteer at the PIKPA camp for vulnerable groups of refugees, faith in the European project has been shaken.

"I am disappointed. I suppose I expected a more concrete expression of the ideas of human rights that Europe's leaders always talk about," she told DW.

While there has been some discussion at the European level of transporting Syrian and other refugees directly to EU countries from Turkey following screening and registration, any implementation of such a program is likely to be months away and limited in scope. In its absence the boats look set to continue to arrive, even through the winter, carrying anyone willing and able to pay for a precarious seat.