As the Greek islands continue to receive around 2,000 migrants and refugees every day, despite treacherous winter sea conditions, many other European countries are trying to prevent their onward movement. Greece is increasingly isolated and under pressure.
Last week, the European Commission discussed the findings of an evaluation report on Greece that found serious deficiencies in its management of Europe’s external borders and rekindled a debate about whether Greece should be suspended from Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.
If after three months “serious deficiencies persist”, Greece could face suspension from Schengen for up to two years. Not only would such a scenario have disastrous implications for Greece’s already fragile national economy – with potential impacts on tourism and the movement of goods through the Balkans – but it would also create an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants would be stuck here for an indefinite period.
The possibility of suspension has been vehemently denied by the EU commissioner for migration and home affairs, but last week the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, asked its humanitarian partners in Athens to start working on a contingency plan for up to 200,000 people being stranded in the country in the coming months.
Greece does not share borders with any other Schengen member state, putting it in a particularly vulnerable position as it can be sealed externally through unilateral actions. In fact, the border between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM), which is the main gateway to the Western Balkan migration route, has been closed to all nationalities besides Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans since November, and in recent weeks it has been sealed entirely for days at a time, leaving thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to sleep outside in freezing temperatures.
FYRoM’s border restrictions, which include a new fence, are a reaction to similar restrictions imposed by European countries further north. They have contributed to a sense of urgency among refugees to reach their final destination before Europe (or Greece) is completely sealed off, and may explain the continued high numbers of arrivals to the Greek islands, even during mid-winter.
Austria’s minister of the interior recently suggested that Greece could do more to protect its sea border with Turkey by making use of its navy. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected,” Johanna Mikl-Leitner said. But using the navy to patrol and prevent migrant boats from landing on the islands would be equivalent to treating refugees as invaders.
A spokesperson for Frontex, the EU’s border agency, pointed out that sea borders are almost impossible to fully control and that pushing boats back into Turkish seas would be illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention’s principle of non-refoulement.
Greece has also come under fire for failing to scale up the use of ‘hotspots’ – an EU initiative to screen and fingerprint all migrants and refugees arriving in Greece and Italy. So far, only one in five hotspots is up and running on Lesvos – the island that receives 60 percent of new arrivals. The rest of the islands can only do basic fingerprinting as they lack the technology to do biometric registration despite the government requesting the necessary hardware from the EU six months ago.
The current pressure on Greece stems in part from the false assumption that the movement of refugees to Europe could be significantly slowed by channeling aid to Turkey to improve conditions for the 2.2 million Syrians estimated to be living there. The reality is that most Syrian refugees arrive in Greece after short Turkish stop-overs and there is little or no incentive for other nationalities to remain in Turkey.
Refugees will continue to rely on smugglers to reach Europe via Greece unless the EU comes up with a viable alternative for them. As Francois Crepeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights for migrants has said: “’Fighting the smugglers in isolation is useless; the irregular migration market is created by the barriers to mobility.”
Residents of the Greek islands have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of a relentless flow of migrant boats coming on top of the economic crisis. They have had to watch helplessly as the Aegean has brought dead bodies to their shores almost daily.
The lack of a coherent EU policy has created a humanitarian crisis for those seeking sanctuary and for those responding on the frontlines. It has allowed individual European politicians to develop extreme positions on migration, creating an environment that threatens to close the door on refugees in need of protection.
Writing about the crisis recently, Maria Stavropoulou, director of the Greek Asylum Service, concluded that “the EU’s member states must start to perceive Europe as a single asylum space with a common European asylum status and work towards these goals.
“Until then the dominant attitude will continue to be ‘not in my back yard’, forcing states and refugees alike to adopt irregular practices,” she said.
Europe urgently needs to have a credible policy on the large-scale resettlement of refugees, and member states must start accepting asylum applications at their consulates in countries of first arrival like Jordan and Lebanon. For the ‘survival migrants’, whose main reason for mobility is the search for employment and decent living conditions, a separate visa system needs to be established. For both groups, we have to be mindful of the triggers that cause people to move: wars and poverty resulting from social inequality and climate change, for which Europe bears some responsibility.
Fotini Rantsiou is a volunteer aid worker and field advisor for Greek NGO, Solidarity Now. She is based on Lesvos while on a leave of absence from the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA.
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