European Affairs

Perspectives: Refugee Crisis Becomes Greece’s ‘Mission Impossible’     Print Email

EfthymiosAravantinos2015More than 800,000 desperate souls, in 2015 alone, have risked their lives trying to reach Greece from Turkey and trying to stem this flow has very much been Greece’s ‘mission impossible’.

Erecting fences or walls is obviously not an option.

Most importantly, using Greece as a scapegoat for the refugee crisis makes no sense and represents an unjust blame game.

Greece has an obligation under international law to act in a morally-acceptable and humane manner, to save distressed people at sea and at all times respect human life.

Indeed, in 2015, almost 100,000 lives have been rescued at sea. Sadly, more than 600 human lives were lost, most of those drowning in the most tragic of circumstances. Every day, under strenuous conditions, Greek crews of patrol boats do their utmost to cope with the unprecedented flow of traumatized people and save lives of children, women and men. It’s the collaboration of the civil society of Greece’s islands and humanitarian organizations that, in fact, contributes more than its fair share in assisting refugees in their first steps on European soil.

A history of displacement and immigration at the core of Greece’s national identity is what drives authorities and citizens of the islands to selflessly provide assistance, so that exhausted fellow human beings are afforded some dignity, despite shortages in equipment and personnel.

Greece is again receiving migrants with humanity and empathy, just as it did during times of transition in the 90s, when thousands of migrants flowed from distressed economies of ex-communist Europe.

Frontex (the European Union’s border management agency) can play a critical role in assisting local authorities to identify and register migrants and refugees. This has become a crucial point for the security of European citizens, especially in the aftermath of Paris attacks. In this context, positive steps have been taken as Frontex has accepted Greece’s request to deploy the rapid reaction force in the Aegean in order to assist in handling the record influx of migrants.

The recent set of measures proposed by the European Commission to protect Europe’s external borders is an important and positive step. Greece’s borders are also EU borders. The deployment of a European border and Coast Guard, under the supervision and command of Greek border and Coast Guard forces would be tremendously useful and, in general, a crucial step in the European integration process. Any deployment in Greek borders should be under approval or upon request of the Greek authorities. Furthermore, Greece is against joint operations, but favorable to a technical cooperation with non-EU countries.

There is little doubt that European solidarity is being tested in these difficult circumstances. Although there have been demands for 1,600 border guards for the Greek islands, there has been an underwhelming response from other European nations so far. In this humanitarian crisis, 170 border guards is the insufficient number with which Greece has been left to cope. In early December, Greece activated the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, a disaster relief program.

Third countries should respect readmission agreements with the EU, but to date, they’ve been uncooperative and reluctant to readmit their own citizens.

It is true that the relocation process does not proceed fast. Poor cooperation of refugees who refuse to be assigned to countries that are not of their choice, uncertainty in the process or insufficient preparation and coordination from hosting nations slow down the process further. So far, only 30 Syrians have been relocated from Greece while 46 more are ready to be relocated. Italy has until now relocated 129 refugees.

On the other hand, five hotspots with all standards of the Eurodac System (EU fingerprint data base) are being established on the islands and all of them will be fully operational by January 2016. Some of them already work at full capacity. On Greece’s mainland, organized or improvised reception centers in Athens and northern Greece are being established, while there are family programs for hosting 20,000 people, facilitated through the UNHCR.

The cost of the refugee crisis is immense especially for an economy already under pressure. Emergency medical care alone for thousands of refugees has cost Greece’s distressed health system a billion dollars.

The November European Council proceeded to an agreement with Turkey so refugee flows are expected to diminish. But given that the migration flows have not significantly slowed so far, one can cast doubt over Turkish commitments. Results in combating serious human trafficking also remain to be seen from the Turkish side.

This is one of the greatest human migrations since the Second World War not only for Europe but worldwide.

A political solution to the crisis in Syria must come sooner than later.

Populism and fences won’t resolve the problem.

Solidarity, humanism, international law and strong cooperation among member states should be the pillars for confronting the situation and making the refugee crisis an opportunity to further strengthen the European project.

Any other policy, including a blame game targeting European border nations, runs the risk of rendering Europe weaker.

Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting member and guest views on topical issues.

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