ATHENS – Mild late autumn weather has led to a constant stream of refugees and migrants being sent to Greek islands from Turkey, where they had gone fleeing war and strife in their homeland, sent by human traffickers being allowed to operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
They are coming, wrote The Guardian’s Helena Smith, “sometimes en masse, sometimes alone … in rickety boats carrying men, women and children looking for a freedom they hope Europe will offer.”
That door, however, has been closed with the borders shut and the problem dumped largely on Greece as a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis has wound down and a slow recovery is underway, coinciding with a rekindling of the refugee and migrant problem that began in 2015 when the Radical Left SYRIZA took power.
Ousted in July 7 snap elections by New Democracy, the Conservatives blamed the leftists for an open door policy that led to hundreds of thousands coming to Greece, most going on to more prosperous countries before being barred.
Since winning the election, the new government has been inundated with scores of thousands of more and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has reacted with a plan to move some 20,000 of the more than 34,700 on islands to the mainland, speed asylum applications and to try to convince Turkey to take back 20,000.
There are some 96,000 in Greece, including on the mainland, and the numbers just keep rising with people running from Afghanistan and the Syrian civil war, from desperate economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries.
After easing following the March, 2016 deal, the numbers are rising again and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the refugees and migrants as a weapon to force the EU to back down from Turkish drilling off Cyprus and claiming Greek waters, warning he will send millions more unless he gets what he wants.
In September alone 10,551 newcomers arrived, the highest in a single month since the deal, the British newspaper reported, putting growing pressure on Mitsotakis’ government with human rights groups complaining that his plan to replace island camps with detention centers to vet those ineligible for asylum is too harsh..
He has asked other EU countries, including those who reneged on promises to help take some of the overload, for relief but the bloc’s migration chief - New Democracy’s Margaritis Schinas - hasn’t offered a plan for any real aid.
The islands near Turkey in the eastern Aegean are overwhelmed, with Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros – the five main entry points facing Turkey – stuffed eight times over capacity in camps human rights groups said are inhumane.
Waits up to two years and more for asylum applications to be processed has also led to frequent violence between ethnic groups and with riot police called in to quell disturbances that break out.
The EU said it’s preparing another plan while the government is going to set up the office of a migration czar to oversee political and military decisions affecting the refugees and migrants and the camps and planned new centers that are opposed by island officials and with some villagers on the mainland where transfers are being made trying to stop them.
Mitsotakis told Schinas and Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, both in charge of migration and asylum policies – that Greece had “reached its limits” and could no longer handle the influx alone.
“This is not a Greek-Turkish problem,” Mitsotakis said as the officials visited Athens. “(It’s) an issue that affects the European Union as a whole and we are looking forward to your help, as well as a firm European policy, to address it,” he said.
ON YOUR OWN
France said it would take in 400 people from Greece, a symbolic smidgeon but vitriol against refugees and migrants remains high in some countries with authoritarian governments, particularly Hungry, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Poland, which don’t want them.
In November, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, also called for Europe but there was no response as the agency - like Greece and human rights groups and activists - has essentially seen their pleas and entreaties ignored.
Grandi noted it was clear the compassion with which Greece greeted more a million Syrians at the height of the crisis was now much “less visible ” – and at risk of running out with island officials, island residents and mainland villagers getting their backs up..
“Europe has to get its act together,” he said after visiting Lesbos, home to the Moria camp that the BBC said was “the worst in the world.” He said Europe “has to have a new system that is based on sharing, responsibility sharing.”
Regulations drafted 20 years earlier that required asylum seekers to register in first-entry countries were “completely inadequate now,” he said of the so-called Dublin Regulation which means refugees and migrants are left to seek sanctuary in Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain as they can’t land in Germany or the United Kingdom first.
An added problem is the number of unaccompanied minors and children arriving without parents or guardians, who were most at risk of labor exploitation, sexual exploitation and violence, Grandi warned.
“There are more than 5,000 [in Greece] … there is a children on-the-move emergency in this country that needs to be tackled,” he said.
“I made it clear to the [Greek] government that UNHCR policy is against detaining asylum seekers … seeking asylum is not a crime,” Grandi insisted, granting Greece’s right to handle the crisis as a domestic matter but which he said should also protect rights.
“We are all in favor of efficiency and speed, but not if this is at the expense of safeguards,” he said as some human rights groups pulled back their belief that moving people to the mainland was the answer.