ATHENS – His new government hoping to concentrate on pushing an economic recovery's pace and luring foreign investors, Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said it's been hit now with what he called a new refugee and migrant crisis that needs help.
With thousands more surging onto Greek islands in the late summer and into the early autumn only a few months after he took power in July 7 snap elections, Mitsotakis at the United Nations General Assembly annual opening in September had called for international attention.
But the European Union, which closed its borders to the refugees and migrants, largely dumping the problem on Greece during a now more than 9 1/2-year-long economic and austerity crisis, has not fully responded.
Greece has more than 78,000 refugees and migrants, most sent from nearby Turkey where they first went fleeing war and strife in their homelands – especially Syria and Afghanistan – including more than 28,000 on Greek islands where Turkey let human traffickers send them during an essentially-suspended swap deal with the EU.
As Mitsotakis said his government would speed the process of asylum applications as well as deportations, other EU countries had reneged on promises to help take some of the overload from Greece, with the numbers rising again.
In Parliament, answering a tabled question by Yanis Varoufakis, the provocative former finance chief for the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA before he was ousted and formed his own party, Mitsotakis said that, “We do not want fences or walls, we want rules.”
Varoufakis was asking about the Moria detention camp on the island of Lesbos, a facility designed for 3,000 but holding more than 13,300, where there has been frequent tension and clashes, including a recent riot that led to a fire killing a woman and her child.
Mitsotakis reiterated that the United Nations makes a clear distinction between refugees and would-be economic migrants, said the business newspaper Naftemporiki, while dismissing Varoufakis reference to the New Colossus sonnet at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
"Economic migrants of previous generations who reached the United States knew that they would first pass through Ellis Island, where they were registered ... do not compare a country built by immigrants, a multi-cultural country, such as the USA, with Greece or other European countries," the Greek leader said.
In beginning his address in Parliament, Mitsotakis said: "Let us agree that refugees are one thing, economic migrants are another,” trying to separate those who fled war from those who want a better standard of living but weren't fearing for their lives.
He noted that in 2015, when the Radical Left SYRIZA was in power, that some 75 percent of the hundreds of thousands of third country nationals ferried onto the islands came from war-torn Syria but that now only 20 percent are, with 50 percent being Afghans and Pakistanis sent by human traffickers from Turkey, as well as others from sub-Saharan Africa.
Mitsotakis said Turkey was exploiting the crisis for its own ends as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to unleash 5.5 million more on Greek islands and the EU unless he gets more concessions as he has heightened provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.
Mitsotakis said Turkey could and should control migrant flows to the continent, the news agency Reuters said. “I want to be absolutely clear,” Mitsotakis told parliament. “Turkey ... must also assume its responsibility.
“It has the ability to control the flows in the Aegean. It cannot give the impression that it is exploiting this issue for its own geopolitical pursuits,” he said.
Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has threatened to “open the gates” unless it gets more international support for a plan to resettle one million of them in northern Syria but as the United Nations has been unwilling to step into the fray.
Turkey effectively controls parts of north Syria where it says 350,000 Syrians have returned. Together with the US it is setting up a “safe zone” in the northeast, where it says many more could be moved.
Under the 2016 swap deal, Turkey is supposed to take back undocumented migrants and refugees, including Syrians, who cross to Greek islands and do not qualify for asylum. In return, the EU would take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with more money and other benefits but that's in limbo.
Mitsotakis said most of the new arrivals “have the profile of an economic migrant and not that of a refugee,”,and he reiterated plans to deport 10,000 rejected asylum seekers by the end of next year without saying how he could force Turkey to take them back at the same it that country is letting human traffickers keep sending more to Greek islands.
“This issue is here to stay,” he said. “Europe will constitute a magnet for people from Africa and the Middle East. The phenomenon will continue and is likely to intensify,” said Mitsotakis. After meeting Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in Athens, Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisohoidis described the Moria camp on Lesbos as “a stain on Europe.”