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Greece, EU Wrangle Over Afghan Refugee Wave Worries, Costs

September 11, 2021

ATHENS – Anticipating hordes of Afghan refugees fleeing the murderous regime of the Taliban takeover, Greece's building of border defenses isn't getting financial support from the European Union.

Besides extending a border wall to 40 kilometers (24.84 miles) along the northern border with Turkey along the Evros River, the government has added drones, surveillance units, patrols and Coast Guard vessels in the Aegean, where Turkey allows human traffickers to send refugees and migrants to Greek islands.

In a feature, POLITICO noted that the EU doesn't want to subsidize the strengthening of borders, although the bloc's border patrol agency FRONTEX is helping Greece look for new arrivals, which the government wants to keep out.

The EU said that funds have to be tied to Greece, which is already holding some 100,000 people in detention centers on the islands and mainland, setting up an independent authority to make sure no one is unlawfully turned away.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' government has been accused by activists and human rights and refugee groups claiming refugees and migrants are being pushed back at sea unlawfully, which the UN's refugee agency UNHCR wants probed.

The EU, which said it's willing to talk to the Taliban if not to recognize any government there amid reports of torture, murder, detentions and the trampling of women's rights, is trying to find some way to keep the Afghans from coming.

The refugee and migrant crisis began in 2015 when more than a million poured through Greece, fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands – primarily Syria and Afghanistan – many reaching other EU countries before the borders were closed to them.

Turkey is holding some 4.4 million and received 3 billion euros ($3.55 billion) to hold them but is squeezing the EU to deliver another 3 billion euros pledged, along with visa-free travel for Turks and a fast-track entry into the bloc.

Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about how to handle the expected influx of Afghans, cutting out the EU, and Greece has repeatedly asked for more help.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis told POLITICO that, “We’re committed to strengthening our continuous engagement with European and neighboring countries to manage migration in the most constructive and effective way, but obviously we also need fair and adequate support from the EU to do so.”

“The EU,” he added, “needs to fund the protection of its external borders in Greece,” which EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she would do but only if there are “safeguards to comply with fundamental rights.”

ASYLUM NOT GUARANTEED

The government has denied pushbacks although a number of newspapers, sites and media outlets have said they documented them, including from witnesses who said they were beaten and their dinghies sent back out to sea.

UNHCR spokesperson Louise Donovan said the agency “is alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports of informal returns at Greece’s sea and land borders with Turkey,” but there have been no EU sanctions for Turkey allowing the human traffickers to operate in violation of the 2016 deal.

“I reject the concept of pushbacks, as a term,” Mitsotakis earlier told the site in an interview, insisting his government was following protocols.

“But when there’s a boat coming, and we see it coming, and we’ve seen where it’s coming from, we have an obligation to alert the Turkish Coast Guard and do what we can so that the boat goes back where it started,” he added. “This is what we do, and we always do it with the utmost respect for human life.”

Greece requested an additional 15.8 million euros ($18.71 million) for the cost of Coast Guard and sea border patrols but the EU isn't satisfied that its regulations and the rights refugees and migrants would be followed.

“The Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks,” said Johansson when in March she visited the island of Lesbos, which is holding more than 4,000 in a temporary tent city a year after a fire set in protest against COVID-19 measures destroyed the notorious Moria camp.

Mitarachis said that, “Greece already possesses such an independent authority in the form of its judiciary.”

He added: “As it stands, no alternative arrangements have been proposed as part of the new pact, nor have there been any such mechanisms prescribed under EU law,” whose provisions stipulate that asylum can only be sought in the first country in which refugees and migrants land.

Greece is holding some 100,000 – about 40,000 Afghans – and virtually all want sanctuary so they won't be sent back under the deal to Turkey, which has taken only a relative handful.

That led Greece to declaring Turkey a safe country for deportations as New Democracy, which in an earlier administration had been vehemently anti-migrant, to say those would be accelerated.

“What we said was very clear: That we do not want a repeat of the uncontrolled and unregulated massive migration flows we experienced in 2015,” Mitsotakis said at a forum in Slovenia. 

He called Greece “a victim” of the EU’s disjointed migration policy, saying it had highlighted “significant failures of the European institutions.”

To slow the tide, Greece is also investigating and prosecution non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for helping human traffickers, the activists saying they were only rescuing refugees and migrants Greece left adrift.

Greece's government said if the EU doesn't act to help keep out another incursion of refugees and migrants that it would.

“It’s finally time to create a more stable, sustainable foundation designed to avoid and mitigate these types of crises,” Mitarachis said. “There is no time for ‘hide and seek.’”

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