ATHENS – Trying to stem the tide of refugees and migrants, a plan by New Democracy to put a $554,000 floating fence off the island of Lesbos has drawn continued fire and criticism, with the European Union cool to the idea and Germany not even talking about it.
The government has invited private contractors to submit bids, saying it wants the floating fence to be constructed within three months.
That came after Amnesty International and other human rights groups piled on against the scheme that was proposed after the government said it would replace camps on islands with detention centers to vet those ineligible for asylum.
Virtually all the 100,000 refugees and migrants in Greece are seeking sanctuary after the EU closed its borders to them and other countries reneged on promises to help take some over the overload.
They came from Turkey, going there fleeing war and strife in their homelands with that country’s government allowing human traffickers to send them – another 50,000 came after New Democracy won July 7, 2019 snap elections.
Island officials and residents are up in arms with compassion fatigue setting him even more after trying to deal with a crisis heading into its fifth year. The government said it would move 20,000 to the mainland.
Another 20,000 would be returned to Turkey under an essentially-suspended swap deal with the EU although only about 2,000 have been sent back since that was signed nearly four years ago.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said it was a “positive measure that will help monitor areas close to the Turkish coast,” and the barrier “sends out the message that we are not a free-for-all and that we’re taking all necessary measures to protect the borders.”
But rights groups said it will only increase risks faced by refugees and migrants trying to reach Greek islands in rickety craft and rubber dinghies, many of which have overturned or capsized since 2016, drowning scores of people.
German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert refused to comment, said Kathimerini, and the European Commission said while border controls are the purview of member states that EU law applies when barriers keep out asylum seekers.
The floating net barrier would be only 2.7 kilometers (1.68 miles) long off Lesbos, which has 321 kilometers (199 miles) of coastline and no explanation given why boats coming from Turkey won’t just steer around it, the idea drawing ridicule from the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA that New Democracy blamed for an open-door policy.
The barrier will be 50 centimeters (1.64 feet) above sea level and have lights to make it visible at night, said officials, without explaining why boats couldn’t just go around it or if other measures would also be taken.
“The invitation for floating barriers is in the right direction… We will see what the result, what its effect as a deterrent will be in practice,” Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told SKAI Radio.
KEEP THEM OUT
“It will be a natural barrier. If it works like the one in Evros, I believe it can be effective,” he said,
referring to a cement and barbed-wire fence that Greece set up in 2012 along its northern border with Turkey to keep out migrants and refugees, which hasn’t worked.
SYRIZA condemned the floating barrier plan as “a disgrace and an insult to humanity,” with other reports it would be only 19 inches above water – it wasn’t said if it would be visible in rough seas that have sunk boats.
Adding that the idea was “disgusting,” a SYRIZA statement said the barrier “offends humanity … and violates European and international rules,” said the party, calling the proposal absurd, unenforceable and dangerous. “Even a child knows that in the sea you cannot have a wall.”
The government is expected to assign the job in the next three months, though it is unclear when the barrier would be erected and the contract would require four years of maintenance as well. It wasn’t said where it would be put or how it would work.
Amnesty International’s research director for Europe, Massimo Moratti said that the proposal was “an alarming escalation in the Greek government’s ongoing efforts to make it as difficult as possible for asylum-seekers and refugees to arrive on its shores.”
He warned that it could “lead to more danger for those desperately seeking safety.,” The New York Times reported, with the head of the Greek chapter of the rights group, Gavriil Sakellaridis, questioning if Greek authorities would respond to an emergency signal issued by a boat stopped at the barrier.
Adalbert Jahnz, a European commission spokesman, told reporters in Brussels any Greek sea barriers to deter migrants must not block access for asylum seekers, the paper said.
“The setting up of barriers is not in and of itself against EU law,” he said. “But physical barriers or obstacles of this sort should not be an impediment to seeking asylum which is protected by EU law,” he said, not mentioning land walls erected by North Macedonia and Bulgaria to keep out refugees and migrants, neither country wanting them.
Mitarakis said 72,000 migrants entered Greece last year, compared with 42,000 in 2018. As he said the floating barrier would work.
“It sends out the message that we are not a place where anything goes and that we’re taking all necessary measures to protect the borders,” he said, adding that the process of deporting migrants who did not merit refugee status would be sped up. “The rules have changed,” he said.
“We are not open to people who don’t have the profile of a refugee,” added Mitarakis, reported The Guardian.
“As of 1 January 2020, anyone who does not fit the refugee profile will be returned to Turkey within months and will lose the money they have given to traffickers. Safeguarding our borders is now our biggest priority,” he said.
“One in four of the migrants who entered Europe in 2019 came through one of the five (Aegean) islands,” said Mitarakis, blaming Turkey for the increased influx. “The problem is concentrated in a particular geographic region because we are forced to keep these people there until their asylum requests are completed otherwise Turkey won’t accept them back,” he said, referring to the terms of a landmark accord between Ankara and the EU to curb migrant flows.