A Greek perspective: feeling alone in another European storm
Greece has found itself in the eye of yet another European, and probably international, storm. This time it has less to do with finances – although money is always important – and more to do with people: people fleeing war and insecurity, like Syrians and Afghans; and people in search of better employment and life prospects for themselves and their children, like Pakistanis or Moroccans.
The year 2015 saw more than 800,000 people crossing the Greek-Turkish sea borders, who headed further West and North. Flows continued largely unabated, despite harsh winter weather through the end of 2015 and early 2016. They started decreasing in February 2016, however, as the ‘Balkan route’ was interrupted, and almost came to a halt as of late March 2016 when the EU-Turkey agreement was signed.
Nonetheless, 168,000 people arrived in Greece in the period between 1 January and 3 October 2016. Of those migrants/asylum seekers, 40,000 who had arrived before 26 March 2016 are on the mainland and hence are eligible for relocation to another EU member state and/or for asylum in Greece (or indeed for return if their asylum claim is deemed unfounded or if they are irregular economic migrants). Nearly 28,000 people actually participated in the pre-registration process during summer 2016 and are now awaiting an asylum hearing. It is believed, though, that the total number is higher as some of those not in reception camps failed to register.
While flows have been reduced to a trickle in the period between March and October 2016, the overall number of people present on the islands (most notably the main Aegean islands of Lesvos, Samos, Kos and Leros) has nearly doubled and is well over the hosting capacity of reception/temporary detention centres on the islands. Very few people have been returned to Turkey under the auspices of the agreement and even fewer have been transferred to the mainland, particularly the vulnerable (unaccompanied minors, women that have suffered abuse, victims of trafficking).
The closing down of the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkey Agreement are affecting both the Greek and the overall EU asylum policy and practice as a whole. Greece has registered a sharp increase in asylum, family reunification and relocation applications during 2016, as these schemes offered the main routes for going to a third country for the migrants and refugees stranded in Greece after March 2016.
A new law (L4375/2016) was hastily adopted by the Greek government in April 2016, in order to make the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement possible within the Greek legal framework, introducing an exceptional asylum regime applicable in border areas. Only shortly after the Law’s entry into force, modifications took place targeting the restructuring of the asylum appeal committees with a view to reducing the possibilities for appellants to request a hearing and thus aiming to speed up the processing of asylum applications lodged and examined in the Aegean islands with a view to returning people more easily to Turkey. There are still important concerns voiced by experts and NGOs as to both the effectiveness and legality of the EU-Turkey Agreement.
The relocation mechanism decided on in May and again in September 2015 by the European Commission is working pretty slowly. Greece had applied for nearly 10,000 relocations by September 2016, and just under 5,000 persons have actually been relocated. However, this is still far below the expected EU targets.
Greece’s European challenge
Several challenges lie ahead for Greece and the solution of the refugee crisis, a year after its peak, remains a difficult puzzle. The government and civil society have mobilised all resources to provide for reception and temporary protection for the people stranded in Greece, including schooling for the refugee children. Pioneering housing projects have been implemented by civil society organisations like Solidarity Now with the support of the UNHCR. However, reception camps in mainland Greece suffer from important shortcomings including inadequate housing, overcrowded spaces, poor quality of food and – most importantly – people are getting tired of waiting for a future in another country or in Greece that appears increasingly uncertain.
At the same time the Greek government is under pressure to return those stranded on the islands to Turkey, but civil society (including people participating in the appeal committees) remains unconvinced that Turkey is a safe country. Overcrowding and lack of prospects lead to ethnic tensions and even violence in the camps on the islands with the concomitant surprise of Greek public opinion that grows increasingly puzzled and worried about the refugee crisis.
The situation in fact is turning into a catch-22 as the refugee and irregular migration flows are an issue much larger than a single country, Greece, can handle while intra-EU solidarity is hard to materialise. Greek citizens and the Greek government feel they are on the weaker side, always bearing the costs of crisis (the global financial, the eurozone and now the refugee crisis) while fellow member states continue to point fingers as they happen to be located comfortably in the North and the West.
Anna Triandafyllidou is Professor at the Global Governance Programme (GGP) of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), European University Institute.