Since the start of the year, Greece’s reception system for migrants has imploded. A spike of arrivals over the past few months, caused by Turkey’s police operations removing refugees and asylum seekers from its western coastal cities and sending them back to the regions where they were registered, has pushed the existing accommodation to its limits.
Between September 2019 and January 2020, the Greek government transferred 14,750 people from the islands to the mainland, as 36,000 new arrivals crossed the Aegean to Greece from Turkey. While the system is unable to absorb any more people, efforts to establish additional camps in the mainland and new detention centres on the islands have met strong resistance from local communities.
Meanwhile, conditions on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, the north-eastern islands hosting the notorious “hotspots” (as the migrant camps on those islands are called), are intolerable. More than 42,000 people are currently living in these shantytowns, which were built to hold a few thousand.
The islands have played the role of a barrier since the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, which has meant that, according to Ankara’s interpretation of the agreement, no one reaching the Greek mainland can be returned to Turkey. For years critics have blamed the deal for establishing an inhumane system.
Under Syriza, which was in power between 2015 and 2019, conditions on the islands were precarious. The government failed to establish a functioning reception and asylum system, and took an ad hoc approach to this challenge: it created new spaces on the mainland in order to ease the pressure on the islands. But since the conservative New Democracy party came to power last summer, the government has decided to push ahead with a punitive, hard-right asylum policy focused on deterring people from arriving on the Aegean islands in the first place.
A new asylum law, introduced last October, has made it impossible to keep up with procedures unless someone has constant legal aid, a very limited service offered by only a few organisations. The government is also planning to requisition spaces to establish massive detention centres on the islands, where asylum seekers could be restricted for long periods of time, in order to enable far more deportations. In addition to this, the government keeps announcing unrealistic plans, such as the creation of a floating barrier in the Aegean sea and the examination of 50,000 asylum applications by June 2020.
Forcing the island communities to accept the government’s plans won’t go down well. Tensions already erupted last month, with big demonstrations on Lesbos, Chios and Samos calling for asylum seekers to be transferred from the islands. Similar protests by asylum seekers have been treated roughly by police, while vigilante groups have been attacking asylum seekers and NGO workers.
Meanwhile, members of New Democracy’s rightwing flank are trying to hijack the debate and push for a radical and swift implementation of this plan. They believe that this will deter more people from crossing the Aegean and boost Greece’s position when it enters the negotiations next month on the EU’s new migration and asylum pact.
This entire strategy will inflict great human costs with little chance of producing results. Resistance from local communities will slow down the implementation of the plan. And once Turkey starts transferring refugees back to so-called “safe zones” in northern Syria, the push factors on the other side of the Aegean will be much stronger. People will choose coming to Greece over getting back to Idlib, no matter how difficult it is.
Greece is increasingly being left alone to handle the practical issues, and it’s hard to see the EU negotiations producing anything close to a fair system that would change that. More than anything, the practical barriers to creating an effective asylum mechanism based on punitive measures and detention are enormous. Making locals and asylum seekers accept it would require a great deal of coercion; indeed, lawyers in the islands are already reporting numerous violations of European and international asylum law.
Instead of implicitly encouraging the Greek government to copy and paste from Viktor Orbán’s flawed migration manual by failing to give Greece the support it needs, EU officials should consider creating an EU reception and protection system at the external borders of Europe – and sending doctors, nurses, social workers and interpreters there. As it stands, Frontex, an EU super-agency, is increasingly meant to be taking over control of those external borders. Yet the responsibilities of actually receiving and protecting migrants are being left to Greece, a small member state. That’s an absurd situation.
What’s particularly dispiriting about the continent’s response is that, with a sensible approach, these pressures could be manageable. The solution to Europe’s refugee crisis cannot be for the EU to keep bankrolling an inefficient, inhumane system, in which Greece is wedded to deterrence above any other strategy.