Greece: refugee crisis on a knife’s edge

Children huddle under emergency blankets after arriving in Lesbos in October.  Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/ Children huddle under emergency blankets after arriving in Lesbos in October. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/
Dimitris Christopoulos
 
The following text is written before both the Malta Summit and the Paris terror attacks of November 13th. It is more than certain that particularly the Paris events will seal the European management of the refugee crisis, driving EU member-States to enforce  restrictive policies. Still, this won't bring about any "solutions". It might, on the contrary, lead to opposite results. 
 
1,000% increase in refugee flows!

By the end of winter last year, it became clear that there would be a dramatic escalation in the flow of refugees; people had lost any hope of returning to their homeland –mainly Syria– from the bordering countries, and they decided to take the long road to Europe. However, even the most educated of the projections back then failed to conceive the severity of the refugee crisis that followed: in 2014 Greece received 77,000 people and there was an expectation of three times this figure in 2015.  Things, however, turned out slightly differently:  up to mid-October the total number of migrants and refugees was well over half a million.  And a few days later we are witnessing the Aegean becoming a watery grave for hundreds of people, as the weather is getting worse and people are trying to make their passage before winter makes sea crossing impossible. Chances are that, if there is no change, this tragedy will continue well into November.  Autumn is a perfect time for both hopes and fatalities.  One thing is for sure:  the overall 2015 figure will be around 700,000 people, an astonishing 1,000% increase compared to 2014.
 
Greece is indeed in a very difficult position:  as if it hadn’t got enough on its plate, it now has to handle flows of refugees under unbearable conditions.  What has the Greek state done up to now?  What are the positive and negative aspects of its handling of the refugee crisis?
 
Major victory: shifting the agenda
The government’s most significant accomplishment is the shifting of the agenda: judging from their performance in the past, we are, unfortunately, almost certain that previous governments would have sustained the narrative we had known for years – i.e. “make their life a living hell so that they don’t come at all or they leave as soon as possible”.  Rhetoric shifted from talking about “reclaiming our city centres” to praising “support for war victims”.  We shifted from pro-active and violent push-backs in the Aegean to search and rescue operations.  I would have liked to be able to argue that we have also shifted from detention centres to somewhere else but I hesitate because there is nothing in place; the country is missing any kind of serious infrastructure alternative to detention.
 
This is serious stuff:  in the midst of their own desperation and social anguish, Greek people still haven’t turned refugees into scapegoats, blaming them for all their trouble.  Staying calm, showing understanding that in many cases turned into solidarity in the face of the tragedy refugees were going through, Greek people have demonstrated a remarkable human maturity.  Either due to the tone of the Government’s rhetoric, or due to the deep emotion that the pictures of dead children has evoked, or just because they realised that other, more drastic solutions would effectively mean murdering refugees, Greeks have perceived the refugee tragedy in a humanitarian and realistic way.   Even the Golden Dawn fascists failed to raise the issue during their pre-election campaign; they understood there was not the scope they had expected there to be.  On its part, New Democracy made a futile, and failed, attempt to highlight it.  All political parties of the so-called “constitutional axis”, including the Right, are now very cautious when referring to the refugee issue.  The notion of “Greeks’ humanity” is widely acknowledged, even if it is just a pretence.  And I will explain why.
 
The major drawback:  little more than words
The major positive narrative about the refugee crisis that the Government has put forward, has been crucial in making sure that the Greek public reacts in a calm way; this should not be underestimated.  Had there been another government in power, Europe would have run the risk of having yet another Hungary on Aegean shores. European Union would then be shedding crocodile tears, publicly deploring the situation, and rubbing their hands in glee behind closed doors as it would have found a government to do the dirty work exactly where it should be done.  Back in 2012, when Greece was putting up the Evros fence, the EU did not see our country as a miasma. Today I don’t believe that the EU considers the possibility of demolishing the fence or even allowing people to pass freely through. Quite the opposite, Hungary is building walls, acting to the detriment of all the rest of the EU, in the sense that these walls would just “protect” Hungary; they would only change the direction of the refugee flows. But if Greece were to carry out forced returns in the Aegean, if it were to send troops to its borders, this would not be seen as Greece looking after its own little national self; it would be Greece defending the common European “interest”.  However, fortunately, things didn’t turn out quite that way.
But beyond that, what has the Greek state actually done?  Humanitarianism is much more than playing the generous traffic policeman on refugee crossroads, showing people the road to the North and nothing else.  Of course, Greece is not refugees’ final destination, everybody knows that.  But the fact that we are a transit country shouldn’t be an excuse for Greece to shirk its responsibilities towards these people.  Greek facilities today can accommodate 400 unaccompanied minors, 600 asylum seekers and 700 people at the Elaionas transit centre in Athens, i.e. 1,700 places in total.  This is not what a European state should look like in 2015; it is a disgrace.
 
At the mini Summit in Brussels on 25 October, Greece agreed to provide accommodation for 20,000 people through subsidised rented flats, plus temporary accommodation facilities for 30,000 more people.  So Greece has to do what it hasn’t done over the past decade; and to deliver it in 10 weeks - not an easy task.  I am trying to get my head around it but I cannot see how the government is going to pull this one off.  Greek public administration, from ministers to clerks, have a very powerful mindset:  the country’s single obligation towards these people is to make sure that no one is drowned and to let them cross the country quietly; and that’s that.  Come 2016, the EU will once again have to face the fact that Greece most probably will not have delivered on its promises. And then, the “relocation” agreement will be up in the air. An agreement that, in any case, excludes the Afghanis, the second largest refugee group who are less welcome to Europe.  So Greece - and Serbia – the generous traffic policemen of the region, will become Europe’s warehouse wardens.
 
For Greece the refugee issue is on a knife edge; the sooner we are clear about this, the better.  At the end of the day, humanitarianism means more when it takes the form of action rather than words. Even now, at the end of 2015, in the game’s extra time, Greece needs to take some action; it needs to show, for the first time, that it is able to assume part of the common European responsibility.  Otherwise, the way things are going, we will end up taking the blame for much more than our fair share.

Dimitris Christopoulos is the Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights, an Associate Professor of Political Science, Panteion University, Athens.
 
 
Translated by Mary Zambetaki
 
First published in Greek on RedNotebook, 2.11.2015