Greece: The Need for a More Collaborative and Flexible Response on Migrants
by Caitlin Katsiaficas (August 1, 2015)
As of the beginning of July, over 77,000 migrants had arrived in Greece by sea. The number of people journeying to the Greek islands this year is already 50% more than the total number of people that arrived in 2014. The majority cross into Greece from Turkey on inflatable rubber boats, part of a long journey that often involves the use of smugglers. The Eastern Mediterranean route is currently the most popular way to reach the EU; Greece is now receiving more migrants than Italy. According to the UNHCR, nearly 60% of those arriving in Greece are asylum seekers from Syria. Many others are from nations also embroiled in conflict, particularly Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. It is therefore highly likely that many have valid asylum claims. Most hope to move from Greece to other countries; they see Greece as a point of transit on the way to countries in northern and western Europe.
Greek authorities have struggled to effectively manage the arrival of migrants on the island. Migrants often arrive in the north of the island, closest to Turkey, and must travel roughly 65 kilometers to the capital city of Mytilene. They then register with the authorities in order to receive paperwork authorizing them to travel to Athens. Moria, the main reception center on the island, is over capacity. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people are camping outside of the center, waiting for days to get in so that they can receive their paperwork to leave the island. Those waiting outside of Moria do so in the sun, without shade or access to toilets. The overflow camp of Kara Tepe is currently home to even more people waiting to go to Moria. This makeshift camp lacks sufficient water, sanitation, medical care, and shelter. Human Rights Watch recently noted the “appalling reception and detention conditions.” The International Rescue Committee sent an emergency response team to Lesvos in July; a press release stated that “the requirement for IRC to deploy staff is a terrible commentary on the failure of European countries to meet immediate and basic needs of refugees.”
The Greek asylum system lacks sufficient infrastructure to receive and register arriving migrants in a timely and adequate manner. The government was having difficulties processing the applications of asylum seekers, who have experienced lengthy backlogs, long before the spike in arrivals. However, the stress placed on the migration and asylum systems, further strained by the large number of people arriving, has been exacerbated by the economic crisis. Budget cuts to the public sector have reduced the services and personnel available to assist both Greeks and migrants.
Several news articles in recent weeks have highlighted initiatives from volunteers and local NGOs to assist arriving migrants. Locals, expats, and tourists have collected and distributed food, water, clothing, and other items; prepared meals; driven arriving migrants to reception centers; and assisted migrants living in the volunteer-run PIKPA camp. A Facebook page was created to coordinate assistance for migrants in the town of Molyvos, where many migrants first arrive on Lesvos. Some volunteers have even risked arrest, as a Greek law, revoked just this month, stipulated that those transporting migrants to reception centers could be accused of human smuggling. The efforts of volunteers have been important in providing for the basic needs of arriving migrants, and should be lauded. However, the fact that such basic services for so many people must be supplied by volunteers is troubling, and reflects the incapacity of the state to handle such a large number of arrivals.
While Lesvos is seeing record numbers of migrants, the island has received large numbers of migrants in the past. The routes used by migrants to travel to Europe have shifted in response to border controls. In 2008 and 2009, the Greek islands received large numbers of migrants, while in 2010 and 2011 the land border saw a large influx. By 2012, increased enforcement along the Greece-Turkey land border, including the construction of a fence, led the number of arrivals by land to drop. The number of migrants arriving in the Greek Aegean islands from Turkey has since increased and has spiked, from a little over 2,500 in 2013 to 43,500 in 2014 and over 77,000 so far 2015. Rather than deterring migration, increased border controls have only changed the routes used by migrants to reach Europe, redirecting people from the Greek-Turkish land border to the sea border. This trend is not exclusive to Greece.
A combination of shifts in migratory routes and large numbers of arriving migrants strains resources and facilities and complicates a response by the state. This necessitates a flexible and collaborative approach. While challenging, this is important to effectively addressing where and how many people are arriving. Not only does it impact Greece’s ability to identify incoming migrants, it helps assure that migrants are received in suitable conditions and receive the appropriate services. This is an issue not just for Greece but for Europe. As a country with a large external border, Greece’s geography has made it a magnet for migrants and has led the country to receive a larger portion of arrivals than other EU Member States, despite the fact that it lacks sufficient capacity to respond to the needs of such influxes of migrants. Greece does not have the capacity to provide sufficient services or facilities on its own, particularly in the face of increasing arrivals and in the current economic environment. Of course, political will is also essential to ensuring an effective response. Last year, the highest numbers of people arriving occurred in August and September. There is a real risk that the situation could become even worse. Further European cooperation is needed to ensure suitable reception conditions on the island and elsewhere in Greece. As seen with the debate and recent failure of EU member states to agree on a plan to relocate asylum seekers in Greece and Italy, this cooperation is much easier said than done.
*Caitlin Katsiaficas is Research Associate at Bridging Europe and MSc candidate at the London School of Economics.
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