Is The Greek Immigrant Crisis Manageable After All?

Athens, 23 September 2019. Another police operation is taking place in one of the most central Athens neighbourhoods. Approximately 100 immigrants have been moved from what used to be one of the Greek capital’s landmark schools in the past decades; and this is only one instance of the several similar operations, that have been taking place since mid-summer in Greece. The recently elected Greek government is trying to establish the image of an administration, able to tackle this critical issue and adequately manage the unprecedented refugee crisis of the last years. But how viable and productive is the governmental plan and is Greece ready -or willing- to take drastic measures to cope with a situation that affects not only the Greek state but the integrity of the European Union, as a whole?

Roots and Security Concerns

The refugee crisis is not posing a new challenge for Greece. Due to certain lacks in current infrastructure, none of the Greek governments have succeeded to manage this issue efficiently so far and to implement a sustainable policy. However, the situation has dramatically deteriorated between 2015 and 2019 during the term of the leftist SYRIZA government. The said government applied a misinterpreted loose strategy to address the problem, in accordance with their pre-election announcements, drastically reducing the control process in the main points of entrance, encouraging the massive flow of immigrants through the Greek maritime borders. Therefore, a considerable number of the new arrivals, have never gone through the required vetting, creating several ensuing security concerns.

I happened to read recently a December 2018 analysis with regard to why Greek people are concerned about the security implications of the migrant crisis. Even though agreeing with the qualitative approach adopted by the writer, I consider that some of the findings are missing major parameters. To begin with the scenario of a terrorist attack within Greek territory, one should consider that the country functions as the entering point to Europe. A hypothetical terrorist attack in Greece by radical elements would be a strategic mistake of their terror patrons, who would see the in-country security framework being enhanced, toughening the entrance to an EU country, that provides access to major European metropolitan cities, targets of far greater significance for the terrorist networks. To  further emphasize this statement, we need to remember that terrorists involved in some of the most high-profile and deadly attacks, namely in Paris and Brussels, have entered Europe through Greece or have visited the country at least once.

In the same time, even though major funding has been allocated for the settlement procedure of these people, through the competent authorities of the European Union and the United Nations, but also through other major international organizations, including several NGOs, a paradox has been occurring in Greece since 2015. In various locations of the country’s urban centres, and predominantly Athens, the displaced people have been staying in totally inappropriate structures, most often private properties that have been occupied without any authorization from the legal owners. In those cases the lack of control and monitoring raised not only security concerns but also health implications, considering that the health and safety essentials have been completely absent in those places; in order to provide a more accurate picture of this situation, it would be enough to say that in many of those recent police raids, hundreds of people were found to be living in spaces of just a few square meters.

Facts and figures

In order to comprehend the size of the crisis and the challenge posed to each respective Greek government, let’s examine the graph below:

Infographic by Alberto Bellotto
Infographic by Alberto Bellotto

There has been a surge in the asylum applications since 2015, a figure correlated to the massive flow of immigrants and refugees from that year onwards. It is perplexing though, how those numbers remained lower in the first years of the Syrian conflict. There have been some decisive factors, like the action taken from the FYROM government, back then, to ease the measures and controls when migrants were entering the country; or the shift in stance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in an effort to tackle the crisis, suggested that Berlin would adopt a much more friendly and open policy towards Syrian refugees. However, a significant point that many analysts have surprisingly overseen, has been the role of the 2015-elected Greek government. As mentioned earlier, the leftist ruling party has been advocating an open-border policy before the elections, a fact that triggered thousands of people –many of whom would not qualify for the refugee status whatsoever- trapped in Turkey or elsewhere to move to Greece, considering that the country is the entrance to central and northern Europe.

Following the political backlash that many European governments faced due to the escalation of the migrant crisis though, the problems for Greece have been growing even further. With thousands of people planning to enter richer countries of the EU, remaining in Greece, the existing infrastructure proved to be far from efficient. For instance, Lesvos, a Greek island of approximately 86,000 residents, in the eastern Aegean Sea and quite close to the Turkish border, has been one of the “busiest” points of entrance. A major camp is located within the island, where all the migrants are stationed until their asylum applications are assessed; however, the disproportionate flows eventually led to an unmanageable and dangerous situation for all the parties involved, considering that more than 12,000 people are currently living in a structure designed for 3,000. According to an up-to-date report from the UNCHR, the capacity of structures intended for immigrants and refugees in the islands and mainland Greece, under the ESTIA scheme, is approaching 100%; and this scheme covers only a handful of the people who are currently in the country looking to settle in.

Facing the real problem or just another political grandstanding?

The Greek Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis, recently stated that out of the 80,000 people currently in the country, more than half should be readmitted to Turkey, since they do not fulfil the criteria to be considered asylum seekers; however, just over 2% of those people have been sent back so far. Among the same lines, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in front of the UN General Assembly, urged last week that Greece cannot cope with the situation anymore, indicating the country’s inefficiency compared to the real dimensions of the crisis.

The unprecedented flow of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece since 2015 has created a problem that still seems to be unmanageable. By the time these lines are written, grim images from the foresaid camp in Moria, have been dominating the Greek and international media. Two fires have been set simultaneously in the interior of the facilities and in a nearby small wooded land, with the local authorities still examining the reasons behind the catastrophe. Police forces and fire brigades that rushed to the area hardly managed to operate in the camp as for several hours, the official authorities have lost control of the situation and the camp itself with hundreds of immigrants rioting in the inside. The tragic outcome of this violent breakthrough has been a woman confirmed dead and another 17 people injured.

Apparently, the government has not been able to handle this challenging reality efficiently so far, even though governmental sources are struggling to provide a different image to the Greek public. The Sunday incident in Moria proves that the situation can instantly and unexpectedly get out of control. On top of that, one should consider Turkey’s role; the immigration crisis has been a considerable burden for Ankara over the last few years. But at the same time, Turkey can use anytime the crisis to gain leverage on political disputes with the EU. In case that the Turkish government decides to use the refugee crisis, as a means to put pressure on Europe on a wide-scale basis, then even the most pessimistic scenarios could not foresee what is to come.