Greece is fast becoming the “warehouse of human beings” that its government has vowed not to allow. Hastily setup camps for refugees and other migrants are full. Thousands of people wait through the night, shivering in the cold at the Greek-FYROM border, in the country’s main port of Piraeus, in squares dotted around Athens, or on dozens of buses parked up and down Greece’s main north-south highway.
At the same time the European Union member states remain largely divided over tackling the refugee crisis. Greece is mired in a full-blown diplomatic dispute with some EU countries – led by Austria – over their border slowdowns and closures. Those border moves have left Greece and the migrants caught between an increasingly fractious Europe, where several countries are reluctant to accept more asylum-seekers, and Turkey, which has appeared unwilling or unable to staunch the torrent of people leaving in barely seaworthy smuggling boats for Greek islands.
Adding to the pressure is Greece’s financial predicament. The country has been wracked by a financial crisis since 2010 and still depends on an international bailout for which it must pass yet more painful reforms. Those have led to widespread protests, including blockades on the country’s highways by farmers who are furious at pension changes.
The vast majority of those reaching Greece, Europe’s main gateway for migrants, have been Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war at home
“My only hope is to live in a safe place. That’s enough for me actually,” said 17-year-old Minhaj Ud Din Wahaj from Afghanistan’s Wardak province. “We have been in war since 40 years, so I have been raised in war.”
Four Balkan countries announced daily caps on migrant arrivals on February 26, prompting criticism from the head of the United Nations.
Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and FYROM said they would each restrict the number of migrants allowed to enter their territory to 580 per day. Slovenia said the new daily limit on migrant numbers was in line with a deal reached on February 18 between police chiefs of Austria, Croatia, Serbia, and FYROM.
The clampdown follows moves by Austria last week to impose a daily cap of 80 on asylum applications and allow only 3,200 migrants to transit the country each day.
Athens accuses Vienna of unleashing a domino effect of border restrictions along the so-called “Balkan route” that migrants have been taking to get to northern European countries like Germany and Sweden where they hope to win asylum.
Greece, with backing from other southern EU countries, says it is unable to stop migrants crossing its sea borders without endangering their lives, so the flow of migrants continues. An estimated 2,000 people — more than half from Syria and Iraq — are arriving daily from Turkey on small boats.
Austria and the Balkan countries, in turn, accuse Greece of failing to properly police its borders, which also are the EU’s borders with non-EU countries like Turkey and Syria where most of the migrants originate.
Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, didn’t mince his words in response.
“Blackmailing is not a European attitude,” he said. “Maybe Greece, too, should observe our common rules, or at least accept help to observe them together. Then we do not have to face such challenges.”
Greece’s minister responsible for migration, Ioannis Mouzalas, had harsh words as he arrived for a Thursday migration meeting in Brussels.
“(Many here) will try to discuss how to respond to a humanitarian crisis in Greece that they themselves are intent on creating,” Mouzalas said. “Greece will not accept unilateral actions. Greece, too, can take unilateral action.”
Deputy Education Minister Sia Anagnostoipoulou told state-run ERT television that Greece could turn into a “giant refugee camp” because of the restrictions to the north.
“What are we supposed to do: Let people drown in the Aegean Sea?” she said. “Instead of making a plan. Europe is burying its head in the sand… Europe is unraveling.”
STRONG UN REACTION
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concerned about the wave of border restrictions in the Balkans, and said they run counter to the international refugee convention.
The daily caps “are not in line” with the 1951 convention “because individual determination of refugee status and assessment of individual protection needs are not…possible” under such a regime, said Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Ban is “fully aware of the pressures felt by many European countries” faced with tens of thousands of migrants to deal with each day, Dujarric said. But he believes those countries nevertheless should “keep their borders open, and act in a spirit of responsibility, sharing, and solidarity, including through expanding legal pathways to access asylum.”
The top United Nations human rights official expressed serious concern today over security measures adopted last week by the police chiefs of five European countries, which he warned are already negatively impacting the human rights of refugees and migrants in southern and central Europe and compounding the “already exceptionally difficult situation” in Greece.
Urging the five countries that adopted the measures – Austria, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia – to “carefully recalibrate” the approach of their police forces, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein emphasized that the measures are exacerbating “the chaos and misery all down the line,” and especially in Greece, which is already overwhelmed.
“Alarmingly, given the primary duty of the police to protect people, the agreement contains no measures aiming at protecting these extremely vulnerable women, children and men on the move – there is, for example, not even a mention of special measures to protect people who might be particularly at risk of human rights violations, including children, persons with disabilities, LGBT persons, older people, victims of torture or victims of gender-based violence or trafficking,” Mr. Zeid said in a statement.
“Instead, the agreement appears to be solely concerned with applying stringent limitations of entry on people travelling along the so-called Balkan Land Route, and providing for the ‘controlled transfer of migrants,’ without sufficient safeguards,” he added.
Despite showing sympathy for Greece’s immigration troubles, the U.S. administration failed to support U.N. Chief’s call to the Central European nation to keep their boarders open.
Asked by MEGA Channel’s correspondent Michael Ignatiou, deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner, if the United States share Ban’s statement, Toner said “We’re obviously very sympathetic to the incredible burden that Greece has taken on by accepting these migrants. We have said many times that we would like to see Europe, the EU approach the refugee crisis in a cohesive and comprehensive manner because right – as you note, right now you’ve got different countries taking different steps in order to deal with the crisis. We want to see a more comprehensive approach.”
Toner has described the migration crisis as part of a much larger global crisis and it requires global attention, as President Obama has said.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis that none of us can ignore. And we applaud and thank those countries throughout the Middle East, and in Greece’s case, who have responded to the refugee crisis with generosity and compassion, and provided these migrants and refugees with shelter, safety, and vital aid in times of urgent need. It’s been our longstanding process, as the EU attempts to grapple with this challenge, that all of these migrants should be treated humanely, with dignity, and should have access to asylum screening processes. But I just think that in terms of your second question, which is about Schengen and the border control debate, we think those are really internal questions between Greece and the European Union.”
Toner recalled a statement by EU President Donald Tusk, who said that expelling Greece from the Schengen area would not solve EU’s migrant crisis.
“These are difficult circumstances and that each nation has a right to control its own territory. But we would just ask that all nations, as Greece has done, to continue to show generosity in accepting these – in dealing with these migrants.”
Finally, explaining a previous statement that “Each nation has a sovereign right to control its territory,”
Toner said that he meant by that comment that, “just as we strive to do in the United States, it’s important to have some kind of screening process or some kind of process by which these folks are registered as they come across the border.”
TSIPRAS – PITELLA
Europe is in a crisis and extreme-right forces are becoming stronger, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Friday following a meeting with the President of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament, Gianni Pitella, in Athens.
The prime minister greeted Pitella as an important friend of Greece with clear views of the problems facing Europe, adding that the challenges are great. He said a humanitarian crisis is developing with thousands of refugees and migrants moving from war zones towards Europe – but Europe seems to be in a crisis and intolerant views are gaining ground.
Tsipras also said that Europe’s progressive forces must raise their own wall against the walls of shame raised by extreme-right forces which strengthened in Europe because of austerity policies. “Now more than ever, Europe must change course,” he said, adding that the clash is not among states, but among progressive and conservative forces.
He continued to say that there cannot be a unified Europe without respect for common rules, responsibilities and commitments, noting that unilateral initiatives and violations of international law are initiatives that undermining the foundations and the integration process of the EU.
Tsipras reiterated his view that there must be a binding framework for all countries to speed up the proportional distribution of refugees and migrants, noting that some countries have still not accepted any refugees.
On his side, Pitella said Greece must not be left on its own to deal with this crisis, while he praised the country’s efforts in dealing with the problem.
Asked whether countries that don’t conform to the decisions of the EU must face sanctions, Pitella referred him to the statements of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, who said that Austria’s decision opposed European laws. He also noted he considers “more wrong the attitude of the Visegrad Group countries who do not accept the idea of quotas, which is the only one that allows the management of the situation.”
Pitella also wondered whether there should be sanctions and punishment, adding that “in this phase” he prefers to urge these countries “to see things logically”.
Asked by a journalist about the nature of NATO’s operation in the Aegean, Tsipras clarified that the organization has no authorization to stop refugee boats, but has the capability to locate the movements of traffickers on the Turkish coast using high technology and alert Frontex and the Greek and Turkish coast guards, without intervening.
“Concerning Greek territorial waters, there’s obviously NATO’s operation plan, but there are also international law and the Geneva Convention which everyone must adhere too,” he said, adding that when people are in danger in Greek territorial waters then all the coast guard will have to do is to rescue them.
Tsipras also said that if Europe really wants to stop refugee flows, authorities will have to tackle trafficking rings in Turkey’s coast. “This is the reason we’ll [the EU] meet again with Turkey on the 7th [of March] at a summit meeting to review the results of NATO’s operation plan, but also to discuss with the Turkish prime minister the ways in which we can act more to make our efforts effective and stop this wretchedness, this trafficking of people in the Aegean,” he added.
The prime minister also said he hoped the problem of refugee flows from Turkey to the Greek islands will have been dealt with by March 7.