Greece’s migration minister has told German daily Bild that the European Union (EU) needs to come up with an alternative plan for tackling migration after Turkey threatened to back out of an accord that was signed in March to help stem the influx of migrants to Europe.
Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Ankara would back out of the agreement with the EU if the bloc did not deliver the promised visa-free travel for Turks in return. The 28-nation EU is dependent on Ankara to enforce the agreement, which has been responsible for sharply cutting the number of refugees and migrants leaving Turkish shores for Greece. Along with it major financial crisis, Greece has struggled to cope with the influx, with Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas telling Bild, “we are very concerned…We need, in any case, a Plan B.” Mouzalas also called for a fairer distribution of refugees in Europe, however some countries, including Hungary and Slovakia, have objected to a proposed EU quota system for resettling migrants across the bloc.
However on 1 August, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel disclosed that Europe would not be blackmailed by Turkey in talks on visa liberalisation, which have been hampered by a dispute over Turkish anti-terrorism legislation and a crackdown in the wake of an abortive coup on 15 July.
On 2 August, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that more than 257,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea from the start of this year to 27 July, adding that at least 3,000 have died. The IOM further reported that these figures represent a sharp increase from the same period in 2015.
On April 8, the recent EU-Turkey agreement on migration achieved a modest milestone. Two ferries carried over 120 migrants from the Greek island of Lesbos to the Turkish mainland. Earlier this week, on April 4, two ferries carried 202 migrants from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios to Turkey. That same day, 32 Syrian migrants travelled from Turkey to Germany. Of the deportations conducted thus far, a large portion have been migrants of Pakistani, Afghan or North African origin. The migrants travelling officially from Turkey to Europe have mainly been Syrian nationals. If this practice continues, it will address the long-standing complaint by many European politicians that many of the arriving migrants were not legitimate refugees from conflict zones.
Despite these successes, Europe’s migration-related challenges are far from over. There have been reports that nearly one third of the 52,000 migrants in Greece have not moved to the newly designated processing facilities. Large numbers of migrants remain living in unofficial, makeshift camps near the port of Piraeus and at the northern border with Macedonia. The Greek Government has issued an ultimatum requiring the migrants living near Pireaus to disperse within two weeks or be removed by force. It remains unclear how exactly such dispersals would take place without violent protests. As recently as April 1, 8 people were injured during a clash at one of the migrant camps near Pireaus.
For the EU-Turkey agreement to ultimately be successful, it will require careful coordination and sustained support for the Greek Government. Greek officials have criticized that support for being slow to arrive. Earlier this week, there were numerous complaints that less than half of the 2300 Frontex personnel (the EU’s border agency) had been deployed as promised.
There have also been continued divisions regarding proposed reforms to the EU’s asylum system. The European Commission had argued that the Dublin placed incredible stress on Italy and Greece by requiring migrants to claim asylum in the first EU country they reach. One proposal would be the creation of a permanent fairness mechanism to redistribute asylum seekers throughout the European Union away from the frontline countries bordering the Mediterranean. Other potential reform policies include legal penalties against irregular movement by non-EU nationals or a central distribution system that allocate asylum claimants though a comprehensive quota scheme. However, the Czech Republic and United Kingdom have both officially announced their opposition to any major reform of the current policy. As anti-migrant sentiment continues to grow across Europe, any of the proposed reforms could prove highly controversial and difficult to implement. Despite the initial successes of the EU-Turkey deal, a truly long term solution to the migrant crisis remains elusive.
There has long been a fear that Greece will become the victim of a bottleneck through the Balkans. This often discussed fear has finally become a reality. On March 8, three Balkan nations joined with a growing number of countries imposing increasingly restrictive immigration policies. Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia announced they would only allow people to cross their borders if they already possessed valid visas. This would effectively stop the thousands of migrants in Greece from moving north in an attempt to reach asylum in Germany. Also on March 9, Macedonia announced it would no longer allow migrants to freely enter the country. One report estimated that 13,000-15,000 migrants were currently living in makeshift camps near Greece’s border with Macedonia. Though exact estimates differ, numerous media organizations reported on March 9 that over 35,000 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are currently inside Greece. The number is expected to rise as more migrants land on mainland Greece and islands near the border with Turkey.
This last development puts even greater pressure on Greece. However, it also poses new challenges for other countries in the region. Hungary had seen a drop in migrants attempting to enter the country after it built a border fence and increased penalties for entering illegally. According to the Washington Post, over 2500 people were arrested for attempting to enter Hungary in February (far higher than previous months). Bulgaria and Albania have both increased monitoring are their borders with Greece. The Italian Government is particularly concerned migrants about migrants reaching the Albanian cost and then crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy. As a result, the two countries announced they would conduct joint military patrols in the Adriatic Sea.
The European Union’s latest attempt to handle the crisis has come under considerable public criticism and legal scrutiny. On March 8, EU and Turkish leaders announced a new plan to return discourage further migrants from attempting the dangerous trip to Greece. The plan indicated that all undocumented migrants arriving in Greece would returned to Turkey. In exchange, the Turkish Government had requested that the EU resettle one Syrian migrant for each returned to Turkey (the so-called ‘one for one’ policy). As part of the plan, the EU also pledged to more quickly implement visa-free travel for Turks and faster approval of a €3 billion Euro aid package. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has criticised the agreement as a violation of the EU’s international obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the plan is not stopped by a legal challenge, it is unclear when it would be fully implemented.
According to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, NATO ships are being deployed to the Aegean sea in a bid to deter people-smugglers taking migrants from Turkey to Greece. The announcement follows a request from Turkey, Greece and Germany at a defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
MR Stoltenberg has disclosed that the mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” adding that instead, NATO will contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking.” He further disclosed that the decision was made in order to help Greece and Turkey “manage a human tragedy in a better way then we have managed to do so far.” Earlier, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter commented that targeting the “criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people” would have the greatest humanitarian impact.
NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, which is under German command, will lead the operation in co-operation with Greek and Turkish authorities. According to the United Nations refugee agency, almost 75,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece by sea in 2016.
Over the past several years, Greece has been increasingly strained by the tens of thousands of migrants reaching its shores. Perhaps more than ever before, Greece could potentially be close to the breaking point. Starting in Sweden and Denmark, governments across Europe have imposed new border restrictions, inadvertently creating a chain-reaction. In mid and late-January, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia announced new restrictions on migrants. Several governments, including Austria, are developing plans to cap the total number of migrants. Almost all the countries recently imposing border restrictions are focusing on original country of origin. The asylum process will increasingly prioritize migrants from conflict areas, particularly Syria. Over this past fall and winter, Macedonia has repeatedly closed important crossings at the Greek border with no warning. One closure on 21 January, for example, resulted in a backlog that took multiple days to clear. When such closures occur, many migrants are left without adequate food or shelter, creating a stressful situation that often results in violence.
The Wall Street Journal has quoted a confidential Bank of Greece report, which estimates the Greek Government could spend 600 million Euros in 2016 assisting migrants. The migrant-related costs could potentially reach 0.3% of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product. The operation of migrant reception centres could constitute 35% of the total cost, followed by search and rescue efforts 26%. Since the beginning of January, the UNHCR has reported that over 74,000 migrants have reached Greece alone. Over the course of 2015, over 821,000 migrants reached Greece, the vast majority doing so in small boats. Greek officials and international observers are expressing concerns that Greece will have to support tens of thousands more migrants in 2016 if border restrictions further north remain in effect. The European Agenda on Migration had been intended to ease the migrant-related pressures faced by the Italian and Greek governments. However, the European Commission announced on 10 February that only 218 migrants had been relocated from Greece. Only 15 European Member-States agreed to participate, providing a total of 1081 places (far below the 66,400 target).
As spring starts to approach, the total number of migrants attempting to reach Europe is anticipated to increase once again. As the European Union struggles to develop a coordinated approach, Greece will remain at the forefront of the migration crisis. Even with European Union and NATO support, it may well be unable to sustain tens of thousands more migrants, especially if many of them cannot travel further into Europe.