The Greek island of Lesvos is struggling to cope. The United Nations reports that the island has a total capacity for 3,500 refugees, but in September 2016 it was hosting over 5,300. A fire started at the Moira refugee camp on Lesvos has been blamed on refugees frustrated with poor living conditions and lengthy delays processing their asylum applications.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Greece is among the countries least economically equipped to deal with the refugee influx, despite being on the frontlines of the crisis. As of May 2017, Greece has a total debt of €344 billion. Yet public spending to absorb refugees is estimated at 0.3% of GDP each year (roughly €600 million). The borders of neighbouring EU countries are closed to the estimated 60,000 refugees currently in Greece, so they are stuck in refugee reception facilities such as the one on Lesvos.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week we’re looking at the island of Lesvos, Greece. It’s not true that the European Union has done nothing. The European Commission has given Greece €27.8 million in emergency funding to help the government cope with the refugee crisis. Yet this is a drop in the bucket for a country still recovering from the financial crisis and austerity measures from three bailouts since 2010. Greece has an unemployment rate of nearly 25%, and economic output has fallen by a quarter since 2009. Should the EU be offering more financial assistance to Greece?
Curious to know more about Greece, austerity, and the refugee crisis? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
We had a question from Pavlos, who says the refugee centres on the Greek islands, including Lesvos, are cramped and overcrowded. Is this a sign that Greece is struggling to cope with both the refugee crisis and the impact of austerity?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Dr Angelos Chryssogelos, Teaching Fellow in International Relations & Politics at King’s College London. What would he say?
I think Greece is coping better than expected. At least, symptoms seem to be stabilising since the summer of 2015 when we were straight after the dramatic renegotiation effort with the Eurozone on the economic front, but also the beginning of the huge refugee flows was taking place. So, ever since then what you’ve had on the economic front is some kind of stabilisation, albeit under punishing austerity. Eventually, by the end of 2015 to early 2016, you had first a stabilisation, then a reduction, then a containment of refugee flows, basically on Greek islands by virtue of the EU turkey deal.
I think the point about refugees and immigration right now in Greece is not so much coping under conditions of austerity that is taking place, which is currently the problem, but I think it’s more a long-term question about what Greece is going to do the approximately 60,000 people who are effectively stranded in Greece, as well as any new arrivals who will have to be taken care of in Greece, because their onward journey into Europe has to be blocked for all intents and purposes.
So, the questions placed on Greece are more long-term questions of integration and an acceptance that we have to seriously discuss about the place of these people in Greek society in the long-term. Clearly conditions are not optimal right now. From what I know, conditions in the refugee centres both on the islands and mainland Greece are pretty bad. I imagine this can be remedied with more effective administration or if Europe provides more funds to help Greece cope with this. But, again, the longer term problem, which carries a potential for both social and economic repercussions, is how Greece is going to deal with new arrivals in society.
I think any part of a concerted treatment of refugees and immigration by the EU would involve Greece becoming some kind of a stopping station or a welcoming station for some number of refugees coming in. Now the flows have moved towards Italy and the Mediterranean, but they could refocus again on the Aegean. So, the question is more long-term: how can Greece deal in terms of political integration with what seems to be a slow by steady influx of small numbers of refugees in following years. And then, of course, to what extent – if the Greek economy remains in bad situation as it is today – the amount of goodwill shown by Greek citizens towards refugees is slowly going to erode down the way. So, to my mind, while there are current problems, I think the bigger problem is more long-term.
Can Greece cope both with austerity and the refugee crisis? Should the European Union be doing more to support Greece financially as it struggles to absorb over 60,000 refugees? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!