The number of refugees arriving in Europe by sea has dropped dramatically. Between January and the end of May 2018, only 28,000 migrants and refugees arrived via the Mediterranean route. That’s a 53% drop compared to the same period in 2017, and an 85% drop compared to 2016 (when 193,000 people arrived).
Yet the fall in arrivals hasn’t made the politics any less divisive. Europe is still struggling over what to do with the people already here. Redistributing refugees remains a ferociously contentious issue (see, for example, the anti-refugee rhetoric in the recent Hungarian elections) and large numbers of people remain trapped in a legal limbo, many in reception centres in Greece and Italy waiting to be told they can move to other countries. Critics say EU plans to redistribute refugees have totally failed. Even if they had succeeded, many asylum seekers (including those from Afghanistan) were anyway excluded from the scheme.
Citizens in frontline countries, including Greece, feel they’ve been abandoned. Whilst Greece, for example, has received significant financial assistance to help cope with the refugee crisis, the country has been completely overwhelmed in terms of hosting and processing arrivals. Plus, the refugee and migrant crisis took place while Greece has been undergoing painful austerity measures, including mass redundancies and public sector cuts.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have 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 is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Athens. Greece is one of the frontline countries in the European refugee and migrant crisis. The number of arrivals by sea has fallen since an EU-Turkey deal allowing Greece to return new “irregular migrants” to Turkey in exchange for pre-processed Syrian refugees. Still, in 2017 there were roughly 60,000 asylum seekers and migrants stranded in the country.
Greece has a population of roughly 11 million (though it has been declining in recent years), with around 3-4 million living in the “Athens Urban Area” (i.e. the city of Athens itself, plus the greater metropolitan area surrounding it). It’s estimated that more than 2,500 refugees and migrants are living in squats in Athens occupied by anarchists and so-called “solidarity” groups. Conditions for asylum seekers and migrants in Greece have been heavily criticised by NGOs.
Yet, according to Eurostat, more than one in three Greeks in 2016 were experiencing conditions of poverty or social exclusion, including 37.8% of children under the age of 17 (the highest percentage in the EU since 2010). In recent months, there have been protests from both asylum seekers and Greek residents who feel like they’ve been abandoned.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Robert, who believes EU countries should show greater solidarity with border countries such as Italy and Greece and accept more refugees. Is he right? Have European countries failed to adequately support Greece and Italy over the refugee crisis?
To get a response, we put Robert’s comment to the Mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis. What would he say to Robert?
For another perspective we put the same question to Dr. Angeliki Dimitriadi from the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Should EU Member States offer greater solidarity to Greece and Italy over the refugee crisis, including accepting more refugees as part of a quota system?
I would say that the answer is ‘yes’ to both. But what we mean by greater ‘solidarity’ for Greece depends on how we understand the notion of solidarity. The EU has shown solidarity in terms of financial assistance; significance funds have come through for the Greek government and NGOs to assist in the crisis, both for first reception, but also for relocation and caring for the vulnerable. So, greater solidarity in terms of funds exists already. What is missing, and this goes to the second part of the question, is the aspect of relocation or intra-EU transfer of refugees.
In other words: we need EU Member States to take more of the people who are already in Greece and also Italy, as well as future arrivals. So, we do need a permanent quota system, we need a permanent redistribution system in the EU because the frontline states simply cannot handle the processing, registration, care, and the granting of asylum to all those who enter through the external borders of the EU.
We also had a comment from José arguing that the core problem of the refugee crisis in Europe lies with border management in Mediterranean states such as Greece and Italy. He believes the frontline countries have a responsibility to tighten their borders and deal with this on a national level, without European support.
What would Mayor Giorgos Kaminis say to José?How would Dr. Angeliki Dimitriadi respond to the same comment?
I would say this is very much an EU issue, for one and only one reason: Schengen. The only reason we’re having this discussion about the external borders is because of Schengen. The rules of Dublin and, frankly, the whole European asylum system is a counterbalance to Schengen and internal free movement. If we didn’t have internal free movement – which, of course, is something we want to maintain – we wouldn’t be having a discussion about the external borders because we would have internal border controls.
From the moment we have Schengen and we want to function as a union were we have internal free movement, it means the external borders are everyone’s external borders, not just Greece’s or Italy’s or Spain’s. This means that all Member States need, in one way or another, to assist and contribute, both in the border management efforts but also in the effect of these efforts. And one of the side effects of heavy border management is the fact that vulnerable people in search of asylum – and, by the way, the right to asylum is a cornerstone of the EU – have the ability and the option to somehow reach a safe country, whether that’s Greece or Germany or any of the EU Member States, and present their application for asylum. If we prevent them from doing that we are going to be in violation of international and EU law, and we also have to question the norms and values of the EU.
So, it’s not just a responsibility of the frontline states. It’s everyone’s responsibility. We can’t have a union that wants to promote and ensure internal free movement but at the same time says it’s the responsibility of only a handful of states to secure the external borders. And we cannot just tighten the external border controls because, at the end of the day, we need to create ways for people to reach safety… So, we have the responsibility and obligation to ensure some sort of pathway to asylum for those in need.
Should richer EU countries take more refugees? How exactly do we define which countries are “richer” than others? And which countries in Europe have the greatest capacity for absorbing refugees? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!